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The Waterstone's Challenge

LabLit asked a major bookseller to consider profiling "Lab Lit" novels as an experiment in selling a new "genre" – and they were up for it!

Jennifer Rohn 24 April 2005

The Waterstone's poster, soon to go up in London's Gower St. branch

I do some Googling, but the existence of "science fiction" is an insurmountable barrier, the Everest-high haystack that obscures my needle.

Editor’s note: "Lab Lit", the genre, is not science fiction, but rather the realistic portrayal of science and/or scientists in novels. Read more about "Lab Lit" here.

29 October 2004 – the idea is born

There’s a close-knit crowd of people, all crammed onto one sofa with their heads together, at a party I’m throwing in my small London flat. Curious, I push my way through the crush to see what’s going on. It seems that one of my guests had brought along Danielle, an employee at the Gower Street branch of Waterstone’s. (For readers not familiar with Britain, Waterstone’s is probably the biggest chain of booksellers here, on par with Border’s but with a more academic vibe. For those not familiar with London, the Gower Street branch is gloriously scientific: it’s situated just on the edge of the University College London campus and has a basement containing an astonishing selection of non-fiction science and medical books, both popular and academic. You can spend hours down there just browsing, kept going by the espresso fumes drifting over from the café in one corner.) Someone else has been telling Danielle about "Lab Lit", the genre, and she has just volunteered to "do me a Table". I’ve always wondered if the genre would sell better if people knew it was a genre – if categorization could crystallize interest – and what better experiment could one come up with? We have a chat about it, but the idea goes the way of so many others, and is half-forgotten for a few months.

23 February 2005 – the idea is rekindled is about to launch, and a friend reminds me about Danielle and her generous offer. I go over to Waterstone’s on the way home from work. Danielle, looking cheerful but harried, tells me offer still stands and instructs me to bring by a list the following day. We discuss the various options, Tables versus "Dumpbin" (British bookshop jargon for an upright display). She inspires confidence – I feel it’s actually going to happen.

That night, eager as a diligent pupil doing her homework, I type up a list of twelve books. It’s not as easy to choose as I thought. I want to get the balance right – not all serious, not all frivolous. In the back of my mind, I don’t want to put Waterstone’s off – I don’t want them to change their minds. I am tortured by dilemmas…I wasn’t keen on including more than one Michael Crichton, who is borderline "Lab Lit" at best, but those would probably be more likely to sell, wouldn’t they? Jeannette Winterson would raise the tone, but would Greg Bear be too lowbrow? I included things I knew must be out of print, like The Struggles of Albert Wood, simply because I could not envisage a "Lab Lit" display without it.

24 February 2005 – I meet Mick

After work, prior to popping round for a chat with a friend at her nearby lab, I bring my piece of paper to Waterstone’s. Danielle is paged – I wait nervously as the announcement echoes through the building, watch sporadic flakes of snow flutter down in the circle of street lamplight outside. Danielle takes me over to Mick, who, I find out, will actually be executing the "Lab Lit" display. So he’s the man to impress. He’s behind the checkout counter, eyes burning with curiosity. I bite my nails while he scans the list. Several people are waiting behind me to buy their books, so it’s all a bit rushed – I hear him mutter "Hmmm…John McCabe; I like John McCabe…" and "Perfectly happy to put up anything by Primo Levi…" and I realize I’m in with Mick. He tells me this probably won’t be enough for a Table, where you need about thirty books, but it’s looking good for a Dumpbin. He’d see what they had in stock and what they’d have to order, and would get back to me. Would I mind writing some of those little hand-written review cards, he inquires? Definitely not! I leave the shop with a spring to my step.

8 March 2005 – a slight setback

I get a call from Mick – half the books on my list are out of print. With a cold nugget of incipient disappointment nucleating in my stomach, I wait for him to tell me the Dumpbin idea is off, but no – he’s asking if I could pop by with more suggestions. (Neither Mick nor Danielle use email; this is quite inconvenient, but I am nevertheless charmed by their old-fashioned bookishness. I picture them corresponding on creamy parchment with pen quills and bottles of ink.) So after work, I print out the entire list from the just-launched website and jog over to Gower Street in the cold drizzly air. More encouraging noises from Mick, who’s looking keener than ever: "I absolutely love Neal Stephenson, good choice…mmmm, William Boyd, Jonathan Lethem, excellent, excellent…".

Then he springs it on me: is there any thing "recent and strong" they could "center the Table around"?

Table! I think to myself. I’ve been promoted from Dumpbin to Table! But my elation immediately dissipates – the "Lab Lit" genre is very rare, and I am not aware of any recent examples. I promise to think about it, leaving the shop with musings about Ian McEwan’s Saturday – recent and obviously Booker-strength, but is the neuroscientist protagonist really enough to qualify as "Lab Lit"? And then there is the new John Updike, supposedly about a physicist, but when I page through it in hardcover, it seems to center largely about sex – not an experiment in sight. Would I have to relax my standards?

8-23 March 2005 – I do my homework

I am determined to find more "Lab Lit" books – how hard could this be? I send out feelers with various book groups I know about, and they give me some valuable tips. I do some Googling, but the existence of "science fiction" is an insurmountable barrier, the Everest-high haystack that obscures my needle. I have a bit more luck on Amazon using their computer recognition system that alerts you to similar books; I lay traps using Cantor’s Dilemma and Martin Arrowsmith and wait to see what trundles in. I strike gold with their "Listmania" function, finding that several people share my obsession and have been compiling assortments of science-related novels. Unfortunately they list only a few I haven’t known about already, though I am grateful for anything at this point. I start trawling the major newspapers online, keying in "science" searches on their literary review pages and "novels" on their science pages. And yes, I even go to small independent bookstores (including City Lights in San Francisco one evening during a business trip) to see if I can find the genre there where I had failed at the big chains. These quests yield a few interesting, quirky possibilities: Hypohypothesis; Lust (4 Letters, Infinite Possibilities), but nothing about which I feel truly confident as far as Mick’s special request.

22 April 2005 - the home stretch

Mick and I go a few more rounds: he tells me things are out of print; I scrabble around in search of new leads; I type up more hard-won titles and drop them off at Waterstone’s; one by one, the books Mick orders dribble in. Both of us are shocked at what sorts of books are no longer available. Martin Arrowsmith I can sort of understand, due to its age, but John McCabe’s Paper? Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac? Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf, for pity’s sake? This was a New York Times bestseller by a very popular author! On the plus side, we finally have more than enough for a Dumpbin. Nearly everyone who works on the ground floor of Waterstone’s recognizes me by now, the display is going up in a prime position, facing the main entrance, a poster is being printed, Mick asks me to enlist my scientist mates to write review cards. In a few more days, "Lab Lit", the genre, will storm onto the scene!

But will people buy it?

The Waterstone’s Challenge saga will be continued…