I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so. One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work. Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations. Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone.
So it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves. In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan’s Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly. Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense. The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures. After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog — large in scope, large in voice. Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil. But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful — though somewhat clumsy and abortive — stab at smallness and bathos.
Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts. And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories.
The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades). These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery. And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote.
Michaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions: love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death. Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content — “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.” Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack. They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor.
I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story. In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street. One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories. The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers — a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment.
Michaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence: “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.” This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual. The story proceeds as you might imagine: sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex.
In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.” In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police. Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics. Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.” Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates:
I’m not married. I have no secrets. I don’t gossip. I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures. It’s arguable that I’m a freak. You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious.
The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women. He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.”
Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character — happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica — is arresting. It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire. To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime.
What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts? In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it — Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life. The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down.
“Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard. This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil — should he tell Norbert and how? And why does it bother him so? The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity. He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences. It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her.
The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical. It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into — if not the spiritual — the mystical. Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world. In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem. Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist? He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat. Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end.
The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference. While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay. “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories:
His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific. He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness. He didn’t yearn for its embrace.
It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose. Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul. The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere — background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In 19th-century France, the flâneur had an undefined route but a fairly specific path: the wandering observers of Baudelaire and Flaubert (the term comes from the verb flâner, French for “to stroll”) assessed society, notably urban life, with detached interest. These days, the term gets an extraordinary amount of play in the essays of James Wood, who goes into paroxysms of joy every time an eagle-eyed idler walks around and describes the scene in an illuminating way. In How Fiction Works, he writes: “This figure is essentially a stand-in for the author, is the author’s porous scout, helplessly inundated with impressions. He goes out into the world like Noah’s dove, to bring a report back.”
One of the keys to the flâneur and his porous qualities, in my mind, is his idleness: a character engaged in strenuous work has no time to hang out and observe; his insights will have to come from elsewhere. In the 19th century, it wasn’t all that strange to designate your protagonist a “loafer.” But today, this kind of aimlessness strikes an odd chord: it is in and of itself a plot point, a defining characteristic. Flaubert’s Parisian rambler who hangs around cafes, people watching, would today most likely be called a slacker.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, writers began to refashion the aimless observer. Dissatisfaction crept in, from Holden Caufield’s angst-ridden wanderings to Ignatius J. Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces. Some say the term “slacker” was coined as early as 1898 — during the World Wars, it referred to draft dodgers — but it didn’t gain pop-culture appeal in America for nearly a century. Born in the ’80s and raised in the shadow of Generation X, I always saw the previous generation — Marty (and George) McFly, Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, Jay and Silent Bob, every classroom scene in Clueless, people who used the word “whatever” on a regular basis — as the epitome of slackerdom.
But it’s my generation that seems perpetually relegated to their parents’ basements. Recently, Emily St. John Mandel reviewed Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan, about a young woman who graduates from college and summarily retreats to her parents’ house instead of looking for work. Stein’s protagonist has been called a slacker, but something about her doesn’t quite fit the mold: Stein herself wrote in to add, “This is just a temporary blip in her life as an otherwise successful young woman, and I hope my novel resonates with those in a similar boat: not just the perennial ‘slackers’ out there, but the temporarily lost as well. Esther’s fantasies are just that: fantasies…for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal.”
I’m interested in characters that are living out that fantasy: what makes for a successful slacker novel? What propels a book when nothing seems to be propelling the protagonist? And how will the tradition of the flâneur be repurposed in the modern era — because isn’t the slacker ideally positioned for the role? I looked at two novels, published a quarter of a century and 8,000 miles apart. The first is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, out last month, and the second is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, published in 1988. They’re wildly different stylistically: where Wilson’s prose is choppy and erratic, like the cocktail of uppers one of his characters has probably just downed, Chatterjee’s sentences wind on languidly through sweltering afternoons, reminding us that despite holding a job in the Indian civil service, his protagonist is usually getting stoned. But the similarities between the books are numerous, beyond the rampant drug use. If a novel garners momentum from its characters’ desires, these two work because they are narrated by young, confused men who both want nothing more than to finally, actually want something.
