Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post book critic, has named his best books of the year and – you’re not going to believe this (I can hardly believe it as I’m typing this) – he singles out John Grisham (The Broker) and Michael Connelly (The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer) for praise. Those three books mentioned above are officially on his “best books” list. Connelly I can understand, but Grisham? That’s a huge surprise. I think it’s great. For a critic of Yardley’s stature, giving high praise to Grisham takes serious balls. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
In her review of Deborah Eisenberg’s collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, CSM reviewer Yvonne Zipp leads with this declaration: “The Great American Novel used to be literature’s giant glass mountain. Now, it seems, we’ve switched to Making Sense of Sept. 11 as the ultimate unattainable goal.” I don’t know if that’s really true. Is this something American fiction writers are grappling with these days? Is this the great question of our generation? I don’t know, but then again, for whatever reason, I would love to read a work of fiction that takes on 9/11 in a challenging and illuminating way – so maybe 9/11 should matter to writers. Zipp goes on to say that “none have come closer to the top” than Eisenberg does with the title story in this collection, surpassing, in this contest to make sense of 9/11, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Anita Shreve.Zipp also calls Deborah Eisenberg “the American Alice Munro,” which is funny because I always thought Alice Munro was the Canadian Joyce Carol Oates.See Also:Michiko Kakutani has a review of Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life, which takes on 9/11.
How does an independent bookshop not only survive, but remain vital amid the encroaching chains? How does a tightly-knit community bolster its authors in a cut-throat industry? Independent bookshop owner Heidi Hallett has tackled both these issues by doing what the best independent shopkeepers do – opting for the intimate, the local.As this recent Globe and Mail article explains, Hallett’s Halifax bookshop, Frog’s Hollow, has its fortunes interwoven with that of her community. By hosting book launches and in-store author appearances of regional scribes, Hallett keeps her dream alive: “Local literature is a vital part of our culture here, and I am concerned that if more independent bookstores like mine start going under, we risk losing that history and heritage forever.”
If con artists were smarter, they’d let people forget previous deeds first. Little more than two years after the James Frey debacle, the literature world is once again awash in breaking news stories of fabricated memoirs.The New York Times reported Monday that Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years is complete bogus. This must be cardinal sin considering that, according to the AP, Defonseca is not even Jewish – real name: Monique De Wael. So, never mind that the “memoir” was translated to 18 languages and made into a feature film, exploiting people’s shock and disgust for a handsome profit. The defense? “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality,” says Defonseca.Today, the NYT reports that Margaret Seltzer’s gang memoir, published under the name Margaret B. Jones Love and Consequences – where the author purports to be a half-Native American, half-white girl dealing drugs for the Bloods in Los Angeles – is also, ahem, a fake.Add to it the revelations about self-knighted chef Robert Irvine of the Food Network – author of Mission: Cook! – who beefed up his resume to include fictional positions as White House Chef and personal friend of Prince Charles (who picks Charles as a mate anyway?) and you might think non-fiction these days is only as real as Frank Abagnale’s Harvard Law degree (Remember Catch Me If You Can?).What is most shocking in Seltzer and Irvine’s cases is the lack of fact-checking. If it were not for Seltzer’s sister – who alerted the publisher, Riverhead Books, after reading a profile of Seltzer in the NYT – Love and Consequences could have enjoyed some success. Look at Irvine, he even had a TV show.Finding out if the Queen knighted someone should be fairly simple. Finding out the heritage of a person, where they attended school, how many siblings they have and so forth is extremely easy. One would think that after Frey, publishers would take a closer look to the facts in memoirs and make sure that readers don’t end up paging through imaginary non-fiction.On the plus side, Seltzer must be quite a writer and actress – after all, she managed to keep up the guise of truth for three years while working on her, err, novel.
Back in 2003, I decided to start reading the fiction in The New Yorker consistently. Up until that point, I’d read the weekly fiction offering only if it happened to be something by a writer I particularly liked.
Part of my motivation had to do with my own ambitions as a fiction writer; another part had to do with my high school teaching job, which included a course in Reading and Writing Fiction. I thought maybe, by studying closely what the magazine was publishing, I’d get a better sense of just why my own stories were getting unceremoniously rejected everywhere I sent them (with the minor exception of a brief but kind note scribbled at the bottom of a form rejection from McSweeney’s.) If not, at least I’d maybe come away with some good stories to teach in class.
In the first few months of the project, I encountered some great pieces of fiction: Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” (an excerpt from his novel Old School), Maile Meloy’s “Red From Green,” and Lara Vapnyar’s “Love Lessons, Mondays, 8 a.m.” And I found that, having preemptively committed myself to reading each story, I sat down with a helpful patience, an openness to the experience and to the writer’s art.
