OF ALL THE REWARDS THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Austinite Louise Redd hoped might result from publishing her first novel, Playing the Bones, none was expected less than her encounter with the Stinky Cheese Man. “I was so excited to be giving a reading at the big Borders here in my new hometown,” she recalled of a June 1996 stop on her brief publicity tour sponsored by the book’s publisher, Little, Brown. Though the tour was limited to a handful of Texas and Mississippi bookstores, Redd perhaps unrealistically anticipated enjoying the few perks she assumed might be afforded published novelists: a momentary spotlight, some applause, an additional sale or two. “But they had me set up in this really bright, hectic spot in the middle of the store,” she said. “There was no podium, no microphone, no introduction. I sat on the edge of a table with a few scattered piles of Playing the Bones and began to read to the three people sitting before me in this sea of empty chairs. It was so depressing. I had to pretty much shout to be heard over the jazz playing in the store’s music section, the classical music piped in for the book browsers, and the whirring of the cappuccino machine. Then, in the middle of my reading, a woman’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker: ‘The Stinky Cheese Man has entered the store!’ When I looked up, this creature with a big wedge of cheese on his head waddled right in front of me on his way to the children’s section to do some sort of promotional presentation.”
Shredding the paper napkin beneath her herbal tea as we chatted at Austin’s Flightpath Coffeehouse, which is located so close to Robert Mueller Municipal Airport that its windows rattle from the noise of jets landing and taking off, Redd smiled and shook her head good-naturedly as she recounted the year since Playing the Bones was published. I had been curious to meet her after reading an article she had posted on the Internet lamenting the commercialization of the modern novel, a phenomenon many writers believe is connected to the growing monopoly of megachain bookstores. Attractive and fashionably underdressed in faded jeans, a vintage fatigue jacket, flea market rings on all ten fingers, and rimless granny specs over bright green eyes, Redd’s appearance belied an upbringing more privileged than that of the typical struggling writer: She looked like someone who might still be worrying about next month’s rent. Here was a published novelist, someone who is to the world of fiction what an NBA draft pick is to the world of basketball, and she had driven to the Flightpath in a rusted thirty-year-old Chevelle that she would soon sell because she needed the money.
Released to warm reviews in the summer of 1996 (and now available in paperback from Plume), Playing the Bones embodied for Redd the dreamy culmination of lifelong literary aspirations, hard-earned writing degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Houston, two years of struggle in front of a computer screen in rural Colorado, and several months’ worth of sleepless nights as she awaited an eventual thumbs-up from the faceless publishing world in New York. “The year between my finishing the book and its publication was absolutely golden,” Redd remembered, chuckling at her naiveté. “The day Little, Brown made me an offer, my parents and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne, and I was just filled with hopes and fantasies that once the book came out everything would be wonderful, that I would suddenly be smarter and more charming and more loved and better looking than ever before. But when my book hit the bookstores, the only people who seemed to notice were members of my immediate family.”
Redd would soon discover what a growing number of writers and readers of literary fiction have been grumbling about for the past two or three years: that there is a general indifference to the culture of fiction writing and that the superstore monopoly is partly to blame. They maintain that the ever-expanding reach of Barnes and Noble and Borders is strangling to death independently owned, neighborhood bookstores and, with them, much of the respect novelists and their craft used to enjoy. As far as the chains are concerned, the argument goes, novels are products and a novelist is simply a deliverer of the goods. “I am reluctant to criticize the superstores,” Redd explained, “because I’m dependent on them for my livelihood and grateful for the ones that carried my book. And my most successful reading was at a huge Bookstop in Dallas. But my parents, who had to drive all the way from their home in Uncertain, did all the publicity for it. I thought maybe I should take the indifference personally, but I kept hearing horror stories: editors rejecting novels because the author wasn’t physically attractive enough; houses spending more money on a flashy book jacket than the author’s advance.”
Redd shuddered as a descending plane rocked the building. “After Playing the Bones was published, my editor hooked me up with an agent in New York, whom I still have never met. She’ll call every few months and ask, ‘How’s everything down there in Houston?’ and I say kind of sheepishly, ‘Uh, I live in Austin.’”
Neither of the two Barnes and Noble superstores in my Manhattan neighborhood had Playing the Bones on its shelves when I first spoke with Redd by phone in April—though the Barnes and Noble and Borders locations in Austin presumably did. The book (which I read and thoroughly enjoyed after buying a copy at Austin’s independently owned Book People) is described on its dust jacket as a “sharply funny, erotically charged first novel about love, infidelity, and the blues.” Whether by coincidence or design, it revolves around what some cynics might argue have become essentials in a publishing business fueled by female readers: a salty-voiced female narrator; forbidden romance (the engaged protagonist’s chief love interest is a blues singer