Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
A while back, I put together a post called “The Prizewinners,” which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the “best” books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original “Prizewinners” post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W
Looking back through old posts at The Millions, one of my favorites is my post going through every New Yorker story in 2005. It was a somewhat grueling post to compile, but in the spirit of recent New Year’s resolutions, also very rewarding. I spend a lot of time each year reading the New Yorker and so it seems fitting that I might reflect on that time spent and revisit some of what I read. As perhaps the most high-profile venue for short fiction in the world, taking stock of the New Yorker’s year in fiction is a worthwhile exercise for writers and readers alike.As with my effort a few years ago, what you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I’ve also included some links to people who talked about New Yorker stories during the year. I’ll include Perpetual Folly here rather than with the stories below since it reflected on every story in the New Yorker over the course of 2008.In revisiting all of the stories, one major over-arching theme emerged for me, the conflict between stories that center on what I call “suburban malaise” (born out of “The Swimmer” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” among many others) and those that don’t. The former are what I think of as the base condition for New Yorker (and indeed all of contemporary American and UK short fiction) and the latter are the departures from that. The departure can be one of character, theme, setting, or style. The distinction is, of course, imprecise, and there are many riveting, impeccable examples of the “suburban malaise” story on offer from the New Yorker. The departures, meanwhile, can serve as a breath of fresh air and when done well, expand the boundaries of short fiction for the reader.January 7, “Outage” by John Updike – The New Yorker kicked off the year with old standby John Updike offering a story that begins somewhat quaintly with protagonist Brad being thrust into a reverie by a storm-caused power outage. The story continues on quaintly as Brad wanders through his darkened town, but changes tone when he encounters a similarly dazed neighbor Lynne and the plot shifts to one of more typical New Yorker-esque suburban malaise and infidelity. Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick was published in October. Links: Jacob Russell, Richard LarsonJanuary 14, “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow – Speaking of suburban malaise, Doctorow takes it to the next level in this long story of a disaffected husband and father who hides out in his garage attic, letting his family believe he’s gone missing. Like a stowaway on his own property, Howard Wakefield scavenges for food and spies on his wife as she steers the family ship. The central drama of the story hinges on how long Howard will keep up his ruse and the story’s end is tantalizing. This one, interestingly, is a retelling of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name. Docotorow has a new, as yet untitled novel coming out late this year. Links: One Real StoryJanuary 21, “Ash Monday” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Like many Boyle classics, this one is set in California where the fear of natural disaster is always present in the background. On the surface, this story is one of neighbors doing what neighbors sometimes do: hate each other. Though it is the New Yorker’s third story in a row about the suburbs to lead off 2008, this one, with its west coast focus, is far from typical for the magazine. Boyle, who knows how to end a story, closes this one out in a blaze of glory. Boyle’s new book The Women comes out soon.January 28, “The Reptile Garden” by Louise Erdrich – Goodbye suburbs. Erdrich’s story is about dreamy Evelina in North Dakota who is not adjusting to college life very well. She obsesses over Anais Nin and eventually ends up taking a job at a mental hospital where she meets Nonette, who, like Nin, is French. The type of friendship that could only bloom inside the confines of a mental hospital ensues. Eventually, Evelina makes the transition from staff to patient. The story is excerpted from Erdrich’s novel Plague of Doves.February 4, “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley – Hadley, like the four preceding writers, is a favorite of New Yorker fiction editors. Her stories seem to exude the grayness of lower middle-class English towns. This one is about a pair of women who do cleaning jobs. Pam owns the little business and Shelly helps out. Shelly’s son Anthony is in Afghanistan and this fact lends some definition to her otherwise mundane life. This is a story of dialog and exposition, not plot. It’s funny in parts and looks