Likely aware that most of us are now jaded to the astronomical sales numbers that the Harry Potter books put up, Amazon has grabbed shoppers’ attention with an interesting ploy. The site is now looking to inspire further frenzies of buying by pitting town against town. “The Harry-est Town in America” is the American city or town that pre-orders the most copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and with that honor comes a $5,000 gift certificate to be donated by Amazon to a charity of the city’s choice. Unsurprisingly, suburban locales make up pretty much all of the top 100 “Harry-est” towns in America, and the D.C.-area suburbs of Northern Virginia appear to have a particular affinity for the boy wizard. Also, following up on yesterday’s “limited edition” post, a new box set of Potter books (pictured above) has been announced. It features “a collectible trunk-like box with sturdy handles and privacy lock” and “decorative stickers.”
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.
In the comments to the last post, Erin left a note about “depraved” Amazon reviews for Family Circus books. With a little Googling, I was quick to discover that this was something of an internet legend, dating back to the late-nineties when pranksters started leaving all sorts of silly reviews for Bil Keane’s anthologies. There’s even mention of them in Wikipedia (as of this writing.) Sadly it appears that most of the reviews have been expunged, but I was able to find a few that were subtly wierd enough to elude the censors:For What Does This Say?: Yeats once wrote, “None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed.” Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest ‘Family Circus’ opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane’s major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten. Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In ‘What Does This Say’, it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.For Smile! With The Family Circus: Though universally popular with critics, Smile! has never been commercially successful. It’s been in and out of print — mostly out — so this hardcover 30th anniversary edition is an especially welcome event to discerning FC readers. Along with his day job with United Features Syndicate to produce the more commercial Family Circus strips we know and love, Keane labored on Smile! on evenings and weekends from 1966 through 1972 in a cathartic period when he confided to friends that he had to complete Smile! before the effort killed him. Smile! is Keane’s FC adaptation of the legendary unreleased Beach Boys album of the same name. Keane met Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the Fillmore West in late 1966 and quickly the three became inseperable. The next six months were a happy, artistically productive time for the three, and it’s during this time that most of the widely-bootlegged Smile! demos were recorded. Unfortunately Parks and Wilson had a falling out in February 1967, after each discovered that Keane had been sleeping with the other, and the lovers’ betrayal ended the Beach Boys’ Smile! sessions. Wilson spent the next year in solitude, finally giving up on Smile! without giving a public explanation. Keane, having been spurned by both Wilson and Parks, returned to the comfort of the Family Circus to lick his wounds. Some critics have derided Keane as “the Beach Boys’ Yoko Ono” for his unfortunate role in the Smile! sessions. Nevertheless, Keane’s book remains the only fully-realized version of the work that the three men envisioned together in late 1966. Music historians trying to guess how the bootlegged Smile! demos would have been pieced together need look no further than this book.And for Kittycat’s Motor is Running: I weep for Jeffy. The language, however base and stomach cramp inducing, does the job of transporting the reader to the suburban hell that only Keane can imagine. The amount of ennui overflowing from this wasp-ish family of innocents staggers. If you cannot see their pain, you are blind. I am Jocasta, my eyes bleed for the family circus.
Short story collections undoubtedly reign supreme as the most optimal reading material for the beach. They don’t require the mental commitment that a full-length novel does, they allow for a sense of accomplishment every time you finish one in the collection, and, perhaps more importantly, they provide breaks at precisely the right moment when you need more alcohol. If you’re planning an upcoming vacation, consider taking along J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, David Updike’s Old Girlfriends, or Lady with the Little Dog & Other Stories by Anton Chekhov. It is no coincidence that all three have several beach-themed stories, which I take as proof of the validity of my argument.
It is in the latter collection that you will find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” a story so remarkable that fellow Russian heavyweight Vladimir Nabokov called it “one of the greatest stories ever written.” I shamelessly board this bandwagon and add merely that “The Lady with the Little Dog” is the most perfect short story for the summer (Nabokov does not appear to have evaluated art using this metric).
It is 1899. Summer is in full swing in Yalta, the glamorous resort town for the glamorous Russian aristocracy. The Black Sea and the sun converge and collectively shine so bright that they blind. Gurov, our main character, lazily stares beyond the horizon in search of something. Of what? He hardly knows himself. This is how “The Lady with the Little Dog” marvelously opens up, immediately creating a drunken feeling of infinite, if somewhat ominous, possibilities. Isn’t that what summer is all about?
Gurov is a terrible human being: a lying, cheating, misogynistic — but charming! — philander. He’s an Ocean’s Eleven-era George Clooney without a soul. When he hears of a pretty little thing, newly-arrived in Yalta, he considers, “If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance.”
I love this guy.
