Michael Kinsley is a longtime columnist and editor, mostly of non-fiction. He also happens to think there’s much too much of the stuff and even he has trouble staying afloat in the sea of new books each year. Kinsley explains his predicament.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you classify candidate books as nonfiction - and I think we're supposed to - then you can assume that Time Magazine columnist Michael Kinsley would not be thrilled by their proliferation. In an essay he wrote a few years back, he took a strong stand against nonfiction. He wrote, quote, "There's too much nonfiction going on in the world already, without writers adding to it." MICHAEL KINSLEY: Well, that was in a way a joke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] MICHAEL KINSLEY: But you and I both know people who are writing big, long nonfiction books more because they want to have written a book than any desire to write this actual book. And it drags them down into years of misery - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] MICHAEL KINSLEY: - and, you know, they look pale. They've taken leaves from their jobs and don't have enough money. And this is all to produce something which some people may buy, maybe even a lot of people may buy, somewhat fewer people will read. You know, sometimes you do think, what's the point? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, but it's not just nonfiction that does this to authors. MICHAEL KINSLEY: Well, part of it is. I am in awe of people who write fiction, especially people who write it successfully, because I can't imagine doing it myself. So I respect that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] The corollary being - [LAUGHTER]- that you don't respect so much — [OVERTALK] MICHAEL KINSLEY: Well, as I was saying that - [LAUGHTER]- I realized I was giving you that opening. Sure, I respect anyone who tackles a book, but there's a mystery to me in writing fiction that impresses me more. Second, there's a lot of nonfiction in the world already. [LAUGHS] I mean - [BROOKE LAUGHS] - we spend our lives living in nonfiction. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you tell us about the experiment you conducted a few years ago with the bestselling nonfiction books? MICHAEL KINSLEY: Yeah. This was many years ago, and the leading bookstore in Washington was Olsson's. I went in there with some post-it notes, and I had someone else who did it, too, and we put them about three-quarters of the way through maybe 50 books - say, half a dozen titles, 10 each. And it said, "If you see this, call Mike Kinsley at The New Republic" - where I was then working - "and you'll get five dollars." And nobody called. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you could say that five bucks just wasn't enough incentive. MICHAEL KINSLEY: This was long enough ago that five dollars could buy a book, for example. You know, it wasn't scientific, and it was basically for fun, but I was shocked that not a single person ever called.
And, actually, there's a particular kind of nonfiction that to me is more likely to be a puzzle, which is the Washington policy book or the memoir of the press secretary of the president before last. They market the book on the basis of these quotes, you know, or little scooplets. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That are placed in newspapers in advance of the publication? MICHAEL KINSLEY: Right, right, so you can read virtually everything that the publisher thinks is of value in the book in the newspaper. So why do you buy the book? And it has something to do with its icon value. You know, it's having this book that is in the newspapers. I do it too every now and then, but it's peculiar. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you blame publishers for there being too much nonfiction, or authors, or people like you who might buy a book you really don't think you'll ever open? MICHAEL KINSLEY: I'm not sure I blame anyone. I mean, publishers want to make money. Writers want to see their name on a book. [LAUGHS] You know, to be frank - and also to give myself a plug - I've got a book coming out - [BROOKE LAUGHS] - in two or three months. And it's just a collection of columns, so there’s nothing urgent that I had to say. And they paid me practically nothing for it - [BROOKE LAUGHS] - so I didn't do it for the money. I did it for vanity. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But when nobody's looking, don't you secretly thrill to read the latest nonfiction wonder book? MICHAEL KINSLEY: Well, I thrill to buy it or even - [BROOKE LAUGHS] - or even better, in our business, Brooke, you get an amazing number of them for free. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And I certainly thrill to that. There's many satisfactions you get from reading books, but “thrill”? I, I can't remember the last time I got an actual thrill out of a nonfiction book. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you so much. MICHAEL KINSLEY: Oh, thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kinsley is a regular columnist for Time Magazine.