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.
Stephen King, once a favorite target of critics, has been embraced by at least some in the literary elite in recent years. He was awarded the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, and now he is the subject of an "Art of Fiction" interview in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, a distinction that might as well elevate him to canonical status.I'm a big fan of Stephen King's books because they're unflaggingly entertaining, but I also enjoy King's work because of his close connection with his readers and his unwillingness to put himself on a pedestal. King's exuberance can be found in his book On Writing. Part of the book is a common sense writing guide, but On Writing is worth a read for the funny little autobiography that the guide is paired with. He casts aside the notion of the writer as tortured soul and replaces it with the idea of the writer as a showman, serving his audience.What interests me, though, is how King has graduated from the bestseller list and moved into literary limbo. In the Paris Review interview, King talks about writers like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. While King has some kind words for Grisham, he recognizes that he's not really in competition with these perennial bestselling scribes any more, nor does his ego need the lavish advances that they receive. At the same time, he is reluctant to embrace the literary elite, because, I think, he believes that doing so would break his contract with his readers. Now, though, he seems less orthodox on this point. It's not that he is embracing the literary world, far from it. It's more like, coming back from an accident that nearly killed him - he was struck by a van near his home in 1999 - he has turned inward, and is writing mostly for himself, having previously done it for fame, money, and his love of entertaining. Of his forthcoming book, Lisey's Story, which PW calls "a disturbing and sorrowful love story," King tells the Paris Review:To me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don't want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I've ever written where I don't want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn't stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.The interview ends with King wondering aloud if he can "do something that's even better."Links on King: Only a small snippet of the King interview is available online, but, if you're interested in King, it's worth picking up this issue of the Paris Review to read the whole thing; King's National Book Award speech; King's account of his accident from the New Yorker.
No the Times isn't getting comics, but they are taking a cue from the New Yorker by adding a graphic novel-type comics section to the Sunday magazine. Everybody's been saying for years that "graphic novels" are on the cusp of taking the book world by storm. Is this a step in that direction? The first artist to appear will be, you guessed it, Chris Ware. Get the gory details here.
In the current New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith dives deep into the philosophical frame of avant-garde novels in a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The article is, generally speaking, written more for an academic audience than a casual reader (if you don't have a precise working definition of "lyrical realism" it can be hard to gain traction in places), but overall it provides a provocative framework for thinking about the ways that postmodern thought has influenced the form of the novel.McCarthy is the General Secretary for the International Necronautical Society, a group founded around a mash-up of postmodern thinkers and writers - Derrida, Heidegger, Dostoevsky - and fond of manifesto-esque statements about the "brute materiality of the external world."As an intellectual perspective, postmodernism is concerned with the untruth of systems, be they moral, metaphysical, or hermeneutic and in the realm of art it takes aim at the question of narrative authenticity - who exactly is the "I" telling the story. The result is the destruction of traditional form and the rise of the avant-garde. When false systems are stripped away - including the form of a story and the social constructions which gird a narrator's identity - what remains is the "brute materiality" of the world. For this reason, Smith writes, "it's not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry."But poetry, as Auden famously put it, "makes nothing happen," and something has to happen in a novel. Remainder is a search for authenticity, for the Real McCoy, and as Smith describes it, the novel finds it in the game of cricket (her review of Remainder appears alongside an equally rigorous review of Netherland) which is elevated, Smith writes, for its "pure facticity." The game is an array of objects ordered in space: a ball, a batsmen, crisp white lines, and proceeds by a series of events that can be definitively known.What has always perplexed me about avant-garde literature is why the writer conceiving a story does not receive the same high status as a wad of gum on the sidewalk or a cricket ball flying through space. For all the worry of avant-garde literature, I am convinced that a human being telling a story is every bit as real as a rock.
This week's New Yorker is already on newsstands, but before last week's issue is a distant memory, I wanted to praise it for being one of the best issues I've read in a while. Calvin Trillin's piece on an episode of vigilante justice in Canada was engaging and well reported and David Owen's profile of the Arup structural engineering firm was an interesting departure from the magazine's usual coverage of cultural luminaries in the architecture field (neither article is available online.)The issue was anchored by Seymour Hersh's most important article since he helped break the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. In this follow up, Hersh delivers compelling evidence that responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the handful of soldiers who were said to have acted on their own.But what really capped off the issue for me was Helen Simpson's refreshing story "Homework," which had a startlingly different tone from the typical New Yorker short story. Instead of brooding and cereberal, the story is almost joyful from start to finish, augmented by a wry undercurrent of second meaning. Whereas many contemporary stories are played in a minor key, thriving on disfunction, "Homework" is built on a healthy relationship between mother and son as she helps him complete an assignment to describe a "life-changing event." Rolling her eyes at the silly assignment, the first person narrator mother dictates a made up life to her son, one that includes divorced parents and in particular a globe trotting, carefree mother. There are a few subtexts below the surface as she crafts the story for her son: her own difficult childhood, her desire for a more exciting, less domestic life. But the story is also about imagination and being a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.I hadn't read Simpson's work before, but I'll keep an eye out for it now. She's penned several short story collections over the years, including In the Driver's Seat, which came out last month.
A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: "To be honest, there's so much s---. Most of the things we praise aren't very good." This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney's rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a "Snarkwatch" on their website. Yet the "snarkiness" has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer's unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain's favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled "Someone needs to have a word with Amis" and included the line "I won't tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it's terrible." (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, "I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman's new collection of essays." (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don't serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.