A Year for 'Year Of' Books

Writer Steve Almond discusses a flurry of "year of" books. The trend has authors spending a year focusing on trying something out or giving something up — books such as Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I have in front of me a stack of books, which have this in common - many of them include in the title or subtitle the words My Year of or A Year of or "A Year Without Made in China," "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously." Stack goes on and on.

We're going to explore this publishing phenomenon with Steve Almond who's an author in his own right, of "Candyfreak" among other books.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVE ALMOND (Journalist; Fiction Writer; Commentator): Yeah, thank you.

INSKEEP: This seems to be like every third book. Where does this come from?

Mr. ALMOND: Well, you know, actually the publishing industry is a lot like Hollywood, if you can imagine Hollywood with absolutely no profit. There are a few books that do incredibly well and a lot of books that don't do so well. Part of the reason that this genre, which I'm going to call, kind of informally schtick lit, has propagated so many books is because a few of them had been very successful.

Several years ago, there was Peter Mayle's book, "A Year In Provence", which did quite well. And then more recently "Julie and Julia," the book you mentioned by Julie Powell, "My Year of Cooking Dangerously," which came out a couple of years ago and was a huge national bestseller.

INSKEEP: And this was someone you tried to cook like Julia Child for a year. That was the concept.

Mr. ALMOND: She did. And as you suggested, all these books follow a certain formula. It's an - actually, if you think about it an inversion of the normal memoir pattern, the normal memoirs written while a bunch of events happened to our protagonist, and they decide to write about them. These books schtick lit is the inversion of that.

INSKEEP: Does this kind of memoir bear the same relationship to a traditional memoir as reality programming on TV does to reality? You're going to produce a year of interesting events and then write about your experiences.

Mr. ALMOND: That is exactly right. I will say, though, that really you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. So for instance, you know, if I undertook my year without cheddar cheese, well, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALMOND: …I might be able to. That's my next (unintelligible)…

INSKEEP: Don't assume that you will not suffer without that cheddar cheese. There could be something in there.

Mr. ALMOND: Well, that's thing.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Mr. ALMOND: Steve, actually my relationship to cheddar cheese is long and complex, and I won't go into it here, but you'll get to read it in the book. So, obviously, you have to choose a premise that's got some legs, as we say in the business. A great example of this would be A.J. Jacobs. He's kind of the reigning king of schtick lit. He wrote "The Year of Living Biblically." And (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: And "One Man's Humble Quest" - I'm just looking at a subtitle here, "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible."

Mr. ALMOND: Yes, and so that means things like he grows out his beard. He gets a slave, well, really an intern, but he calls it a slave. There's a wonderful passage, for instance, when A.J. Jacobs invites a Jehovah's Witness into his home and this is, like, it's absolutely what he wants to have happened. He just wants to talk the Bible forever and ever.

I'll read a little bit so you can get a flavor of it.

(Reading) Finally, at 10:30, three hours after he arrived, Michael, the Jehovah's Witness, says politely that he should let me get to sleep. I'm about to say, no, I could keep going, but his Palm Treo rings, it's his wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALMOND: (Reading) Yes, we're just finishing up here, I'm about to leave. Michael stands up to shake my hand, and then it hits me, I have just done something few human beings have ever achieved. I have out-Bible-talked a Jehovah's Witness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALMOND: That's what these books boil down to. They're stories that people are telling, and sometimes those stories sound labored and contrived, and other times, they're really fantastic and, you know, entertaining.

INSKEEP: Is there anybody who you think has done the genre in such a way that they rise above it? There's a really great book in that stack that you've read, even though, it's not a great concept?

Mr. ALMOND: Well, I don't know if I would say there's a really great book. I mean, when I think about really great non-fiction, I think about, "Let Us Now Praise - you know - A Famous Man," the James Agee book, which if it were cast in this genre would be something like My Year Amid the Truly Poor Sharecroppers of Alabama," you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALMOND: The thing about the genre, and this is really not to blame the authors, it's all about the marketing pitch. The marketing pitch is encapsulated in the title. And not only that, Steve, but the actual target audience is included in the title.

So, for instance, you already know if your friend is somewhat of a foodie, like a kind of an inept foodie who's going through some issues. She's going to love "Julie and Julia."

INSKEEP: I don't want to suggest that your statements about doing a year, doing without cheddar cheese that you're joking.

Mr. ALMOND: Don't do this to me, Steve.

INSKEEP: I don't want to suggest that you're joking.

Mr. ALMOND: I need the gig, yes.

INSKEEP: But is there something that you seriously considered doing as a year of book yourself?

Mr. ALMOND: You know, talking about it with my wife because we're trying to figure out, you know, is there anything I could do that would feel like it might give rise to enough genuine insight and pathos that it would make sense. And after the cheddar cheese idea, which we both agreed was brilliant, I thought, well, it would be interesting to give up sports as a reluctant sports addict who has a lot of problems with the culture of professional sports in this country.

That having been said, I don't think I would ever do it, and I certainly wouldn't do it for the purposes of a book. I think good books. I think good books come from people's obsessions and from the things in their lives that they've gone through that they can't quite get past in some way.

INSKEEP: Well, Steve Almond, go watch some ball games.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALMOND: I will, and I have plenty of cheddar cheese with me.

INSKEEP: He's the author of among other books, "Not That You Asked."

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