Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
I’ve acquired some books over the last month in various ways, and now I have added them to the reading queue, which at its current swollen proportions will take me over a year to get through. Here’s what I’ve added. As mentioned in this post, I snagged a copy of The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early years of baseball by Lawrence Ritter. I can’t believe that spring training is only a couple of weeks away. I also got some books from my mom, who is great about sending books my way. She passed along two books by Virginia Woolf (whose work I have never read), To the Lighthouse as well as a collection of her shorter fiction. She also got me the first play to be added to my young reading queue, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard. I rarely read any drama though I should probably read more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a play since college… another Stoppard play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Going in a completely different direction, I’ve added a graphic novel that my friend Chris, insisting that I would enjoy it, kindly lent to me: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. I also secured a copy of Absolutely American, a book that David Lipsky wrote after spending four years following one cadet class through West Point. And finally I acquired a couple of advance copies of some books that’ll be out this spring. The first is You Remind Me of Me, a new novel by up and comer Dan Chaon. The other is Rick Atkinson’s book about being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. Check out the post where I broke the news on this book back in October. Atkinson won the Pulitzer last year for the first book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn (also on the reading queue!)Insider ReviewsEver since Amazon instituted the customer review feature there have been a fair amount of complaints from authors and publishers that one vengeful reader’s review can kill their sales. Other improprieties have also been alleged, like authors anonymously reviewing their own books glowingly while disparaging the books of rivals and enemies. A recent glitch at Amazon’s Canadian site lifted the veil of anonymity from the process. This New York Times article describes the fallout. The highlights: John Rechy giving glowing reviews to his own novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens and Dave Eggers writing a positive review of his friend Heidi Julavits’ novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.
On January 19th, while many of us held our collective breath over the results of one national contest, the American Society of Magazine Editors released their list of finalists for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Print and Digital Media. Curiously absent from the announcement were nominees in fiction, which ASME chose not to promote for the first time in nearly 50 years. The announcement made no mention of the category’s sudden disappearance.
For Michael Ray, editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, the distinction was particularly significant. Writing last Thursday via email, he said the award “breached the ostensibly isolated atmosphere of literature and recognized the fiction writer among a broader peer group of writers and before a more diverse and populous audience of potential new readers.”
Anthony Marra, whose 2016 NMA winning story, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” Ray edited, expressed his disappointment in ASME’s omission. “Writing, editing, and publishing short stories in literary magazines is a labor of love for all involved,” he said. “They aren’t clickbait. They don’t make much noise or much money. And yet the best of them long outlast the paper on which they were first printed.”
While ASME has retained the category of “General Excellence in Literature, Science, and Politics,” such broad scope leaves little room for individual recognition, instead favoring the total yearly production of a magazine over excellence in a single piece. This year, Poetry is the only literary magazine nominated in that category.
Last September, Women’s Wear Daily released an email circulated to editors around the magazine industry from ASME Chief Executive Sid Holt. In what amounts to the closest document to a public announcement, the message cites declining fiction entries and, most surprisingly, concern that “few ASME members say they are competent to judge the category.” ASME’s website describes its members as “senior editors, art directors, and photography editors employed by qualified publications.”
Susan Russ, senior vice president of communications at ASME, said that with the diminished numbers of submissions, fiction entries had “less than a fifth the number of entries [than] comparable categories.” While the decision to “suspend” the category, she said, “was not a judgment on the value of fiction or [ASME’s] ability to judge entries,” it is unclear — outside of an attendant fall in submissions fees, perhaps — how the small pool affected the organization.
The arts face an almost certainly precarious future. As a genre, short fiction has long struggled with recognition, and is too often minimized as a stepping-stone to more serious literary enterprises. According to Russ, “ASME is considering alternative ways of honoring fiction,” leaving open the possibility of a new award outside the existent NMA format. But such a move could further isolate fiction from the rest of print culture.
It’s entirely possible, however, that fiction may be back for next year’s contest. Losing touch with the power of writing is not something we can now afford to risk. And National Magazine Award or not, over the coming years, we’ll be needing all the good stories we can get.
A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)
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.