When I was ten, my parents took me to a specialist to get my hearing tested. Worried that I was going deaf because I never paid attention to anything anyone said. Doctor took me into a dark room, gave me headphones. I listened to a series of beeps, raised one finger each time I heard one. Other tests too. Results were suspiciously conclusive. Nothing wrong with my hearing whatsoever.
Eli is in his early 20s, and he’s not doing much of anything with his life: “Instead of college, sank deep into my basement abyss.” He later describes himself as a “glorified townie without the glory. No rugged good looks or blue-collar gas-station-employee pride.” Class is one of Eli’s major hang-ups: though his parents’ divorce bumped his mother and, by proxy, him, down an income bracket or two, he is still comparatively wealthy, and thus doesn’t have to get a job, something he barely wants to consider. In a chapter titled “Money:” Eli sums it all up in two sentences and a bullet point: “Safe to say I wasn’t instilled with respect for the dollar. Let’s not play the blame game.”
If it’s possible to redefine the idea of the flâneur in the 21st century, Eli is probably the place to start. He wanders, sure, but he’s largely stationary. The world comes to him, through the eponymous flatscreens — computers, phones, televisions, etc. Much of the book, in bulleted list form, mimics the pace and the language of the Internet. In fact, Eli is a trustworthy observer and a good porous scout: he’s blank, ready to be inundated with modern life, and abstractly searching for something to stir up some kind of desire and kick-start his inertia. “I wanted everything to mean something. Or at least for something to mean something.”
The book is littered with pop-culture references, particularly to the movies: titles of films, in parentheses, that resemble a situation at hand, and in the final section, there’s a surprisingly affecting twist on movie tropes, in which Eli’s fantasies for getting his life together, or merely getting a life, spiral off in every direction. “Possible Ending #4 (Dark but Ultimately Life-Affirming Screwball Dramedy):…It’s possible I end up a schoolteacher for the mentally unhinged. When Kahn dies I cry fountains, realize how much I’ve learned, how much I still have to learn.”
The unemployed aren’t inherently slackers, as Leigh Stein (and I, in years past) well know. But employment doesn’t always turn a slacker into a productive member of society. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is a reluctant trainee with the IAS, the Indian Administrative Service, and he’s been stationed in backwater Madna, far from the megalopolises in which he’s been raised. In a way, his own disinterest and laziness offer up good metaphors for the byzantine bureaucracy of the IAS, but Agastya’s disinterest is willful, at times petulant. “He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge.”
Agastya, who is alternately known as Ogu, August, and English, a reference to the Anglo-Indians that is delicately explored, leaves his post after lunch and rarely returns, smoking a lot of weed (“Agastya, for the nth time in his life, was glad that he was stoned.”) and spending the intervening hours in the waffling of post-adolescent confusion:
He wondered at the immensity of the Indian Railways, millions of people travelling thousands of kilometres every day — why they did so baffled him. On less calm mornings, he would think about his situation and his job, why he wasn’t settling down, whether his sense of dislocation was only temporary, or whether it was a warning signal. But there was nothing specific that he wanted to do, no other job, and then with a smile he would retort, Yes, there was, design colour schemes for trains, be a domesticated male stray dog, or like Madan, even half-wish to be murdered.
Late in the book, even after he’s matured a little and begun to accept his responsibilities, Agastya still waffles. Visiting a leper colony, he thinks that he envies its founder, now renamed Baba Ramanna, “most of all for knowing, when he had been merely Shankaran Karanth, how to master his future.” Like Eli Schwartz, Agastya makes for a sympathetic protagonist because he’s so quietly apathetic, and also like Eli, his lack of convictions and essential blankness make him an ideal observer. Everyone else has chest-thumping opinions about India: his direct superior; the chief of police; his father, uncle, and friends from home; his new friends in Madna, including an outspoken cartoonist; and a couple — an Indian woman and an English man — who pass through town on a sort of pilgrimage. If the flâneur’s observations are meant for the urban street scene, I think the same principle can be applied in English, August, despite its rural setting: Agastya paints a rich portrait of the IAS, and of a country that only he seems to realize is impossible to describe, or pin down.
