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Return of the Klam

Matthew Klam is back. This time for reals. I’m halfway through reading his new book, Who is Rich?, and it’s just wonderful. The main character is a cartoonist and illustrator, and just about every scene is filled with stunning and hilarious physical descriptions. If I were writing a blurb, I’d call Who is Rich? the most sheerly enjoyable book I’ve read in a long time. Cos it is.

Here’s the story behind Klam’s strangely interrupted career, as reported by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: “Matthew Klam’s New Book Is Only 17 Years Overdue“:

In 1993, Matthew Klam was sitting in his room at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was a fellow, when he received a call from Daniel Menaker at The New Yorker saying that they were interested in buying his short story “Sam the Cat.” . . . an outrageous success — it sparkled with human observation that is so true it makes you cringe — so he wrote a short-story collection, also called Sam the Cat, for Random House. [That volume, which came out in 2000, really is great. The title story is excellent but it’s not even my favorite one in the book.] Klam won an O. Henry Award, a Whiting Award, an NEA grant, a PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. . . .

But Klam was not so happy with what he was producing:

He felt like a fraud. All those awards were for things he was going to do in the future, and he didn’t know if he had anything left to say. . . . In 2007, he realized he didn’t have another short story in him . . . [In the following years,] Klam sat in his unfinished basement, temperature 55 degrees, even with a space heater, and asked himself how to make something again. He threw away what his wife and friends and editors suspect was an entire book’s worth of material. . . .

What happened to Matthew Klam, Matthew Klam explains, wasn’t as simple as creative paralysis. He’d gotten a tenure-track teaching position at Johns Hopkins in 2010, in the creative-writing department. It was a welcome respite from the spotlight . . . Teaching allowed him to write and to feel like no one was really watching. . . . each day he returned home from Baltimore and sat in his basement and waited for his novel to become apparent to him.

And then . . .

Finally, his hand was forced. As part of his tenure-track review, he had to show what he was working on to his department-assigned mentor and the chair of the department. Klam showed her the first 100 pages of Who Is Rich?. He was worried his voice was no longer special. He was worried it was the same old thing.

Get this:

The department supervisor found the pages “sloppily written” and “glib and cynical” and said that if he didn’t abandon the effort, she thought he would lose his job.

Hey! Not to make this blog all about me or anything, but that’s just about exactly what happened to me back in 1994 or so when the statistics department chair stopped me in the hallway and told me that he’d heard I’d been writing this book on Bayesian statistics and that if I was serious about tenure, I should work on something else. I responded that I’d rather write the book and not have tenure at Berkeley than have tenure at Berkeley and not write the book. And I got my wish!

So did Klam:

Suddenly, forcefully, he was sure that this wasn’t a piece of shit. This was his book. He told his boss he was going to keep working on the book . . . He sold Who Is Rich? before it was complete, based on 120 pages, in 2013. In 2016, he was denied tenure.

Ha! It looks like the Johns Hopkins University English Department dodged a bullet on that one.

Still, it seems to have taken Klam another four years to write the next 170 or so pages of the book. That’s slow work. That’s fine—given the finished product, it was all worth it—it just surprises me: Klam’s writing seems so fluid, I would’ve thought he could spin out 10 pages a day, no problem.

P.S. One thing I couldn’t quite figure out from this article is what Klam does for a living, how he paid the bills all those years. I hope he writes more books and that they come out more frequently than once every 17 years. But it’s tough to make a career writing books; you pretty much have to do it just cos you want to. I don’t think they sell many copies anymore.

P.P.S. There was one other thing that bothered me about that article, which was when we’re told that the academic department supervisor didn’t like Klam’s new book: “‘They like Updike,’ Klam explains of his department’s reaction and its conventional tastes. ‘They like Alice Munro. They love Virginia Woolf.'” OK, Klam’s not so similar to Munro and Woolf, but he’s a pretty good match for Updike: middle-aged, middle-class white guy writing about adultery among middle-aged white guys in the Northeast. Can’t get much more Updikey than that. I’m not saying Johns Hopkins was right to let Klam go, not at all, I just don’t think it seems quite on target to say they did it because of their “conventional tastes.”

P.P.P.S. Also this. Brodesser writes:

He wanted a regular writing life and everything that went with it . . . Just a regular literary career — you know, tenure, a full professorship, a novel every few years.

That just made me want to cry. I mean, a tenured professorship is great, I like my job. But that’s “a regular literary career” now? That’s really sad, compared to the days when a regular literary career meant that you could support yourself on your writing alone.


  1. Joe says:

    I think it has always been exceptional for writers to support themselves on their writing. Once they had rich patrons, many had other jobs, then it was university employment. What days were you thinking of?

  2. Not at all surprised you were good enough to get to Berkeley, not surprised that happened to you there, and delighted you responded as you did!

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