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.
For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I’ve been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I’m at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, “This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen…” The ugly truth, however, is that I’ve never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness… I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn – a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn – landed a recurring role as Blair’s mother’s boyfriend. “The life of an actor can be very enviable,” Shawn told the New York Times this week. “If the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads… I think that’s fantastic.”That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl’s centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker’s role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW’s role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I’m tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
As others have noted, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features a long Deborah Eisenberg essay on the Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas (now available online courtesy of Powell’s Bookstore). I’ve been interested in Nádas for some time (though the sheer size of A Book of Memories requires putting it off until next year) and in Eisenberg for longer, and so it may come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I found her essay completely beguiling.Unlike certain other NYRB contributors – one can barely turn around these days without running into John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, you know, appreciating this or reconsidering that – Eisenberg’s critical corpus has so far been small. Possibly nonexistent. You won’t find her penning introductions and encomiums and toasts; they’d probably run to 15,000 words and take her a year to write. All I knew of her literary taste, prior to reading “The Genius of Peter Nádas,” was that it overlapped with mine (Robert Walser, Humberto Constantini).As it turns out, Eisenberg brings to nonfiction the same philosophical and perceptual rigor, the same psychological acuity, and the same metaphorical daring that animate her stories. “After finishing [A Book of Memories], I, for one, felt irreversibly altered, as if the author had adjusted, with a set of tiny wrenches, molecular components of my brain,” she writes, before going on to cover totalitarianism, war, literary style, and the situation of the American writer. It is almost enough to make one wish for more Eisenberg essays. Alas, time being finite, that might deprive us of Eisenberg fiction.
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.
Alone (I’d be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit – at least if you’re not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine’s readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer’s dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis’ equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one’s mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the rich are different from you and me”). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten – one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten’s superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten’s style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they’re otherwise (as many of Vogue’s contributors – to other, unintentionally comic ends – do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, “Temptation Island,” is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor’s office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month’s article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat – but that’s a story for another time.And of his wife’s spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife’s sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
For those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.
How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.
You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.
How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.
Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.
Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.
Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.
The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.
If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”
That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.
Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.
Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.
I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.