Both of these novels have been called “darkly comic.” The king of blurbs, Gary Shteyngart (who blurbed himself recently, saying, “Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny, and true. This is a blurber to watch.”), wrote of English, August that, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” Of Flatscreen, he said, “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter. This is the novel that every Young Turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.” They are both very funny books: Eli’s got a lot of great one-liners, and Agastya seems tuned into some perpetual joke, which he supplements with compulsive lying. In a way, the comedy is essential: an unfailingly serious book about a man who wants nothing and does very little would be pretty grim. And the humor helps Wilson and Chatterjee tackle generational concerns, because both Eli and Agastya seem convinced that their generations are the ones that will put an end to everything. “Was it true I’d missed the party?” Eli wonders. “This was it for us: reality TV, virtual reality, planes into buildings.” In the final pages of English, August, the cartoonist, Sathe, tells Agastya, “You see, no one, but no one, is remotely interested in your generation, August.”
What makes these boys, and these books, so likeable? They’re gentle, harmless, and fairly charming. They’re smart and funny and wasting their talents. They’re more than a little lost and fully aware of the fact. And in that way, they’re most of us, stripped of our responsibilities and wayward ambitions, if we even have any. They offer perfect reflecting surfaces for their respective times and places. In their lack of desires they show us what we want, as societies, and perhaps even as individuals. The reader might say, “This might be bad, but at least I want to leave my mother’s basement.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
I was born at home in Santa Monica, California. The night before, when my mother entered the early stages of labor–light contractions at irregular intervals–she ate at least two cannolis: for energy, and because she feared she wouldn’t get any otherwise. The next day, as her labor increased in intensity, she did laundry, occasionally leaning against the washing machine to ride out a contraction. Eventually, she moved to the bedroom, where my father lay. He had the flu. My mother’s water broke in his face.
My head was born a good while before the rest of my body; the midwives couldn’t get my wide shoulders out of the birth canal, and they feared my bones would have to be broken. I’m thankful my mother was eventually able to push out the rest of my body without intervention. I was born in the caul, meaning the amniotic sac remained intact over my body, something rarely seen. Some might say this means I possess intuitive powers, or that I’m very lucky, or that I will never drown. I’ll take all three. My placenta was also rare: the veins didn’t follow the normal pattern…or something…this part of the story has always been cloudy. I do know that the midwives stored my magical placenta in a glass punch bowl on the dining room table (I’ve got pictures to prove it), and they took it with them when they left. To show it off to their colleagues, I’d like to think.
Ten years after I was born, I watched my mother give birth to my sister at Cedars-Sinai hospital. Less than two years later I was there when she gave birth to my brother. These two events are fused in my mind. I remember how quiet and focused my mother was as she labored. I remember how petite the doctor was, and how loud she yelled to the nurses to help her hold up my mother’s legs during the pushing stage (broad-shouldered babies are my mother’s specialty, apparently). I remember the smell in the room–not like vagina, not exactly, but something just as private and potentially shameful. I remember being embarrassed, months later, when my mother announced to a dinner party that all I’d had to say about the birth was that it smelled of vagina. I remember a male guest asked, “How does she know what a vagina smells like?” and that my mother replied, “Well, she has one, doesn’t she?” I remember the table erupted in laughter, and that I was mortified.
My favorite part of my nephew’s birth story is when the nurses at my sister Heidi’s Orange County hospital marveled at her dedication to a natural birth. They said, “We don’t see this here in Newport very often.” To that, my sister grunted and replied, “Well, I’m from L.A.”
I think, the most important thing I’ve taken away from Heidi’s story, and from the memories of my siblings’ births, and from the story of my own, is that childbirth isn’t scary, but amazing. It’s totally bonkers and totally normal. “I’m my most powerful when I’m giving birth,” my mother has told me. I remember that.
