Here’s a literary parable for the 21st century. Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn’t get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn’t get an agent. “I did what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “I queried literary agents. I went to writers’ conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it.” So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.
That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all–and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. “So this is extreme to extreme, right?” Genova says. “This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car.” (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)
Something has changed, and it’s not just the contents of Lisa Genova’s trunk. We think of the novel as a transcendent, timeless thing, but it was shaped by the forces of money and technology just as much as by creative genius. Passing over a few classical and Far Eastern entries, the novel in its modern form really got rolling only in the early 18th century. This wasn’t an accident, and it didn’t happen because a bunch of writers like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding suddenly decided we should be reading long books about imaginary people. It happened as a result of an unprecedented configuration of financial and technological circumstances.