The summer of that first year, I went back to an old issue I’d kept tucked away on a shelf—the one dated June 21 & 28, 1999. This issue was designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd. (Incidentally, it’s the only issue in the magazine’s history whose pages have artwork that bleeds to the edges.) The cover features an illustration of Chris Ware’s character Jimmy Corrigan on a beach, looking out at the sea. Scrolled down the page are twenty first sentences—from stories written by the twenty authors chosen to represent what editor Bill Buford, in his introductory comment, called “the twenty best young fiction writers in America today… the obvious names and the not-so-obvious, those who are only just now crossing a threshold of literary recognition and those who have been at home in it for some time.”
I’d dipped into this issue when it first came out. I had liked the Sherman Alexie piece and the David Foster Wallace one, but set the magazine aside after being unmoved by a couple of the others. Now, though, I dug back in and found more to like—a tense and mysterious story by Chang-Rae Lee, a wicked little one by Antonya Nelson, and soberly masterful stories by Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. I found that the issue included an excerpt from Tony Earley’s gentle, pitch-perfect Jim the Boy, a novel which I’d read and loved.
Over the next seven years, I continued to read the New Yorker fiction fairly regularly. Some years I read more or less everything, while other years I took in only about half of the stories. I began to catalog my reactions in a spreadsheet. I fell in love with Alice Munro and George Saunders. I made up enough bonus-reading quizzes on stories I liked that I was able to offer one per day to my Reading and Writing Fiction students. I sat down and formulated my own criteria for evaluating fiction. I branched out into other sources of fiction, subscribing to smaller magazines like Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
I came to recognize, though, that reading magazine fiction is a crapshoot. I think that’s why many New Yorker readers rarely read this part of the magazine. When you read a piece of nonfiction, you know what you’re getting into, and you know you’ll come away from the experience with something tangible—some information or perspective on the world. And you can stop midway through and still have something to take with you. Fiction doesn’t work that way, at least for me. It’s like sex—uncomfortable if abandoned midway through. The rewards of fiction—the ecstatic transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—can be greater than those of nonfiction, but you can also finish a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Given the risks involved in reading a piece of fiction, it helps to have someone whose taste you trust to limit the pool. Larry Dark became that type of guide for me in the O. Henry Prize collections from 1997 to 2002, which include dozens of stories that blew me away. The New Yorker fiction editors serve the same purpose. Though I don’t dispute that stories are published in smaller magazines that I would like better than a healthy percentage of the stories published in The New Yorker, I simply don’t have time to read all those little magazines. The New Yorker’s batting average is high enough—and it publishes enough heavy-hitters—that it’s as good a section as any to stand in if you hope to catch a home run.
As the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, there’s an unavoidable contingency to literary valuation—an arbitrariness on both a personal and a society-wide level. Yet we naturally make such judgments. We have to do so, simply to avoid being drowned by the deluge of written material that swamps us. Our literary judgments also help us define ourselves and our culture. Who am I? What do I like, and why? What vision of the world do I share? And who are we? What do we value? What stories do we want to hear about ourselves, what will our culture admit into its awareness?
So that’s the context in which I’m approaching this week’s New Yorker, in which the fiction editors offer, eleven years later, a new group of 20 writers, all under 40 years of age, as the future of fiction in America. It’s an effort to shape a literary culture. And it’s an effort by people whose taste I generally trust.
Overall, though, the new list doesn’t immediately excite me, I must say. ZZ Packer and Wells Tower have written debut collections of stories that I greatly admire, and several of the others have written stories that I thought were good. But, to return to the sexual metaphor of reading fiction, with some of the other writers on the list I’ve had one-night stands and never hooked up again. Others, sad to say, have fallen victim to episodes of literary coitus interruptus.
The fact is, this past year I’ve gotten a bit impatient with New Yorker fiction. Busy with other reading projects, I’ve slipped back into my old habits—reading only stories whose authors particularly grabbed my interest.
But—and this is another danger of magazine fiction—it’s all too easy to misjudge a writer harshly simply on the basis of one story. Like the 1999 issue, this one, I hope, will redirect my attention to worthy writers whom I may have unfairly written off.
Despite the periodic disappointments of reading fiction in magazines, there’s a unique magic to the experience. There’s the gift of a new story by one of your favorite writers. There’s the joy of beginning a story by a writer you’ve never read and suddenly realizing that you’re encountering something great. It’s like being struck by lightning, set suddenly afire with pleasure. No other reading experience can turn a chance hour into sheer delight in quite this way.
Say what you will, The New Yorker is one of our culture’s most stalwart curators of this type of literary experience. For that reason, its editors’ vision of the future of fiction is worth considering. It’s my hope that, like the 1999 issue, the 2010 version will include some surprising treats that open up new readerly enthusiasms for me.
Bonus Link: A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago
Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, on the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech”:Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime.Link
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.