Book Fight!

Tough love for literature


Episode 133: Spring of Success, Jennifer Weiner (“Tour of Duty”)

It’s the last week for our Spring of Success feature, and we’re wrapping things up by checking out Jennifer Weiner’s first published story, “Tour of Duty,” which originally appeared in a 1992 issue of Seventeen Magazine. The story isn’t available online, though it was collected in Weiner’s The Guy Not Taken.

Here’s a photo of the author, enjoying the sort of red-carpet treatment that comes (sometimes) with literary success.


We talk about Weiner’s path to success, and her 10-point advice to prospective novelists. We also talk about her much-publicized beef with Jonathan Franzen, and also the time Mike met her agent in a South Philly coffee shop.

As always, we’d love to hear your feedback on what we talked about. You can leave a comment here on the post, send us an email, or hit us up on Twitter. We’ve also got a Facebook page now, so you can be even more connected to our goings-on.

You can stream the episode here on our site, or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can download back episodes and subscribe (for free!) so you never miss another installment. While you’re over there in iTunes, please take a few seconds and leave us a rating and review, which helps us connect with more listeners.

Thanks for listening!

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Spring of Success: Jonathan Franzen (“Facts”)

In this week’s edition of The Spring of Success, we’re discussing Jonathan Franzen’s first published story, which he apparently wrote while an undergraduate at Swarthmore, though it wasn’t published until several years later, in Fiction International. As far as we can tell, the story isn’t available online. If you have access to a university library you can probably get hold of an archived version of the journal, which is how we tracked it down. But, as always, you don’t need to read the story to listen to (and enjoy) the show.

In fact a lot of what we discuss this week is Jonathan Franzen’s arc of success more generally. His early ambitions, his writing habits, his post-college job and how it helped him carve out time to write his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. That book got a big release and a strong marketing push, though while it met with some critical success it wasn’t really until Franzen’s third novel, The Corrections, that he broke through to a wider audience.

Here’s a photo of the author just chilling on the beach like a boss (not pictured: birds).


We also talk about the strong Franzen backlash, much of which seems to happen on social media (with which he’s chosen not to engage). Why do people hate him so much? Is it his work? Or some perception of him, as a person? And if it’s the latter, is that perception earned? Is the hate even particular to Franzen, or would it accrue to any literary novelist who got big enough to have his face on Time Magazine?

We wrestle with all that and more this week, so check out the episode. And let us know in the comments, or via email or Twitter, what you think.

You can listen, as always, right here on our site. Or you can visit us in the iTunes store, or wherever you get your podcasts: subscribe (for free) and make sure you never miss another weekly installment.

Thanks for listening!

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Episode 129: Spring of Success, Elizabeth Gilbert (“Pilgrims”)

Here are several true facts about this week’s episode of Book Fight:

1. Elizabeth Gilbert is a wildly successful writer. She’s given a TED Talk! She has her own gift shop!

2. Elizabeth Gilbert’s first published short story, “Pilgrims,” originally appeared in Esquire and was then the title story of her very well-reviewed debut story collection.

3. Liam Callanan, who wrote the review linked above, a review which we discussed on the show, is by all accounts a reasonable human and pretty good writer. His 2001 novel is called The Cloud Atlas, which is sort of unfortunate, but what are you gonna do?

4. Here is a picture of Elizabeth Gilbert (she’s on the left).


5. Neither of us has read Eat, Pray, Love, the very successful book that turned Elizabeth Gilbert from a Very Successful Writer to a Stratospherically Successful Writer And Burgeoning Lifestyle Brand.

6. For this week’s episode we read “Pilgrims,” which doesn’t seem to be available online (we tracked it down via our university library). One of us read “Pilgrims” twice, because he really wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

7. You can hear what we thought about the story by listening to this week’s episode at the link below.

8. You’ll also hear us talk about social media and self-promotion, and how writers should navigate those particular waters. Do writers need to build a brand? Or is it all about the work?

9. Alternatively, you can find our podcast in the iTunes store, or wherever you usually get your podcasts.

10. We very much appreciate your listening to our show! If you like it, please help spread the word to your book-loving friends!

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Until next week, book friends!


