By Steven Zeitchik
NEW YORK — There are author success stories. There’s winning the lottery. And then there’s Chad Harbach.
A long-suffering, often-starving Master’s of Fine Arts graduate, Harbach spent much of his 20s and 30s working temp jobs so he could write a novel, sometimes with barely $100 in his bank account.
He thought no one would ever read his book, titled “The Art of Fielding.” It featured some pretty ambitious literary writing, a prominent gay character and a baseball motif, all no-nos for anyone with aspirations to the fiction bestseller list.
But after a decade of working and reworking, things began to turn around. Agency rejections turned into representation. Editor ambivalence transformed into interest.
Harbach’s book, a tale of how people’s lives at a fictional Midwestern university are toppled after a young shortstop’s wild throw, became almost magically sought-after — so much so that the publisher Little, Brown and Co. paid more than $650,000 to secure publishing rights during a fierce bidding war.
Blurbs from John Irving and Jonathan Franzen followed. So did a Vanity Fair story about Harbach and the backstory of the book’s publication. When the novel came out last September to glowing reviews, “The Art of Fielding” had become a freight train. It has since sold more than 250,000 copies. HBO has optioned it in the hope of turning it into a series.
But for all the envy his story might elicit, Harbach’s life since the frenzy has hardly been simple. As the book is released this month in paperback, and as the author prepares for an appearance at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, his rise has also led some to paint a target on his back. It has also highlighted a vexing question: What happens when you attain unexpected literary fame?
More specifically, what happens when you live in poverty for years, consumed with something no one knows or cares about, and then seemingly overnight become the kind of figure people flock to see, parsing every sentence you write as though it’s the word of God or, perhaps better, a new Harry Potter novel?
“It’s a huge contrast, and I’m not sure I was really ready for it,” Harbach said, a few days before his festival appearance. “When I was writing all those years, I spent all this time thinking about something that you literally can’t talk about with anyone; no one wants to go through the intricate crises you’re going through writing a book. And then it all changes, and that’s all anyone wants to talk about.”
“The Art of Fielding” concerns Henry Skrimshander, an unremarkable physical specimen who, thanks to a fictional baseball handbook and a kind of innate precociousness, becomes a prized shortstop at the fictional Midwestern Westish College. But his errant throw soon injures another player, causing a chain reaction that makes Henry question his own talent and sense of self.
The novel is populated with light and whimsical characters — including gay roommate Owen Dunne and the larger-than life university president, the avowed straight bachelor Guert Affenlight who finds himself pining for a man — as a campus novel’s themes of lost innocence play out against a backdrop of the diamond.
After growing up in Racine, Wis., Harbach attended Harvard, where he studied Herman Melville and other great American novelists. Several years after graduation, having not written or published much, he was accepted to an MFA program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville after submitting a baseball-themed story set on a college campus, which he then tried to develop into a novel; he also co-founded a small literary magazine.
Rejected countless times by the mainstream publishing apparatus, he was discovered by a New York literary agent named Chris Parris-Lamb, and the wheels for “The Art of Fielding” were finally in motion.
Harbach’s editor, Little, Brown chief Michael Pietsch, acknowledges that “The Art of Fielding” was “one of the hardest kind of books to launch, because when you describe it, it sounds like something totally unsurprising — a baseball novel about falling in love.”
He said he believed it was the prose that ultimately persuaded critics and readers. “The key to marketing is the book itself. We knew it would win over anyone who picked it up.”
Not every reader or critic has found it so winning, and the result has been something of a backlash.
No critique was as ferocious as the one from essayist B.R. Myers, who in a piece in the current issue of the Atlantic — seven months after the book came out — said Harbach’s tome was overhyped because of the public’s lemming-like approach to literary fiction. Using words such as “shallow” and “trivial,” Myers concluded that “The Art of Fielding” “was written for the none-too-intellectual people it depicts, both to amuse them and to plead for more inclusiveness on campuses.”
In his characteristically restrained tone, Harbach said he hasn’t read the piece. “I’ve read B.R. Myers in the past, and I stopped doing so a long time ago,” he said referring to the often contrarian writer. “I can imagine reading the piece, and if it costs me two hours of consternation, it’s not worth it.”
Pietsch had a more direct response. “I didn’t know anyone still reads the Atlantic. And if they do, good for them,” he quipped.
Since his fame has grown, Harbach has tried to stay focused. He still lives in his modest apartment in Charlottesville and continues to co-edit the literary magazine as he makes occasional trips to New York, where he would like to live after he finishes touring in the fall.
Pietsch says that Harbach’s own Midwestern roots helped the author stay grounded.
“When I first met Chad I noticed this clearly observing eye, but also felt this embodiment of sweetness and modesty,” he said.
But modesty can also come with anxiety, compounded by the feeling any buzzed-about young novelist might have when they contemplate the question: What’s next?
Many phenoms often flop with their sophomore efforts. “I don’t mean to make Chad Harbach nervous, or more nervous than he already is, but a successful follow-up to a strong first novel is very hard to do,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the book editor at O Magazine. “There are more examples of failure than success.”
Harbach, who has not yet begun writing a new book, said he knows he is staring into an abyss.
“There’s an anxiety that builds up when you write and rewrite a book for years, thinking if it’s ever going to get done,” he said. “I think now as I’m getting back to writing I’m going back to square zero. There’s a lot of motivation. But I also think that anxiety will quickly build up again.”