Thanks to the shoddy service of my DSL provider, I haven’t been able to post new reports for you. This is sad because I have many great books to tell you all about. But now it is too late since I am off to Europe this afternoon and I have far too much to do before I leave. If the facilities are adequate and I have the time, I will try to update from Europe. If not, please check back in two weeks when I will pick up right where I left off. Bye bye everyone!
My dad’s family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don’t have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like “did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts — East Jersey and West Jersey?” perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
The reviews are beginning to come in for Bill Clinton’s My Life, and Michiko Kakutani, at least, wasn’t very impressed. Read the review here.In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.