Little over a year ago, you likely hadn’t heard of Chad Harbach.
At that point, he was an underemployed Harvard-educated freelance writer toting a fat manuscript around Manhattan that he’d labored over for nine years, and which nobody wanted to read.
Today, Harbach is being hailed as a savior of literary fiction. And that fat manuscript, which became his debut novel “The Art of Fielding,” is among the best-selling and best-reviewed literary books in recent memory — a fixture on “Best of 2011” lists. The paperback is still sitting in the top 20 of the New York Times bestsellers, 11 months after the book’s original publication.
On Monday, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation brings Harbach to town, to talk about his book and the year in which he went from down-and-out to literary darling.
He will be on stage with Chris Parris-Lamb, the young literary agent who championed “The Art of Fielding” and brought it to publication.
But Harbach won’t exactly credit Parris-Lamb for discovering him.
“I don’t know if he ‘discovered’ me, because I sent him my book,” the 36-year-old Harbach laughs. “So he didn’t have to work very hard. … He discovered me in the sense that after I finished the manuscript toward the end of 2009, I sent it to a bunch of agents and, out of that group, Chris was the only one who wanted to take me on.”
What happened from there has quickly become literary legend, and also offered some hope to struggling writers in the economic dystopia of 21st century publishing.
The book, much to Harbach’s surprise, set off a bidding war among houses and went on to win a rare and much-ballyhooed advance of $650,000 from Little, Brown for the unknown writer last year. So, before the book made it into readers hands, its sale was big news and “The Art of Fielding” was hyped as a sign that literary fiction could be big business again.
It also spawned a year-long deluge of horrible baseball puns from critics and headline writers as they praised Harbach for “knocking it out of the park,” or for his talent “coming out of left field,” etc.
Commercial success was anything but pre-ordained for his novel, though, which tells a gay love story set against the backdrop of a college baseball team’s season. As he was working on it for nearly a decade, Harbach says, things like bidding wars, major reviews and literary fame weren’t on his mind so much.
“I can’t say I ever thought the book had a whole lot of commercial potential,” he says. “I was, for one, really despairing of ever finishing the book. I could barely imagine anyone ever buying and finishing the thing.”
It follows Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop phenom who brings the cellar-dwelling Division III baseball squad of the fictional Westish College to success for the first time in its history. He’s mentored by the squad’s earnest leader and catcher, Mike Schwartz, and rooms with its least ambitious player, Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry memorably in the novel’s opening pages, saying, “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.”
Harbach’s novel unfolds in deliciously page-turning fashion as Skrimshander’s star rises, then he suddenly loses the ability to throw, as the college’s president, Guert Affenlight, falls in love with Dunne while also trying to salvage a family relationship with his wayward daughter, Pella.
Henry’s breakdown is depicted excruciatingly, recalling the heartbreaking real-life psychological throwing travails of ballplayers like Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel.
“The Art of Fielding” is a rare feat: a big, ambitious, 512-page opus of a novel that gives a fresh-eyed look at the nature of love and friendship and the human condition with complex characters we’ve never quite met before in fiction. Yet it’s also a campus book, a baseball story and a social novel that has managed to wow stuffy critics and the Wal-Mart crowd alike.
The baseball sections of the book recall the sharp-eyed tennis portions of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” which Harbach says he looked to as a model along with Don DeLillo’s college football novel “End Zone.” It takes the routines and rituals of sports and team life seriously, in a way serious fiction rarely does — going inside Schwartz’s head as he formulates a pre-game speech, taking us in Skrimshander’s as he runs stadium steps until he pukes. Yet to call this a baseball book is something like calling “Moby-Dick” — which figures prominently in the text — a fishing story.
Henry’s on-the-field breakdown is painful to behold, as are Affenlight’s foibles in his giddy pursuit of Dunne, and Pella’s erratic attempts to get her act together. Yet the book treats them all with a kindness that makes the reader, if not root for them, empathize with them. Or at least want to keep turning the pages.
“Sometimes I’m a little wary when people say that about the book,” Harbach says of descriptions of “The Art of Fielding” as warm-hearted. “Because I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m an angry, cynical, dissatisfied person. Wait ‘til you see the next book!’”
Speaking of angry and dissatisfied, in May, coinciding with the release of the book’s paperback edition, The Atlantic published a downright brutal essay by the contrarian critic B.R. Myers on what he dubbed “the most overrated novel of the year.” It tore into “The Art of Fielding” with a rare viciousness, pegging it as a mediocre and over-hyped book that fed into the lemming-like nature of literary fiction readers.
Myers places it in the succession of once-a-year “must-read” serious fiction books, where marketers and critics conspire to manufacture a literary work for crossover success — much like Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” (another book Myers has turned his disparaging pen against).
Harbach says he hasn’t read the piece, though he’s heard a lot about it.
“It’s hard to take very seriously because I’ve read his work before and he only writes one kind of thing,” he says. “So when someone says, ‘Oh, B.R. Myers wrote a piece about your book,’ it could be generated by a computer. You know what it’s going to say.”
Truth be told, the critical backlash against Harbach’s book has been more or less limited to the Myers hit piece. In it, along with assertions that “The Art of Fielding” simply sucks, Myers argues that it’s been mistaken as a more ambitious work than it is.
“I don’t believe that Harbach intended for this book to be made so much of,” Myers writes. “My impression is that it was written for the none-too intellectual people it depicts.”
Guilty as charged on that count, says Harbach. As he was writing the book, he says, he kept the Wisconsinites he grew up with in mind as his audience.
“The way I thought about it is that I’m from Wisconsin and I grew up playing a lot of sports and hanging out with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily addressed in books,” he says. “Somewhere in the back of my mind when I was working on it was the idea that I wanted to write a book that those people — my old friends form high school or whatever — would enjoy.”
Harbach is co-editor of n+1, a literary magazine that’s sought to breathe life into theory and criticism with a young stable of writers. Though he’s spent less time on day-to-day management of the magazine sinvce the success of “The Art of Fielding,” he’s currently editing an anthology of essays on “how writers make money now” with the n+1 team.
It was inspired by his own n+1 essay, “MFA vs. NYC.” That fall 2010 article from a pre-fame Harbach critiques the stratified literary world that spawned “The Art of Fielding” phenomenon, where writers either seek security in teaching at graduate school w riting programs or grind it out among the broke and ambitious literati of Manhattan.
That project, and the continued demands to speak to audiences about “The Art of Fielding,” haven’t left time for writing a follow-up novel yet. After his stop in Aspen, and a fall speaking tour in Europe, he says, he’s looking forward to sitting down and writing some fiction.
“I’ve been so busy it’s been difficult to make much progress on anything,” he says. Writing fiction, for Harbach, is what he calls an “immersive” process where he sits down and writes (in longhand) focusing solely on the project for weeks at a time. “I haven’t had a lot of that lately, as I leave town every couple weeks to go do these events.”
Author Reading & Talk
with Chris Parris-Lamb