In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
Several years ago I started cataloging the fiction published in The New Yorker in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet began merely as a way to keep track of what I’d read, but I soon became curious about what the spreadsheet’s data-sorting capabilities could reveal. I added details like the gender of the authors, their nationality, and the number of times they’d been published in the magazine. I began reading New Yorker fiction fastidiously in 2003, the spreadsheet’s original first year of data. But this year I went back and added in 2001 and 2002 as well, bringing this year’s spreadsheet to a full ten years. If you’d like to tinker with it yourself, you can find it here. To me, the most notable thing about this year’s crop of fiction is how American it was. Of the 54 stories the magazine published, 36 were written by Americans. That’s around 66 percent, significantly higher than the overall ten-year average of 53 percent. Much of this increase stems from the New Yorker’s "20 Under 40" project, in which they selected twenty writers to represent the future of American fiction. That project in itself indicates a key part of the magazine’s ambition: to cultivate and shape an American literary culture. The New Yorker is uniquely positioned to do so. No other magazine in the country (or even in the world, I would venture) publishes as many stories for a readership as large as The New Yorker’s. Back when reading short fiction was a more widely popular form of entertainment, there were multiple mass-audience venues for writers to publish in. Now, essentially, there’s the New Yorker and there’s everyone else—a few monthlies like Harper’s, and then the ever-burgeoning market of university-affiliated and independent literary magazines whose comparatively small readership does not deter the hopeful from filling their slush piles. It’s tempting to see these smaller magazines as a sort of farm system and the New Yorker as the big leagues, but of course there are great writers who have never been published in the magazine, and there are plenty of New Yorker stories that fail to move me at all. It’s hard work to make a story come alive, to show the reader a new world, or put the reader convincingly into the mind of a disturbing character, or make the reader care about a moment of moral choice, or simply observe human beings with great perceptiveness. The people who devote their lives to the creation of such things need encouragement and support. On a very practical level, the New Yorker helps cultivate an American literary culture by offering a kind of brass ring for writers to dream of grabbing. Of course, it also pays good money for stories. The New Yorker’s support has, for example helped to sustain the career of Alice Munro, a fantastically good writer whose entire output has, essentially, been in the short story form, which typically does not provide great financial remuneration. Here’s what Munro herself said about the magazine: Selling to The New Yorker made the whole business of being a short-story writer valid in a way, because I still had these recurring fits of I must give this up and write a novel. And then, afterward, I didn’t have as many of them, I didn’t have the same urgency, I didn’t any longer think of myself as a writer who had halted at some, you know, intermediate stage of development. And I became content with doing stories. he magazine’s showcasing of short fiction helps support the genre itself and, for me at least, increases the pleasures of that genre. I find that I enjoy an Alice Munro story (or one by George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or Louise Erdrich) more when it stands alone in a magazine, framed like a work of art in a museum, instead of collected in a book with ten or twelve others, or even, sometimes, as part of a novel. Looking at the stats, one might gripe about the recurrence of certain names. There are certain writers that I could do with less of, but over a ten-year period it’s hard to complain about getting to read seventeen Alice Munro stories, twelve by T. Coraghessan Boyle, or nine by George Saunders. Each year, the New Yorker presents its readers with a gigantic anthology of fiction, dribbled out at the rate of about one story a week. Many subscribers, I suspect, read little of that anthology. Others read it religiously. For a few years I read the entire thing; lately I’ve been getting to about half of it. In any case, my spreadsheet offers something like a table of contents to that ongoing and often quite rewarding anthology which, like all anthologies, represents a vision of literary history and a statement of literary value. With ten years of data compiled, we can get some hard info on the New Yorker’s tendencies when publishing fiction. Frequency: The first thing we always look at is if the New Yorker is bringing new writers into the mix or sticking with its old standbys. The "20 Under 40" project this year helped skew things toward newer names this year. Still, Just 10 writers account for 114 (or 22%) of the 514 stories to appear over the last ten years. Just 28 writers account for 215 (or 42%) of the stories. The New Yorker is sometimes criticized for featuring the same writers again and again, but it appears to be getting better on this front. The 28 "standbys" noted above and listed below accounted for only 13 of the 54 stories published in 2009 (or 24%). On the flip side of this argument, 17 writers appeared in the New Yorker for the first time in 2010 (at least since 2001). Gender: Of the 514 stories in the New Yorker from 2001 through 2010, 184 or 35.8% were penned by women. 2010 was 37% female. Nationality: As noted above, New Yorker fiction artificially skewed American in 2010, but overall over the last ten years, 54% of the sories in the magazine have been penned by Americans. Coming in second are the Brits at 43 stories and in third the Irish at 34 stories. Returning to the frequency question, below are all the writers who have appeared in the New Yorker at least five times over the last ten years. These are the superstars of New Yorker fiction (stars indicate the number of stories, if any, they had in the New Yorker in 2010.): 17: Alice Munro* 14: William Trevor 8: T. Coraghessan Boyle* Haruki Murakami 11: John Updike Tessa Hadley* 10: Louise Erdrich* 9: George Saunders* Roddy Doyle* 8: Roberto Bolaño** 7: Jonathan Lethem Annie Proulx Antonya Nelson E. L. Doctorow** 6: Aleksandar Hemon Charles D'Ambrosio David Means** Julian Barnes Thomas McGuane 5: Ann Beattie Jhumpa Lahiri Edward P. Jones Jonathan Franzen* Lara Vapnyar Joyce Carol Oates* Marisa Silver Tobias Wolff Yiyun Li*
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
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as "books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written." The list contains some obvious entries - we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time's prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967's The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade's blockbuster bestsellers - Bridget Jones's Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code - and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
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The current issue of New York Magazine offers a typically glib handicapping of this summer's debut novels and hot young fabulists, as well as surveys of overlooked books and of writers likely to stand the test of time. I'm least sympathetic to this American Idol style of journalism when it covers well-trod territory; New York's a speculative "future canon" offers few surprises (Gary Lutz and Helena Maria Viramontes among them). But the lengthy "underrated" list does offer readers an introduction to new writers... as do the excerpts from works in progress by "tomorrow's literary stars" (including my friend Maaza Mengiste.)It's refreshing to read fiction in New York; perhaps they should do this more often. Anyway, if the endless brouhaha surrounding the Times' attention-grabbing "Best Books of the Last 25 Years" failed to tire you out, click on over to New York and check out the offerings.
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.
1. In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.” The brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail. But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War. I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up. When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies. But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by -- and in some cases, openly opposed to -- the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda. This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find. Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like. 2. I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics. Like many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon. At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know -- what no one of that era understood -- was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support. Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals. That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households. The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own. The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened. Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school. That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite -- precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump. 3. This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction. But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language. It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it. For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality. Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.
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