In the current issue of Bookforum, David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times picks up and runs with a topic we’ve written about here – the current boom in fiction about the counterculture of the ’60s. Ulin’s long essay, called “Go Start Anew,” revisits recent books by Christopher Sorrentino, Dana Spiotta, Hari Kunzru, and Zachary Lazar (whose “Year in Reading” picks bespeak a certain fascination with the ’60s). Moreover, Ulin asks why the curdling of Aquarian idealism speaks so strongly to the current moment. I’m not sure I agree with his answer, but the argument is, as usual, provocative and deeply felt. It’s a Bookforum highlight, as is the entire “Fiction and Politics” supplement, and we urge you to check it out.
My neighbor and friend Jacob Lambert wrote a powerful piece for Philadelphia Weekly recently about his brother David, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder:I was at home in Bella Vista when he called. Last I'd heard he'd "eloped" from the hospital and was wandering his old East Village haunts. This was nothing new; many times over the years, his ward status had been upgraded, giving him a bit of freedom - and he'd simply walk off, winding up in Manhattan, then Bellevue, then back at the hospital he'd started from.Today, though, he wasn't calling from a pay phone on Bleecker Street. He was on a cell phone at Seventh and Pine, saying he was browsing apartments, was owed $100,000 and would be buying me a new Mercedes. He sounded as bad as ever, and the call ended when he set down the phone to talk to a stranger.Incidentally, Jacob also runs the hilarious Philly Turkey, a must read for Philly natives.
I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine's history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue's introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter - and blogger - looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
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
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Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has a reflective piece on becoming a novelist and his love of running, presumably adapted from his forthcoming memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in the current Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker. The piece isn't available online, but in it he mentions his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. As Ben explained a year ago, both are out of print in the U.S. and both have essentially been disowned by Murakami, who views them as something like juvenalia. However, the curious can check out our post that links to a pdf version of Pinball, 1973, along with some commentary from Ben.
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"Is starting a literary magazine a gamble?" editor Sean Finney asked a crowd of inebriated sophisticates and sophisticated inebriates at the NYC launch party for Canteen. The answer was lost in a wash of drink orders. Even if it turns out to be "yes," though, Canteen seems well positioned to walk away with a few chips. I'm not just saying that because publisher Stephen Pierson is funding this operation with his winnings as a poker pro, or because I contributed a story to the debut issue. Or okay, probably I am, at least partly. Still, Canteen offers readers an unusual mix of personal essays, fiction, poetry, and contemporary art.Andrew Sean Greer's remembrance of failed novels past and chef Dennis Leary's truly weird manifesto about the Restaurant of the Future are both funny and original. But careful attention to the visual is what strikes me as most promising about Canteen. Few literary magazines lavish such attention on full-color photography, painting, and illustration. Often, this is because editors want to focus attention on the text... and more power to them. But visual art and literature should have as much to say to one another today as they did in the heyday of Gertrude Stein. Finlay Printing, which used to print the late, lamented Grand Street, has produced a handsome successor. For more information, check out www.canteenmag.com.