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.
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer’s meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it’s Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium – BBC radio – made it easy to overlook Forster’s seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith’s appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him […] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting “regular inspections of your library;” following “the ‘one in, one out’ rule;” spending “more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;” using the library more, and “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I’m dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we’re moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we’re finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we’ll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
What to call David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this morning? “Appalling” is the word that comes most readily to mind, but that is not quite what I mean. It is a hard piece of writing to classify. I think it was intended to be a parody of Obama’s speech, but what it seems more like is a free-writing exercise performed by a hardened misanthrope under the influence of 15 martinis or some kind of psychotropic substance. In short, it seems like it was written by a crazy person. This possibly dangerous crazy alter-ego also wrote – interestingly, tellingly – an equally crazy column some time ago called something like “The Two Obamas” in which frequent references were made to “Fast Eddie Obama,” a man who was fond of throwing people under trucks. If you happened to read Brooks’ column of the day before Obama nominated Biden, this impression of madness is heightened: that piece was a matter-of-fact political analysis that might well have been written by someone of no party affiliation.Dear Millions readers, do you have any insights into the mystery of the two faces of David Brooks? I find his duplicity fascinating and genuinely troubling and would be delighted to have it illuminated.
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.
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).
Of the 514 stories in the New Yorker from 2001 through 2010, 184 or 35.8% were penned by women. 2010 was 37% female.
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.):
T. Coraghessan Boyle*
E. L. Doctorow**
Edward P. Jones
Joyce Carol Oates*