Now that I’m pregnant myself (26 weeks along at the time of this writing), it’s becoming increasingly clear that the stories women hear about childbirth affect their attitudes about it. I’m not freaked out about giving birth, whereas other women I know are terrified. I’m certainly not some hippie bad-ass–seriously: I’m a wimp and I get my hair colored regularly–I was just raised in a particular way. My mother passed onto me not only a confidence in my laboring capabilities, but also a desire to be educated about what lies ahead. The birth of my child might turn out differently than the ones I’ve described, but at least I’m going into the experience with a positive, informed attitude.
Ina May Gaskin, the rock star of all rock star midwives, devotes much of her Guide to Childbirth to first-person accounts of giving birth. She explains in the introduction:
“There is extraordinary psychological benefit in belonging to a group of women who have positive stories to tell about their birth experiences…So many horror stories circulate about birth–especially in the United States–that it can be difficult for women to believe that labor and birth can be a beneficial experience.”
Gaskin’s book provides what should, ideally, be passed down orally from woman to woman, family to family. Such stories can give a pregnant woman that same confidence and curiosity that I was raised to have. Other books, like The Birth Book by William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N., use a similar technique; between passages of information, the Sears couple includes italicized, first-person accounts from mothers, and fathers, who have been there, and can speak personally about their experiences.
Though oral storytelling has been valuable to me as a pregnant woman, so have these books. Since I love to read, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Except it has been. You see, my usual preference as a reader is to buy new; I don’t even much care for used bookstores so obsessed am I with owning literature unsullied by previous readers. But with my pregnancy, something changed. Midway through my first trimester, my aforementioned sister Heidi (whose son is now 18 months old), gave me a teetering stack of books, many of them passed down to her from our mother. The most meaningful, Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg, is the same spine-cracked copy my mother read twenty years ago, when she was pregnant with my sister Sarah. This book didn’t come out until 1984, three years after I was born, but my mother studied Dr. Bradley’s techniques when she was pregnant with me. Sometimes, as I’m reading about relaxation techniques or the effacement of the cervix, I imagine my older sister reading these same chapters, and before her, our mother, who remembers all this information from the last time around, when I was inside of her, floating in the womb. My other siblings might read them someday, too.
Early on in my pregnancy, my friend Laura, who started a blog when she got knocked up, lent me the one book she read and cherished when she was preparing for birth: The Pregnancy Book, also by the dynamic Sears duo. This book’s cover is creased, and a few pages are dog-eared, but I don’t mind. Part of my enjoyment in reading it is seeing which pages Laura marked: what questions to ask your doctor; an explanation of Kegel exercises; how to negotiate maternity leave; and the section on birth defect tests. During her pregnancy, Laura received an inconclusive prenatal test, as well as confusing information from the medical staff, which caused her a lot of anxiety. To see certain lines about these tests underlined in The Pregnancy Book is proof that she and her husband Ben read and re-read this section multiple times: for information, for answers, for solace. By reading these same sections, I participate in that experience with her, a year later. It’s friendship as echo.
No two labors are exactly the same, and the human body is a capricious, unpredictable machine. As I hear more and more birthing stories–there’s an incredible wide range of them–and read these borrowed books, I wonder what my own labor will be like. I’m curious about the narrative of my labor: where it will be textbook and where it won’t be, where the surprises and frustrations and beauty will lie. I wonder about that final moment, when my baby is brought to my chest. In one video I’ve watched, the woman says, “My baby, my baby, my baby.” In another, the woman says, “Thank God it’s over.” My friend Laura reportedly said, “I don’t know what to do” when the nurse gave her her daughter. It must be the fiction writer in me that loves to consider this moment ahead of time, even as I know I can’t, that it’s impossible.
So, in the meantime, I read and ask for these stories from others, and I look forward to the day when I can tell my own child his birth story. I’ll tell him it every year. On his birthday, of course.
