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.
In the spring, we reported on an unusual event unfolding in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail. Each week, through 2008, someone - typically a published author or an academic - would write an essay for the Globe championing a book. Fifty books in total. They were not ranked in any order, and in reality they form a jumping-off point into a world of knowledge and literary imagination.About a third of the books championed were novels, from such usual suspects as War and Peace, Don Quixote, and Middlemarch, through Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.More interesting were the non-novels on the list. There were collected shorts from Borges, Kafka and Chekhov, and collected poems from Eliot and Yeats. There was Dante's Divine Comedy, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Decameron, and The Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old verse from India. Lady Murasaki's 1000-year-old The Tale of Genji pops up. Plays by Becket and Goethe were also championed.The King James Bible is there; as is the Koran. Books of philosophy by Plato and political economy by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the list.Darwin's Origin of Species is there; so is Diderot's Encyclopedia, Herodotus' Histories, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Rachel Carson's proto-environmental Silent Spring. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her 300-year-old rebel yell, is there, as are St. Augustine's Confessions, and de Montaigne's Essays, his 16th-century invention of a genre.Beside each essay are links to all the essays that came before it. So you should go to the 50th essay, championing Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, to get easy links to the other 49. Thank goodness for that, because there doesn't seem to be a central web page listing all 50, and I advise against trying to search through the Globe and Mail's Books section archives unless you want to get a blinding headache.
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.
The Paris Review, long recognizable for its fat, little, bookish profile, has been redesigned under the watch of new editor Philip Gourevitch. Also gone is the practice of emblazoning the cover with an abstruse piece of art (as opposed to, say, the New Yorker) and nothing else. "Maybe no one thought it before Mr. Plimpton died, but the venerable old magazine did need an update." says Bud, who's got a full accounting of the venerable literary magazine's new look (and contents).
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*
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This week's New Yorker is already on newsstands, but before last week's issue is a distant memory, I wanted to praise it for being one of the best issues I've read in a while. Calvin Trillin's piece on an episode of vigilante justice in Canada was engaging and well reported and David Owen's profile of the Arup structural engineering firm was an interesting departure from the magazine's usual coverage of cultural luminaries in the architecture field (neither article is available online.)The issue was anchored by Seymour Hersh's most important article since he helped break the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. In this follow up, Hersh delivers compelling evidence that responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the handful of soldiers who were said to have acted on their own.But what really capped off the issue for me was Helen Simpson's refreshing story "Homework," which had a startlingly different tone from the typical New Yorker short story. Instead of brooding and cereberal, the story is almost joyful from start to finish, augmented by a wry undercurrent of second meaning. Whereas many contemporary stories are played in a minor key, thriving on disfunction, "Homework" is built on a healthy relationship between mother and son as she helps him complete an assignment to describe a "life-changing event." Rolling her eyes at the silly assignment, the first person narrator mother dictates a made up life to her son, one that includes divorced parents and in particular a globe trotting, carefree mother. There are a few subtexts below the surface as she crafts the story for her son: her own difficult childhood, her desire for a more exciting, less domestic life. But the story is also about imagination and being a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.I hadn't read Simpson's work before, but I'll keep an eye out for it now. She's penned several short story collections over the years, including In the Driver's Seat, which came out last month.
I wasn't a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates' story "Landfill" in last week's New Yorker. It felt to me a little too obvious, this story about an insecure college student's drunken and accidental death thanks to the carelessness of the brothers at the fraternity where he was a pledge. It seemed too "ripped from the headlines," too after school special, and on top of all that it was emotionally cheap - designed to provoke outrage with little complexity. So, it was interesting to discover that Oates' story was indeed ripped from the headlines. The death of Hector Jr. very closely resembles that of a young man who had attended The College of New Jersey, so much so that Oates was compelled to apologize "for any offense she caused."Obviously, quite a lot of fiction is drawn from real life events, but I think in this case, because Oates' story was so one-note and so geared toward generating disgust, the connection was simply to stark to ignore. (via Jeff)
Michael Lewis turns in yet another tremendous piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. This one is about the catastrophic financial collapse in Iceland:Walking into the P.M.'s minute headquarters, I expect to be stopped and searched, or at least asked for photo identification. Instead I find a single policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. "I'm here to see the prime minister," I say for the first time in my life. He's unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister. Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like. For those following along at home, we've also noted Lewis' two takes on the Wall Street collapse and his more recent piece on the NBA.