I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I’ve been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I’m at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, “This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen…” The ugly truth, however, is that I’ve never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness… I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn – a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn – landed a recurring role as Blair’s mother’s boyfriend. “The life of an actor can be very enviable,” Shawn told the New York Times this week. “If the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads… I think that’s fantastic.”That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl’s centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker’s role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW’s role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I’m tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.
How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.
You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.
How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.
Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.
Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.
Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.
The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.
If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”
That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.
Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.
Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.
I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.
In the spring, we reported on an unusual event unfolding in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail. Each week, through 2008, someone – typically a published author or an academic – would write an essay for the Globe championing a book. Fifty books in total. They were not ranked in any order, and in reality they form a jumping-off point into a world of knowledge and literary imagination.About a third of the books championed were novels, from such usual suspects as War and Peace, Don Quixote, and Middlemarch, through Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.More interesting were the non-novels on the list. There were collected shorts from Borges, Kafka and Chekhov, and collected poems from Eliot and Yeats. There was Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Decameron, and The Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old verse from India. Lady Murasaki’s 1000-year-old The Tale of Genji pops up. Plays by Becket and Goethe were also championed.The King James Bible is there; as is the Koran. Books of philosophy by Plato and political economy by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the list.Darwin’s Origin of Species is there; so is Diderot’s Encyclopedia, Herodotus’ Histories, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Rachel Carson’s proto-environmental Silent Spring. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her 300-year-old rebel yell, is there, as are St. Augustine’s Confessions, and de Montaigne’s Essays, his 16th-century invention of a genre.Beside each essay are links to all the essays that came before it. So you should go to the 50th essay, championing Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, to get easy links to the other 49. Thank goodness for that, because there doesn’t seem to be a central web page listing all 50, and I advise against trying to search through the Globe and Mail’s Books section archives unless you want to get a blinding headache.
In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley writes a glowing review of Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children and has high praise for Jones as well:Now there can be no doubt about it: Edward P. Jones belongs in the first rank of American letters. With the publication of All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his third book and second collection of short stories, Jones has established himself as one of the most important writers of his own generation — he is 55 years old — and of the present day. Not merely that, but he is one of the few contemporary American writers of literary fiction who is more interested in the world around him than he is in himself, with the happy result that he has much to tell us about ourselves and how we live now.Perhaps Yardley (and I) are just rooting for a hometown hero. (I grew up in the DC area.) But after reading The Known World and many of Jones’ short stories, it’s hard to deny that he’s one of the best writers working today.In the NY Times, Dave Eggers is similarly admiring of Jones’ work. He writes that The Known World “is considered by many (including this reviewer) to be one of the best American novels of the last 20 years. It’s difficult to think of a contemporary novel that rivals its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and its ultimately crushing power. The book’s narrative force is so steady and unerring that it reads as though it was not so much written as engraved in stone. It became a classic the moment it was finished.””Bad Neighbors” is a story by Jones that recently appeared in the New Yorker.