(Image: tiny foot from limaoscarjuliet’s photostream)
1. A Breadcrumb Trail of Recent US Writing and Publishing Stats
2012 fiction books published with an ISBN: adult fiction 67,254; YA and juvenile fiction 20,339
2012 Net book sales: $27.1 billion
2011 books published: traditionally published 347,178; self-published 235,000
76 percent of all books released in 2008 were self-published
Roughly 50 percent of all fiction published (traditional or self-published) is a romance, mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy story
1900 independent bookstore locations in 2012
1 percent chance across all genres of a published book being stocked in a brick-and-mortar store
20 percent of all books sold in 2012 were e-books
Approximately 185 U.S. institutions granting MFAs in fiction
Best markets for fiction sales: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C.
600-700 books received weekly by LA Times for review consideration
197,768 self-reporting writers in 2009
39 percent increase between 1990 and 2005 in the number of writers and authors
Sources: Publishers Weekly, “Artists and Arts Workers in the United States Findings from the American Community Survey” (2005-2009) and the “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages” (2010), American Booksellers Association, Bowker Books in Print, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Huffington Post, LA Times, The New York Times.
2. How Many Novelists are at Work in America?
Recently, the BBC reported that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lives. Per capita, the island nation has more readers, writers, and books published than anywhere else on the planet. Since there are a little over 300,000 Icelanders, we can estimate that more than 30,000 writers are in various stages of germination, many of them novelists.
There are times when I feel like Austin, Texas, where I live, is a little like Reykjavik. Aspiring, failed, midlist, and commercially successful novelists abound and they all seem to frequent the same coffee shops, attend the same readings, and know the same people. A large Icelandic family might have to endure two or three writers at the same dinner table, but in Austin I can’t get my haircut or order a cortado without overhearing a plot summary. I’m exaggerating a little, but not by much. By all accounts, Brooklyn and Portland have it worse. But half of the Austinites I know are writing a book, most of them novels. (That I need to broaden my social circle goes without saying.) Recently, a friend — a blessed non-writer — asked me what he thought was a fairly straightforward question: How many novelists do you think are at work in America? He tossed it off casually, like he was asking about average rainfall or median house prices. He wanted a reasonable answer and I said I would have to get back to him. I carried the question around for weeks, rolling it over in my mind, afraid to look at it in broad daylight. The stats above reveal some of the breadcrumb trail as I tried to find an answer.
Before sifting through the numbers, I want to point out that there’s an inverse relationship between small business entrepreneurship and the number of people writing novels in America. While the number of self-employed Americans has been dropping for years and is considered by most economists to be in steady decline, the number of novelists continues to grow. There are more novels being written and published (traditionally and through self-publishing) than at any other time in U.S. history. A handful of novels were published during the writing of this paragraph.
That a novelist is nothing like a small business entrepreneur is rather obvious. For one thing, novelists typically don’t assess the market to see if there’s a demand for their labor of love before they begin production. If anything, the decision to write a novel is driven by a kind of secular faith. The process requires enormous amounts of time, energy, and heartache, with no guaranteed return on investment. Like belief in a higher power, the will to publish a novel ignores all the atheistic arguments and the cold hard numbers. Sure, there are some outliers and windfalls. But would anyone start the small business Novel-in-Progress if they knew that the average book in the U.S. sells less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime? Actually, yes, many of them would.
That every novelist occupies a magical realist mindset is worth considering. Annually, there are laments about the death of the novel or at least the death of the good and interesting and innovative novel. From what I can tell, though, there are a few hundred thousand American novelists who pay no attention to this cultural distress call. How many exactly?
Since self-publishing accounted for about 76 percent of all titles in 2008, and amounted to 291,000 titles across all genres in 2012, we should take the term novelist in the broadest possible sense. I’m referring to people who are actively writing novels with the intention of publication — either through self-publishing channels or through traditional publishing houses. (I realize this is a broad definition; one might argue a novelist has to have published a novel to be called that. But most dictionary definitions simply state that a novelist is “a person who writes novels.”)
