Books diary

Jason Cowley in New York

I was reclining in a warm bath, in a country-house hotel in north Yorkshire, when an animated voice informed me that the Queen Mother had died. Time, I thought, to leave the country. I had the perfect excuse - a commission from Granta magazine to visit America - so, within 48 hours, I was touching down at Newark Airport, from where two planes were hijacked on the morning of 11 September, in those days when the world seemed steady.

There is nothing quite like the Manhattan book world to make you realise just how parochial and benign literary London really is, despite John Sutherland's protestations to the contrary in his recent NS essay (15 April). While I was in New York, Charles Frazier received $8m for his unwritten second novel. In addition, Paramount Pictures paid a further $3m for the film rights to his story - which exists only in the form of a one-page outline - of a white man who is raised by Cherokee Indians. The auction, according to the New York Times, was conducted in a single-bid format, "which limited the amount of information that came out as the price rose and low bidders dropped out".

Frazier was labouring in obscurity when his first novel, Cold Mountain, which became an international bestseller, was discovered by Elizabeth Schmitz, an editor at the celebrated New York independent publisher Grove Atlantic. Schmitz wrote letters of recommendation to booksellers throughout America and encouraged her president, Morgan Entrekin, to gamble on the book. But loyalty counts for nothing in New York. In a recent New Yorker profile of Roger Straus, Ian Parker related how, on visiting Straus at his office, he found the veteran publisher distressed at having offered $1.25m for a first novel. The bid had failed. Straus said: "We got a telephone call [from the agent] saying: 'Oops, the whole deal is off, I've taken a pre-emptive bid of four million dollars for a two-book contract for this guy.' I said to my editor: 'This guy has got no more idea what the next book is going to be than I have.' I said: 'What is the next book?' 'Well, a sequel of some kind.' " What is profit in modern New York publishing, when so many houses are willing to squander so much money on no more than putative entities, on sequels of some kind? Small wonder that Straus appeared so bewildered by the turn in events.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Frazier deal, I had dinner with Toby Mundy in a Korean restaurant in the Village, one of those places where you cook your own fish on hot stones. Mundy is a dynamic and talented publisher, as adept at editing as he is at making deals and running a business, and was judiciously chosen by Morgan Entrekin to run the new London operation of Grove Atlantic. He has a difficult but far from impossible task: in a world where powerful book chains demand as much as a 50 per cent margin on titles, and publishers must pay to have their books displayed at the front of stores, Mundy is building a stylish and balanced list of new fiction, canny reissues and provocative non-fiction without the safety net of a backlist. And he may just have one of the books of the year - the Australian Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish: a novel in twelve fish, which has already been acclaimed by the New York Times as "the first great book of the new century". It is published in the UK in June.

Apart from Flanagan, Ian McEwan is very much the writer of the moment in the US. Daniel Zalewski, for whom I write on the New York Times Magazine, told me over lunch (strictly pasta and iced tea for him) how innumerable journalists on the paper had been jostling with one another to review Atonement, an exceptionally distinguished novel that reminds me, in atmosphere and tone, more and more of L P Hartley's equally fine The Go-Between. In the end, it went outside the building - to Tom Shone, the renowned Lothario and former literary editor of the defunct Modern Review. He liked it. It must have been that scene in the library, eh, Tom.

I met up with my old friend Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, in New York. He would no doubt have been interested to read Lynn Barber's recent hagiographic portrait of Christopher Hitchens in the Observer. When the war-whooping Hitchens used to work for Harper's, Lapham told me, the old poseur would be put through at least four drafts before anything he wrote was published. Would that the same editorial rigour were devoted to his present work. Perhaps then he would write less, and not purport to know so much.

Also in New York was the young philosopher Nicholas Fearn, who was completing a two-month odyssey through North America interviewing some of the world's leading philosophers for a new book about the subject. In preparing for his journey, Fearn drew up a shortlist of philosophers he wished to meet, four of whom promptly died - Robert Nozick, David Lewis, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Pierre Bourdieu. He is in the process of compiling a second list, ahead of a forthcoming visit to the Continent. He requests that the names on this list remain a secret, for obvious reasons.