Once more, with feeling

The paperback edition of Tinsel shipped in early October and is in stores now — usually you can find it in the “cultural studies,” “sociology/culture” or “American culture” shelves, with all the books about pot, tattoos, prisons, the real-estate bust, shopaholism, and meatpacking and other biofood nightmares, which is as good a home as any for it.

Maybe, as December slithers closer, some savvy bookstores will put it out on the holiday display table between Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater (ralph), all those Melody Carlson books (hurl), and the perennially best-selling David Sedaris stacks of Holidays on Ice (snore).

As you can see, there’s a new cover, and a new attitoooood:

Tinsel paperback

The marketing this time is more direct: CHRISTMAS BOOK!! CHRISTMAS BOOK!! WOOP-WOOP!!

Cover blurb: “LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY” claims USA Today.

Well, yes. I think the full sentence in the USA Today thing was something more like “Laugh-out-loud funny, and oddly depressing,” which is a whole lot more true, in’t it?

I’ve enjoyed working with editor Meagan Stacey at Mariner Books (Houghton’s paperback division) as she settled on the new cover and the right “blurbs” from reviews to put on the front, back, and inside front pages. (The back cover of the paperback has what was obviously my favorite blurby blurb: “Cultural anthropology at its most exuberant!” — The New Yorker. If that’s not a stamp of elitist approval, then what is?)

I like the new cover. I think it’s smart and simple and takes advantage of some hard truths about catchy design and what happens to books when they’re on a shelf or a table and the customer’s eye is darting here and there.

I liked the hardcover version, too. I mostly just like getting the chance to do it again.

* * *

As for “laugh-out-loud funny,” I’m glad that people find a lot in Tinsel to laugh at, because I meant for it to be that kind of book. I also meant for it to be a “cry quietly” book.

But while we’re on the subject, let me tell you a not-so-secret secret about book writers. We know when people have read (I mean, finished) our books. It’s always some peculiar cue that we privately register whenever someone’s talking to us about our latest book. With appreciative smiles plastered on our faces, we can nevertheless tell: you didn’t read it. Even our close friends and relatives — we can tell by what they say about the book.

When people tell me how funny Tinsel is, and nothing else, then I know they didn’t get past about page 35. (And that’s okay!)

Here is a picture someone sent me last November or December, when I was in such a dither about the book’s release. The person who sent it to me said that her sister took the picture while waiting for a flight in the Denver airport.

woman reading tinsel

I have no idea who this woman is, but she’s reading Tinsel, and from the way she’s holding it (it acts as a helpful visor from the sunlight), it feels like she’s not very far in yet, perhaps halfway. I hope she kept going.

I want to tell you what this sort of picture means to a not-famous author. It means everything, basically. (And it’s a big reason why I hate the Kindle and iPad revolution, which removes the serendipitous encounters we unknowingly spark when people can see the covers of the books we’re reading.)

I know when people have really read Tinsel, because when they have, they talk about everything besides the humor in it. One of the real joys of the last year has been the stream of e-mail (a lot in January, tapering off lately to five or six a month, sometimes more) that I’ve received from readers who have a lot of thoughts spurred by finishing Tinsel. They write to me about stuff deep in the book, like the “fake” children on the Angel Trees; poor Caroll losing her infant grandson after so much hope and prayer and effort; the American economy unraveling; Tammie’s thoughts about living in a bubble. The final third of Tinsel is not so “laugh-out-loud funny,” but it does have its funny moments, right?

That doesn’t make a lot of sense to marketers and the sales staff — either it’s a funny book or it isn’t. Either it’s about Christmas or it isn’t. Either it’s happy or it’s sad.

But what about life? Isn’t life often hilarious and tragic and always somewhere in between those two extremes? If you’re really getting the book, you’ll also get the melancholy undercurrent. (After all, I worship at the feet of Gene Weingarten.)

Some Christmas books, on the other hand, have no ambivalence whatsoever about what they mean to be. Here’s how I should have gone:


Oh well, hindsight is all.


  1. béatrice on December 18, 2010 at 1:21 am

    I’m so glad I was listening to NPR and heard about Tinsel. Thank you. I’m delaying reading the last pages because you articulate feelings I have had for years, because “going to Frisco with you” is like going Mars or Jupiter, an unexpected journey.
    Once I finish Tinsel, I can’t say I will understand Americans craze for holidays and for Christmas in particular (I’m French) but more than the stories, I appreciate your approach: you (seem to) care and you fully participate but you know who you are and you back up your statements with interesting passages thus answering more questions I have had for years.
    I worried though while reading that the three families would hate you for the some comments you made about them. I cringed when you wrote about spending months away from home eating food I could never eat, attending services at creepy churches and so on. I could never have done this.

    Thank you for a rare account, for excellent writing and beautiful moments.

    • Hank Stuever on January 25, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      Beatrice, a BELATED THANK YOU for this kind note about TINSEL. I realize Frisco must seem like another world, but let me tell you, I did enjoy my time there and the people. Not everyone there thinks I did the place justice, but I did it all with a real affection and curiosity for the place and the people and their beliefs. It’s more diverse than it seems, too.

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