My numbers include reported statistics, educated estimates provided by reliable sources, and personal extrapolations. One limitation is that Bowker Books in Print tracks titles by ISBN number, so we don’t always know exactly which reported titles are self-published or traditionally published. Of course, many self-published books never bother with obtaining an ISBN for a print or e-book. Also, there isn’t a separate category just for adult novels. “Adult fiction,” as reported by Bowker, includes novels, short story collections, and graphic novels written specifically for the adult market.
Now, let’s grapple for The Number…
Let’s start with how many people report being a writer or an author. For NEA statistics, survey respondents identified writing as their “primary” job. Their estimate for 2009 was 197,768 self-reporting writers and authors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses a similar category and pegs the number for 2010 at 145,900, with 68 percent being self-employed. For both agencies, “writing” includes advertising writers, authors, biographers, copywriters, crossword-puzzle creators, film writers, magazine writers, novelists, playwrights, sports writers, and lyricists. (By the way, according to the NEA stats, there are about 9,000 self-reporting writers living in Texas and I’m pretty sure 8,500 of them live in my Austin neighborhood.) Now, not every self-reporting writer is a novelist or earning any living from fiction. What about the engineers and dentists writing a bildungsroman on the weekends? There’s no way to accurately account for them. (They might be partially captured in readership numbers for periodicals like Poets & Writers, which has a readership of 100,000, with 63 percent of readers reporting that they write fiction.)
So let’s turn to the number of self-published and traditionally published works of fiction in 2012: 67,254 for adult fiction, 2,200 for young adult, and 13,297 for juvenile fiction. These include anything published with an ISBN number, either self-published or from a traditional publisher. Since the juvenile market isn’t known for its novels, we can assume that the adult fiction and young adult novels account for no more than 70,000 titles. Assuming most writers can’t turn out a book every year, an average of a book every 3 years would be the high end (James Salter’s most recent book ended a 30-year stretch without a novel). So let’s say or imagine there’s a pool of 210,000 writers producing fiction with an ISBN number. There are obvious problems with this number. For one thing, it doesn’t properly account for new entrants into the market. What about the couple thousand fiction MFA graduates each year who are getting up early to write their novels before a non-literary day job? Also, we need to take out short stories and graphic novels from the 70,000 yearly titles. And we need to add in self-publishers without an ISBN.
Can we agree on a low-end pool of 250,000 active novelists? If I had to account for all the people writing novels that will never see the light of day, in either self-published or published form, I’d put that number at one million. That’s less than a third of one percent of the population. Established novelists and jaded critics, take heart.
What if we want to know about novelists publishing only in mainstream presses? If we go back to 2002, before the dramatic rise of self-publishing, we might get some insight. In 2002, 25,000 fiction titles were published. We can assume the vast majority of these were from mainstream and small presses, not through self-publishing channels. If the same ratios hold for today as compared to 2002, then adult fiction from mainstream publishing would account for 18,700 titles. Half of that is so-called “genre” fiction. So let’s call “literary novels” a little under 10,000.
Getting back to my inquisitive non-writer friend, the real answer is that no one knows exactly how many novelists are at work in America. We can guess and infer and extrapolate. The truth is that no one’s ever asked the question of the U.S. population in any organized way. There’s never been a “novelist” box to check on a tax form or on a state agency survey. After studying the data, I’m inclined to think there’s a million people writing novels, a quarter of a million actively publishing them in some form, and about 50,000 publishing them with mainstream and small, traditional presses. Then again, I have a novelist’s penchant for rounding numbers for the sake of narrative convenience. Putting the numbers aside, what we do know is that there’s an army of folks writing novels — some bad, some glorious — against staggering odds. Writing a novel is like starting a small business and investing thousands of hours without knowing exactly what it is you’re going to end up selling. It’s a leap of faith every time, even for someone who is five novels into a career.