The pretty little thing, the titular lady with the dog, is Anna Sergeyevna, a young Cruel Intentions-era Reese Witherspoon to Gurov’s winning Clooney. She is recently married, but like all 19th-century literary Russian aristocrats, unhappily so. What happens next is predictable: two strangers at different points in their lives, an encounter in an exotic locale, an inevitable, tempestuous affair. If it sounds derivative, it’s because every star- crossed lovers’ tale you know from 20th-century film and literature is an imitation of Chekhov’s original.
But what Chekhov does in “The Lady with the Little Dog” is extraordinary. He makes you root for the terrible human being. In spite of your better judgement, you long for Gurov to charm the girl, to seduce her, and, perhaps, to break her heart. When Anna confides in Gurov her agonies and unfulfilled dreams, he observes that “there’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” and you laugh hysterically. You feel sorry for Anna, but you decide that if she’s stupid enough to fall for this charming fraud, then she deserves to be swindled. Or maybe you are a moral person, and you don’t feel that way at all.
In any case, you will be as seduced by “The Lady with the Little Dog” as Anna is enamored with the monstrous Gurov. In the characters’ forbidden love affair, Chekhov evokes the spirit of summer: oppressive but liberating, exhausting but exciting, stultifying but intoxicating. Gurov’s life is an eternal summer, and in the summer, every day is a “thirsty day” when one does “not know what to do with oneself.” In the summer, one is particularly susceptible to the wonderful things that surround. For me, it is snorkeling along a coral reef in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; for Gurov, it is sitting next to a beautiful young woman in the dawn of light, with dew on the grass.
I think Gurov wins.
I will not spoil the entire story, but precisely when you think you know how it will all come crashing down, Chekhov surprises. If you rooted for Gurov in the beginning, by the end you’re praying that he gets his happily ever after. But Chekhov has something special planned for Gurov and Anna and the reader. Abruptly, dizzying, the story ends, leaving one gasping for air, unprepared for the solemnity of autumn — much less for the emptiness of winter.
Chekhov makes you long for summer, with all of its intensity, with all of its oppressiveness. He makes you long for a time, in Yalta or elsewhere, when the sun and the sea meet before you, when life overflows with possibilities. As “The Lady with the Little Dog” comes to a close — perhaps disappointingly, perhaps perfectly — even those who dislike the summer months will be left aching, just a little, for a few more drowsily sweltering days.
We think we know people so well, but then real honest to God information comes out about them in a court proceding (or a Smoking Gun investigation) and we find out how wierd they really are. This is doubly true for celebrities, though, it turns out, not always literary ones. Case in point, Dan Brown, who I never thought of as much of a public figure and who always seemed to me to be nothing more than the bland face behind the Da Vinci Code juggernaut, has his quirks, but not very exciting ones it seems. We’re discovering this as a result of the plagiarism trial currently under way in England where he’s been accused of lifting the premise for his book from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. On to the quirkiness: according to a story in the Guardian, “his witness statement reveals his working method, beginning at 4am, seven days a week, with an antique hour glass on his desk to remind him to take hourly exercise breaks.” “push-ups, sit-ups and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood – and ideas – flowing,” adds a story in the Independent. Well, if that’s all it takes… Also noted at the trial: Blythe, his wife, does the lion’s share of his research; he moved on to writing after a failed career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles; his parents hid his Christmas gifts and he had to decifer a treasure map to find them.(via the Publishers Lunch newsletter. The free one. It’s all I can afford.)One more thing. I haven’t been following this trial very closely, but I do know one thing: Holy Blood, Holy Grail has been an incredibly huge seller ever since Da Vinci Code came out. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
I recently got in the ring with Ed Champion of The Bat Segundo Show to talk about A Field Guide to the North American Family. A victory, a loss, or a draw? You be the judge. (Helpful Hint: It gets better as it goes on. Guinness is, indeed, good for you.)And, assuming you’re still interested, you can see page spreads, and read an interview, in FILE Magazine. Thanks!
There are dozens collections of New Yorker cartoons available, and all of the will serve you well enough if you need a fix of that particular and unique brand of humor. A new collection, however, promises something a little different, the rejected cartoons: “Some were too racy, rude or rowdy. Some are too politically incorrect or too weird. A few are probably too dumb.” Those are the words of Matthew Diffee, New Yorker cartoonist and editor of the The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker. In a brief piece about the book in the LA Times Diffee writes: So most of our stuff gets rejected; and sure, some of the rejected cartoons are pretty bad and deserve to be hidden forever. But there are always a few gems that are missed, and believe me, we remember them. So I decided to collect the best rejects from a number of my friends and colleagues – all regular New Yorker cartoonists, but all of whom, like me, have nine out of 10 of their submissions rejected.I might have to check this one out.