Lulu, a self-publishing outfit, went back through 50 years of New York Times fiction bestseller lists and determined that the average age of the bestselling author is 50 and a half (via BBC). It makes sense in that the upper reaches of that list are often dominated by franchise-type writers – Stephen King and Danielle Steel are cited – whose careers plateau at a point where every book they write goes to number one, no matter the quality. A younger writer with few books under his or her belt has no reputation to ride on, but the middle-aged writer can ride on reputation to year after year of number ones. But NYT bestsellers are kind of a bore, I’d be more curious about the average ages of the winners of different prizes. Regardless, it almost goes without saying that the most exciting voices in fiction are younger than 50, except for the ones who aren’t.
As a fun little tie in with the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Bill Clinton released a list of his 21 favorite books. First off, I wonder if he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn’t put Hillary’s book on the list. And I suspect he included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because they are friends. Other interesting picks: He includes a presidential biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, perhaps hoping that he, too, will someday be the subject of such a biography. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr seems like a pretty bold choice considering certain of Clinton’s own, shall we say, indiscretions. But, alas, the book is about social justice more than anything else. Right up Clinton’s alley. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty good batch of books, and I must commend him for including one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the full article and list.
The New York Times whipped bloggers and readers into a frenzy with its linkbait list of the best books of the last 25 years along with A.O. Scott’s voluminous essay on the “great American novel.” The reasons why this list is silly and flawed have been discussed on a number of blogs – the panel of judges skewed male and boring, the timeframe and criteria are arbitrary, etc. What amused me about the list was that the Times made such a big production of it – with a panel at BEA, a press release, and, of course, Scott’s giant essay. It’s like the Times didn’t realize that such lists are standard filler at glossy magazines. Was the Times’ best fiction list all that different from People Magazine’s annual “Most Beautiful People” list? No, not really.The Austin American-Statesman was similarly bemused by the Times list and so it put together its own list using the Times list as fodder. It asked academics and critics to name the “most overrated” books on the Times list. The resulting comments from their judges are both thoughtful and funny. And for those of you scoring at home, the most overrated books on the Times list are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard “*” character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like “Jonathan Franzen is * writer” to see what would come up for the “*” and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is… an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is… a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is… a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is… an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is… a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
Are you in the mood to read a page-turner? If you’re not afraid to read something in the mystery section at your local bookstore, try Paranoia by Joseph Finder. I keep hearing people talking about it, and it’s getting good reviews. Check out this one at Slate.com (the reviewer gets to it after he reviews John Le Carre’s latest, Absolute Friends).
Three flights and twenty hours after departing New York, I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, the land of potato pancakes, sour cream, and Baltas beer, where “thank you” is pronounced “achoo,” like a sneeze. Vilnius is the city closest to the geographical center of Europe, and because it’s also at a cultural crossroads, the city has been hit hard by the forces of history. Napoleon’s army liberated Lithuania from the Russians in 1812, and during their later retreat through Vilnius, forty thousand men died. The twentieth century saw both German and Soviet rule and genocides at the hands of the Nazis and the KGB. Independence came less than twenty years ago, when Lithuania was the first of the Baltic States to throw off Soviet rule. Even now, landlocked Vilnius is the hardest of the Baltic capital cities to travel to.I came to Vilnius by way of the Summer Literary Seminars, which is currently holding its first ever Lithuanian conference. Poets and writers have traveled from as far as Australia and South Africa to take classes with writers like Lynne Tillman, Phillip Lopate, Mac Wellman, and Peter Cole. Class days are interspersed with lecture days, and all days usually end with readings. The Lithuanian stage director Gytis Padegimas spoke about the state of contemporary Lithuanian drama and how critical resistance to new playwrights keep many of them from writing. Almantas Samalaviciu, the editor of Lithunia’s largest cultural journal, traced the developments in twentieth century Lithuanian literature, from Soviet rule through the liberation. But not all of the focus is on Lithuanian literature. Catherine Tice of the New York Review of Books gave a lecture on the contemporary essay and its provinces. Max Winter of Fence and Mike Spry of Montreal’s Matrix offered guidance on publishing with North American literary magazines.With Vilnius as our campus, the history of place, as well the new sights and sounds play a large role in the conference, too. Over a handful of entries, I plan to guide you through some of the more interesting discussions and events of the conference, and intersperse some Vilnius culture as well. If you want a head start, Open Letter recently published a translation of Ričardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, the preeminent postmodern Lithuanian novel. Or for more of a historical background, turn to Laimonas Briedis’s City of Strangers. I’m on Lithuanian time, which is notorious for lagging behind, but more dispatches will be coming soon.