Perhaps the most revealing statistic of all is one that’s buried in the sea of data. The NEA reports that of all the self-identifying authors and writers, 46.8 percent report arriving at or starting work at noon or later. There are two ways to interpret that number. The first way is to say it includes all the fulltime novelists who are just getting their workdays started. That sounds like a pretty nice life to me. But the other way it to say it includes the legion of unknown novelists who get up early to work on books before they start an unrelated day job. They spend their mornings writing novels that the world hasn’t asked them for and that the world — statistically — will largely ignore. Call it a kind of mad devotion.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I’ve been feeling isolated lately. In the mornings (if I’m being good), I work on my new book, and, once I’ve been sufficiently humbled by the limits of my own skill and talent, I take my dog for a walk. On these jaunts, I wave hello to the neighbors and the gardeners, the local barbers and the auto mechanics. Maybe I’ll stop by the nearby coffee shop, and get something to go. On every walk, I’m likely to see a raised sprinkler–that little metal head–protruding from the edge of a lawn. When I see one of these heads, I do like I’ve always done: I tap it down with my foot and I make a wish.
It feels pathetic to admit this, but, lately, most of my wishes are about my writing, and my career. Lately, to make sure the Gods are listening, I’m as specific as possible with my wishes; I don’t want a higher power ignoring me because of an ambiguity issue. The other day, I caught myself wishing on a sprinkler head with a renewed fervency, my whispered prayer very long, and very specific. I thought: Edan Lepucki, you need to get a grip.
And then I thought: Does anyone outside of Los Angeles wish on sprinkler heads?
It’s like this: My sister Lauren and I grew up thinking that a snowflake was the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. I mean–that’s how you make a snowflake in school, right?
It’s also like this: After 3 pm on a weekday, I don’t expect to hear from anyone in New York. It’s dinner time there.
When I go to my aforementioned local coffee shop, I often see other writers working diligently. But then I see that they’re writing screenplays, not prose. Most of these writers are men, most of them beleaguered (unless they look like Grade-A assholes), and I often feel sorry for them. Why? Because Hollywood is such a difficult industry to break into, where talent rarely has any bearing on success (or so it seems to me). I actually find myself feeling superior for writing fiction, which is probably a Grade-A asshole thing to feel.
But also: I feel lonely. It’s true, I do.
In January I went to New York, where I ventured into a few different coffee shops. In these fine establishments, I saw people writing not screenplays, but prose. Maybe some of them were working on philosophical dissertations or letters to their senators–but, in my mind, I imagined they were all writing novel manuscripts. It was exciting to witness this kind of widespread devotion to prose! It was also a little scary. In L.A., I feel a little lonely, but kind of special. In New York, I’d probably never write in public, for fear of turning into a cliche. It’s a trade-off, I guess: you get a robust community in exchange for being a dime-a-dozen.
It’s like this: In graduate school, I loved being around writers–it was one of the most valuable aspects of my time there. I also found it exhausting, and I’m sure my peers did too. At a Workshop party, if a non-writer showed up–oh man. A geologist could get laid every night of the week by a different poet.
It’s also like this: When I was a teenager, whenever my dad and I saw a group of people my age, he’d point to them and say, “Your people.” It was an observation, a joke, an insult.
Not that Los Angeles doesn’t have a lovely community of writers. It does, it’s just smaller and more spread-out. We meet a few times a year at a random bar to trade war stories and talk about books. Maybe we make fun of the east coast, or trade impressions of Michael Silverblatt. Sometimes Janet Fitch stops by. Last time, Meghan Daum was there, and I had to pretend not to be starstruck. We’ve got the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which basically kicks ass, as do our local independent bookstores. The ALOUD series at the downtown public library showcases Steve Martin, Rebecca Skloot, and Colson Whitehead, among other luminaries. And this week, The Los Angeles Review of Books launches with an impressive array of essays and reviews. Its mission statement alone has me all hot and bothered:
Since the 19th century writers have bridled at New York’s seeming monopoly over publication. Bret Harte in The Overland Monthly, Hamlin Garland in Crumbing Idols, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren in I’ll Take My Stand, and writers and readers in a thousand other places—including even New York—have called for a more representative literary world. The internet has started to bring this to fruition, and Los Angeles, the largest book market in the country, is taking its rightful place as the new center.
