Great books — not the ones rushed off the factory floor but the finely crafted, original works of imagination — can find an audience, if it finds a champion. In the case of "The Art of Fielding," that champion was a young literary agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, whose enthusiasm for the book fueled its success.
Author Chad Harbach had been turned down by several agents before he emailed Parris-Lamb about his novel, on which he had been working "far too long." Contrary to the cliché of literary agents making deals with writers over martinis at the Algonquin — or more recently at a bar in Brooklyn — Harbach simply emailed, Parris-Lamb says, "just like any other writer."
Parris-Lamb read it, thought it was a masterpiece, but knew that the elevator pitch mattered.
"The baseball novel and the campus novel are thoroughly tilled soil," says Parris-Lamb, a New York agent who grew up Burlington, N.C., "until you read ["The Art of Fielding and find] that it transcended any sort of limitations of subject matter."
As a former high-school baseball pitcher and book guy, Parris-Lamb who is now 30, feared that he might be little too perfect of a reader for the novel, but led a crusade to find the right publisher and editor for the novel, sending it to more than 15 houses and presiding over a heated auction.
Parris-Lamb understood the universality of the novel.
"It's as tight and polished as Moby Dick is sprawling," explains Parris-Lamb. "In the same way that Melville interrogates and unpacks male friendship in the context of a whaling ship, Chad realized the most interesting way to do that is through a baseball team."
So what has made "The Art of Fielding" so popular?
"Chad, because he wrote an amazing book. And he wrote an amazing book because he sacrificed to be able to do it," Parris-Lamb argues. "Chad worked in absolute obscurity for all these years while his Harvard classmates were off making millions in finance or becoming magazine editors. Chad never took a job that would take him away from writing. From time to time, he needed to set it aside to pay the bills, but it was his priority. He didn't get lucky. He got some breaks, but he got them because he wrote the book he wrote."
Timeline compiled by Courtney Crowder from various new sources, including Vanity Fair, Variety, Bloomberg.com and Milwaukee Magazine.
Printers Row Book of the Month: "The Art of Fielding"
By Chad Harbach
Join the conversation and get more details about the event at chicagotribune.com/printersrow.
Winter of 2000: A few years after graduating from Harvard University, Chad Harbach starts writing what will become "The Art of Fielding.
Late 2000/early 2001: Harbach applies to Master of Fine Arts programs with two chapters of his novel. He is rejected by five programs and accepted into the University of Virginia's program, where he later enrolls.
2004: Harbach and friends Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel, Mark Greif, and Marco Roth found the literary magazine n+1.
Late 2009: After five agents reject the book, Harbach sends it to Chris Parris-Lamb.Parris-Lamb reads the book in a little over a weekend and emails Chad about representing him. Chad agrees within 24 hours.
February 2010: Parris-Lamb mails out copies to Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and 15 other editors.Galassi makes a preemptive offer of $175,000 for world rights to the book, an amount that equaled Harbach's earnings for the previous seven years. Harbach declines. An auction draws eight bids. Scribner offers $750,000, while Little, Brown offers $665,000. Harbach chooses Little, Brown and editor Michael Pietsch, who worked with David Foster Wallace on "Infinite Jest."
August 2011: HBO options the book. An article in Variety reports that Scott Rudin is attached as executive producer.
Aug. 29, 2011: Sports Illustrated runs an excerpt of "The Art of Fielding."
Sept. 7, 2011: "The Art of Fielding" is published.
Sept. 25, 2011: "The Art of Fielding" debuts at No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list. It is still on the list; it ranked No. 31 last week.
October 2011: Vanity Fair publishes an in-depth story about the book's road to publication, written by Keith Gessen, Harbach's friend and co-founder of n+1.
May 1, 2012: The paperback edition of "The Art of Fielding" will be released.
Meet the author
Chad Harbach will discuss his book at 7 p.m., on May 7, at the Latin School of Chicago, 59 W. North Blvd. A members-only reception with the author will be at 6:30 p.m.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times