Episode 127: Spring of Success, Donald Ray Pollock (“Bactine”)

This week we’re talking about an unconventional literary success story. Donald Ray Pollock quit his job of 30 years at a paper mill, determined to give writing a go. If he didn’t make it after five years, he figured, he could always go back. Instead he wound up getting an MFA at Ohio State University, and a book deal for his first collection of stories, Knockemstiff, a fictionalized account of a real place in southern Ohio. He’s since published a novel, The Devil All the Time.

Here’s the author chilling on his front porch like a boss:


In the second half of the show, we talk about the proliferation of those “20 under 40”-style lists in the literary world, and why we’re so obsessed with youth.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or check us out in the iTunes store, or wherever you get your podcasts, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another episode.

And if you want to check out Tom’s recent travel essays on his newly revamped site, you can go here.

Thanks for listening!


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Episode 125: Spring of Success, Amy Hempel (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)

Amy Hempel’s first published story was also, apparently, the first short story she ever wrote, while in a fiction class run by Gordon Lish. It launched her on the literary scene, helped her get a book deal, and went on to become one of the most anthologized stories of the last few decades. You can read the story here, via Fictionaut (along with Hempel’s story about writing and publishing it). Or in her first collection, Reasons To Live.

On the episode we talk about Hempel’s moonshot to success, and why it bums Tom out. Is the only path to literary success to get in good with a famous mentor and also be immediately brilliant?

Here’s a picture of Hempel on the beach. Dogs are for closers!


In the second half of the show we talk about people who had big, early success, and how they followed it up (or, in some cases, didn’t). What lessons can we learn from these success stories?

Also: blurbs for supporters, and all the usual jibber jabber you’ve grown to love (or maybe tolerate?).

As always, stream the episode right here on the site, or visit us in the iTunes store, or wherever you usually get your podcasts. Thanks for listening!


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Episode 123: Spring of Success, Jhumpa Lahiri (“A Temporary Matter”)

We’re back with our second installment of the Spring of Success, in which we teach you how to break through the world’s literal and figurative slush piles and become a superstar! Ok, we can’t really do that, but we can speculate wildly about how various authors found success. This week: Jhumpa Lahiri, whose first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize. Had it come out several years later, it surely would’ve gotten its author on lots of “writers to watch” listicles.

Here’s a picture of Lahiri in what is surely a beautiful apartment. Apartments of success!


Also this week, we talk about people who sold their souls to the devil to achieve success. And evangelical Christians who think nearly all famous people are satanists.

Finally, we attempt to have a real conversation about race, and some of the ways we hear writers talking about it. That conversation could go on for hours, and we’re sure we only scratched the surface. If you want to add your opinion, leave a comment here on the site, shoot us an email, or hit is up on social media. We’re on Twitter and Facebook these days.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. We’re also in the iTunes store, or wherever you normally get your podcasts.


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Thanks for listening!

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Episode 121: Spring of Success, Wells Tower (“The Brown Coast”)

Welcome to the Spring of Success! And welcome to all our new listeners, post-AWP! We can only assume our half-assed marketing efforts and semi-charming personalities have drawn in thousands of new folks, curious to see what this show is all about. This week the show is all about artistic success stories, including the breakthrough story collection Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, by Wells Tower.

Here’s a picture of the author enjoying his success next to an empty cake stand. One can only assume the cake was given to him as a reward for being so successful, and he ate it all just before this photo was taken.


On this week’s show we try to track how Tower achieved so much success with this book, and how the book came to exist in the first place, major-press story collections being a pretty rare breed these days. Tower’s first two stories, including the one we read for the show, were published in The Paris Review, which no doubt helped. He also got a boost from Ben Marcus, one of his grad school professors. Of course it also helps that Tower’s a really good writer.

In each of these special spring episodes, we’ll also consider different aspects of artistic success. This week: People who don’t achieve big success until after their deaths, and why we’re so obsessed with that particular genre of success story. Are those stories meant to be sad? Hopeful? And how many of them really check out? People talk about Melville as a writer who achieved big success after his death, for instance, but while it’s true that his career had tapered off in his later years, he’d written a series of well-reviewed, best-selling novels.

As always, you can stream the episode for free, right here on the site, by clicking on the player below. Or download the mp3 file to play on your favorite device. You can also find us in the iTunes store, on Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you enjoy the episode, please consider telling your friends about the show, either in person or online. If you have comments about the things we talked about, just click on the ‘Fight Back’ tab above to send us an email, or leave a comment here on the post itself. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook, so you can keep up with our latest doings there.

Thanks for listening!


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