Hurray, I say! But is this claim really true? I’m not sure I want Los Angeles to be the new center of literary activity. Do writers in Omaha want that moniker? How about in Amherst? I doubt it. After all, the distance any of us non-New York writers have from New York is frustrating, but also valuable. There’s an option to retreat from the noise–or, okay, the music–that I don’t think a writer in, say, Brooklyn has. This distance has benefited me for the last four years, as I write and write, without looking up, or around, me.
But it’s also this distance, this sense of being an outsider, an underdog, that makes me territorial about where I live and write. I am barely tolerant of non-L.A. writers poaching Los Angeles for fictional fodder. For instance, Charles Baxter’s unoriginal take on L.A.’s billboard-celebrity Angelyne in his novel The Soul Thief had me rolling my eyes. And don’t get me started on Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet! I refuse to read the damn thing, which supposedly depicts the lives of hipsters in Silver Lake. A friend on goodreads said the book gave her an “overall feeling that the author had spent a grand total of a weekend in Los Angeles before writing this book, and threw in random details from looking at a GoogleMap.” For me, it’s not so much the name-dropping of locations that would bother me, but that they’d come from the same writer who penned The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that’s so sensitive to the issues and complications of gentrification. Maybe now that Lethem’s moved to the Southland, he will render my homeland with more depth.
Why limit my rage to books? In recent years, Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg ruffled my feathers, too. Anyone who knows Los Angeles geography was up in arms about how place worked–or didn’t work–in the film. Take one example: Ben Stiller’s character is staying in an Orthodox Jewish community, but then walks to the nearby hills to hike? Uh, no. Go back to tennis playing in Brooklyn, Baumbach!
My other problem with his film Greenberg, and with Baxter’s Soul Thief, is the sense that these artists are coming to my city to wrest profundity from it. There’s an implicit suggestion that we need an outsider to find the profound for us, to make order out of chaos. It makes me feel like I’m part of a rain forest tribe, being observed by pasty white men in wool suits. The problem is, these artists’ observations feel like 4AM stoner revelations. At the end of Greenberg, for instance, the camera pauses on one of those wind sock men often seen at auto body shops. It’s supposed to feel meaningful, but it just made me laugh. Pass the doobie, bro.
I don’t want to suggest that an artist should never venture into the unknown. My motto isn’t “Write what you know,” but, rather, “Write what you want to know.” I fear my territorial attitude has not only made me a harsh reader, but that it’s also placed a too-tight harness around me as writer. My imagination should feel free to venture to foreign lands, shouldn’t it?
I asked my friend Emma Straub, a native New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, about this very issue, since she has written a novel called Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Her book is a historical novel about an actress in Los Angeles. I’m so excited to read it, and also a bit nervous. What if the geography’s wrong? Will it feel like Los Angeles? But Emma’s response put me right back into giddy-mode:
As a native New Yorker, I find it hard to write about my own city. The streets are crowded with novelists, and it seems nearly impossible to stake out a piece of sidewalk for myself. The novel I’m writing takes place in Los Angeles, and whenever anyone mentions “Hollywood,” the main character can’t figure out whether they’re talking about the neighborhood or the place as an idea, like heaven. That’s how I think of Los Angeles: as existing on two planes at all times, the real and the fantastic. Would I feel differently if I lived there? I don’t know. I’m sure some people write about New York as a way to sort it out in their heads. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, too.
This is wise. We write to sort things out in our heads, and to escape from the world right in front of us. We write because we want to discover. That’s why we read, too, isn’t it? If an artist can help me discover something new about my hometown, that’s wonderful. I’d welcome it. Emma, I cannot wait to read your novel.
There’s also this: Before I began writing this essay, I asked poet and prose writer Sarah Manguso, a recent New York transplant, how it feels to be a writer in L.A., far from the center of the publishing world. She wrote back to say, “In New York, writers don’t use the phrase ‘the center of the publishing world’ and they don’t visit the Statue of Liberty.”
She also said, “In Los Angeles a writer is expected to learn to drive. Believe me, that’s a big difference.”
Now that is profound.
(Image: Los Angeles Palm Trees from tiarescott’s photostream)