My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
With the announcement of a title and street date (July 21st) for the seventh and final Harry Potter book, the final chapter of a publishing industry fairy tale has begun.I witnessed the phenomenon of the boy wizard firsthand when I worked at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Even on the decidedly not family friendly Sunset Strip (we were a few doors down from the Hustler flagship store), we sold more copies of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, than all of our other books combined in the first few days it was out, and our book buyer had to make emergency runs to Costco (where he could get the book wholesale) to keep it in stock. (You can see my thoughts at the time in this post.)Book six, of course, was even bigger, and judging by the numbers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the biggest of all. According to an Amazon press release, in just the first seven hours of availability, the online bookseller sold “over 200% more books than it did the entire first day of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the sixth book in the series. In fact, sales on Amazon.com in the first seven hours today have eclipsed total sales for the entire first two days of the sixth book.” Once all the first-day numbers were tallied, Amazon put out another release saying that orders for Deathly Hallows “were 547% higher than first-day pre-orders for Half-Blood Prince” and that the seventh and final book sold more copies on the first day than in the first two weeks of the pre-order period for book six.Amazon isn’t alone of course, Barnes & Noble reported selling Half-Blood Prince at a rate of 105 copies a second when that book came out, and I’m guessing the numbers will be even more astonishing for book seven. The books are such outliers that overall sales for the chain spike in years when Harry Potter books come out, creating lumpy year over year sales comparisons that the company’s management must explain to Wall Street.Of course, nowhere else is the series a bigger deal than Scholastic, the publisher behind the books, and the company can only hope that dozens of other projects in the pipeline will make up for the revenue lost once Harry Potter is history. At the same time, I’d imagine that the series will be repackaged again and again to entice die-hard fans and newcomers to shell out cash for the books years after book seven comes out. Already there are multiple editions of the Harry Potter books, and the “deluxe” version of book seven – retailing for $65 – is #2 at Amazon right now.While it’s unclear if the book industry will ever experience a phenomenon quite like Harry Potter again – the first six books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 languages, dwarfing even The Da Vinci Code’s 60+ million copies in print – we can be sure that the press will spill many gallons of ink on the end of the series over the next six months or so. And to be honest, it’s probably deserved. There’s never been anything else quite like it.
Did you ever wonder: “What is the longest English word?” “Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?” “Are there any words that rhyme with orange?” “How many words are there in the English language?” “What is the longest one-syllable English word?” The answers to these questions and more can be found at the Oxford Dictionary FAQ.