Even a New Yorker obsessive like me was surprised to find just how many notable works of fiction and non-fiction made their first appearance in the venerable magazine. Emdashes and her readers have gone to the effort of collecting a list of many such works. It’s worth a look as a potential reading list and also just for the “wow factor.” Don’t forget to check the comments.
So perhaps you’ve seen the latest bell (or whistle) to come out of Google HQ. It’s called Google Trends and it lets you look at the search volume over time for different keywords. It also shows you which regions search for a particular term the most. Initially, I was most interested in that geographic data. I figured perhaps this could settle that tiresome debate about which city is “most literary.” Here are the resultsDelhi, IndiaChennai, IndiaAustinPortland (Oregon, I’m assuming)ChicagoSeattleNew YorkDenverMinneapolisPhiladelphiaI was, and still am, a curious about the two Indian cities at the top of the list, but I did recently write a post about the MV Doulos (Ship of Books) being docked in Chennai. But, anyway, to get to the more serious issue, by this metric our most literary city is Austin, and New York (pretender to the crown) comes in at number five, while our venerable Californian cities don’t even make the list. Before we get too riled lets remember that these cities are just guesses. From the FAQ: “Google Trends uses IP address information from our server logs to make a best guess about where queries originated.”Regardless of Google’s guestimates, I was curious about some other bookish searches. “Harry Potter” shows a preponderance of international searches, and the series’ impressive ability to stay in the news. Or you can see how the young wizard compares to pretender to the throne, “The Da Vinci Code.” If you ever doubted how popular Harry Potter is, that graph should convince you. Getting back to Da Vinci Code, though, to those of you who have grown weary of hearing about Dan Brown’s book, would it surprise you to find out that, according to Google, the book is more popular than ever?Moving on to scandals, it turns out an Oprah tie in can help you in that department, too. Observe James Frey’s drubbing of JT Leroy. Kaavya Viswanathan, meanwhile, hasn’t generated enough of a scandal to register.Turning to awards, remember when the National Book Award generated a stir in 2004 by nominating five women from New York as finalists, looks like it paid off (in search traffic anyway). And here’s all the prizes I could think of going head to head (I’ll call the Booker the winner, since the Pulitzer includes all those journalists).
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they’ve incorporated a contest for readers – an office pool – into this year’s Tournament and I’m involved. How to play along:Here’s how the contest works. In addition to this year’s brackets, below you’ll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win – the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We’ll randomly select one reader for each blogger to “play for,” and the winning blogger’s reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell’s Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions’ bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.
Most of you have probably read it, or at least heard about it: Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker posits that the cultural inter-borrowing that long underpinned the vibrancy of American music has fallen by the wayside in the current era of mopey indie rock (I mostly agree). The essay is good – though-provoking – but what has really rounded it out has been his series of responses, on his blog, to the various letters he received – 1, 2, 3, 4 – which have turned his effort into the sort of bull session that regularly happens among music fans.In a similar vein, in this case in the world a film, One-Way Street posits that we have a problem we never expected: “an American cinema that’s too good.” The argument is fairly convincing. But I can’t help but think that some arguments to the contrary might turn the post into a bull session as intriguing as the one Frere-Jones has curated at the New Yorker.
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
The New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his… a terriffic story called “Cryptology.” The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
The role of media in war has long been big and complicated, but by the time Iraq rolled around the media had become both more and less powerful. TV news has been beset by falling ratings, aging viewers, and a sense that the national newscasts and their anchors are less and less relevant. At the same time, for many Americans, the network news and their cable counterparts are the only points of contact with perhaps the most important geopolitical event of a generation. Our newsmen and women are both weak and powerful.This dynamic fascinates me, which is why I’m intrigued by a newly released book by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz. Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War is a chronicle of how the network news operations have dealt with covering an unpopular war that put employees in physical danger and forced executives to toe the line between “patriotism” and dissent. The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book. It’s worth checking out for anyone interested in the topic:Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC’s “Today” show, [Katie] Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney’s declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.See Also: Instant News: Bob Woodruff Back from the Brink
So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.