in on a life. Hadley’s The Master Bedroom was published last year.February 11 & 18, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro – Munro is a favorite of mine, though I’ve preferred several of her stories from over the years to this one. Still, it’s quite good and even gripping in parts. Even just now, skimming through it, I’m getting sucked back in. It’s about recently widowed Nita. Munro sets the stage with a lengthy introduction to Nita, her life proscribed and seemingly shrinking following the death of her husband. With a knock at the door and an unexpected visitor, however, the story takes an abrupt and darker turn. Munro’s most recent collection is 2006’s The View from Castle Rock. Links: Armenian Odar, Lemon HoundFebruary 25, “Shelter of the World” by Salman Rushdie – Channeling the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Rushdie introduces Akbar the Great who has “an imaginary wife,” Jodha. Akbar being who he was, “no man dared gainsay him.” Akbar’s people build him a city, he employs an “Imperial Flatterer First Class,” and he speaks in the royal “we.” Akbar’s inability to say “I” is a symptom of the great solitude that results from his great power and feeling experimental he tries referring to himself as “I” with his imaginary wife. As you can imagine, the story has the qualities of a parable. It’s also quite funny in parts. “Shelter of the World” is an excerpt from Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence. Links: Jacob Russell, N+1March 3, “Leaving for Kenosha” by Richard Ford – Fresh off finishing up his Bascombe trilogy, Ford offers up a story about another divorced father, this one in New Orleans. “It was the anniversary of the disaster.” and Walter Hobbes is spending the day with his teenage daughter Louise who wants to say goodbye to a classmate who is leaving the city for good, part of the ongoing, post-Katrina exodus. While Louise is at the dentist, it’s up to Walter to find a card for the occasion, “There was simply nothing he could do that was right here, he realized. The task was beyond his abilities.” The story offers up ample amounts of patented Richard Ford suburban malaise and the meeting at the story’s end – Walter and Louise and the departing family – manages to capture a certain feeling about what has happened in New Orleans. Ford’s most recent book is 2006’s The Lay of the Land. Links: Jacob RussellMarch 10, “Raj, Bohemian” by Hari Kunzru – A very quirky story. The narrator travels in rarefied social circles, attending high concept dinner parties in spectacular, rent-free lofts, that sort of thing. The circle is infiltrated by Raj, who photographs one such party and uses the pictures in an ad. The narrator gets ticked off, the party’s host says, “That’s so Raj.” Another says, “Get over yourself, man. You’re acting so old-fashioned, like some kind of Communist.” The narrator begins to suspect that all of his friends are trying to sell him something, that their “coolness” has become a marketable commodity. An interesting paranoia sets in, but Kunzru doesn’t take the concept as far as he might have. Kunzru’s most recent book is last year’s My RevolutionsMarch 17, “The Bell Ringer” by John Burnside – In Scotland, Eva’s father dies, “still, the fact was that in the aftermath of the funeral, when it had seemed as if the whole world had fallen silent, what had troubled Eva most was her marriage, not her father’s absence.” Her husband is the distant Matt. To escape her solitude, Eva signs up for a bell-ringing club, out of which a love triangle of sorts emerges. The story fits into the modern British and Irish short story tradition of William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, and Tessa Hadley and is a decent example of the style. Burnside has a new novel, The Glister, coming out in March.March 24, “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen – The narrator insinuates herself into the odd friendship of Jacob and Ilan. The two men are talkers, name-dropping intellectuals who delight in both low and high culture. The narrator is mesmerized by them and they see her as a sort of “mascot.” Then she gets caught between the two men. They seem to be quarreling initially, but a mystery emerges, something involving time travel and all sorts of odd meta-physics. This one is an excerpt from Galchen’s debut, Atmospheric Disturbances.March 31, “Great Experiment” by Jeffrey Eugenides – This is a memorable story, one that seems even more timely now than when it was published. Kendall is a poet with a day job working for eighty-two-year-old Jimmy Dimon’s boutique publishing house, helping Dimon publish whatever strikes Dimon’s fancy, an abridged edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in this case. Kendall is bitter, underpaid, and unsupported by his equally bitter wife making him easy prey for Dimon’s crooked accountant, Piasecki, who ropes Kendall into an embezzlement scheme. Eugenides strikes a nice balance in this one. The reader feels sympathy for Kendall’s predicament but also a loathing for his tendency to blame all his ills on others. Eugenides hasn’t had any new books out in a while, but he recently edited the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. Links: Good ReadingsApril 7, “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” by Ha Jin – Awkward, innocent Wanren is living in a rooming house for prostitutes in Flushing, Queens. Short on rent, Wanren is pushed into service as a driver by the landlady (and madame) Mrs. Chen. Wanren becomes like a brother to the three girls he lives with, but falls for one of them, Huong and hatches a plan to start a new life with her. Jin offers up an engaging peek into a hidden subculture of illegal immigrants, sweatshops, and sex workers. Another memorable story from the magazine this year. Jin’s most recent book is last year’s A Free Life.April 14, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Boyle was the New Yorker’s first repeat visitor to the fiction department last year, and by mid-April no less. This story offers a somewhat more generic vision of suburban malaise than is typical of Boyle (again in California), but it also goes for the gusto. Like Wakefield of Doctorow’s story in January, Boyle’s Lonnie plays a sort of disappearing act, not with himself, but with his baby instead. Unable to stop himself, Lonnie dismantles his life almost in slow motion and it’s hard to look away, though you want to. No natural disasters here, though.April 21, “The Repatriates” by Sana Krasikov – Grisha and Lera spent a decade in America finding opportunity but Grisha, though he finds plenty of success and remuneration, becomes disillusioned and has visions of greater things back in Russia. As the title indicates, this is a story of repatriation, rather than the expatriation that has been an inspiration for so many expats writing in America. That unique element, plus the exotic locale of Russia (I’m a sucker for exotic locales), made this one a winner for me. This story appeared in Krasikov’s debut, One More Year. Krasikov also appeared in our Year in Reading and penned a guest post for us.April 28, “Bullfighting” by Roddy Doyle – British suburban malaise takes wing to Iberia. In this very memorable story, Donal and his middle-aged buddies plan a guys’ trip to Spain, where Doyle serves up a compelling mix. The guys all have fun, getting away from the families and all that, but Doyle also makes clear how circumscribed their lives really are and how finding real joy and escape is a near impossibility. Doyle’s latest is a collection of stories, The Deportees.May 5, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – This was a very affecting story that stayed with me a long time and that I still remember vividly eight months after first reading it. Proulx captures the frontier, Western spirit as well as any writer ever has, but she certainly doesn’t romanticize it. The hardships and loneliness faced by homesteaders Archie and Rose McLaverty are unfathomable to us today. A must read. This story appears in Proulx’s most recent collection, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.May 12, “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li – This is a strange story with a surreal quality that seems common in contemporary Asian fiction. At its heart though, the story is about an older generation being bewildered and wounded by the younger. In China, where the story takes place, modernization has come quickly, and one imagines that the older folks must look upon the younger ones like aliens. In Li’s story, an allegedly unfaithful father has been publicly pilloried on his daughter’s popular blog and become something of a national scapegoat. Teacher Fei is sympathetic and tracks down the man, as much to commiserate with him as to try to understand. Li’s debut novel The Vagrants comes out in February.May 19, “East Wind” by Julian Barnes – Another entry in the British suburban malaise column (though technically the malaise is felt by the seaside). Vernon lives in a small beach town. “He’d moved here to have no weather in his life.” He isn’t looking for love but unexpectedly finds it (or something like it) with Andrea, an immigrant waitress with East German roots. She’s got a skeleton in the closet, one that was particular appropriate for an Olympic year. Barnes’ latest is his memoir Nothing to be Frightened of.May 26, “The Full Glass” by John Updike – Updike makes his second appearance of 2008, and he’s feeling old in this one, kicking off with the senior citizen narrator’s pharmaceutical regimen. It’s not long before he’s reminiscing about growing up during the Great Depression and then alighting from one reminiscence to another with the notion of his various habits tying the memories together. A solid story that has a very different narrative arc from most of what appears in the magazine. Links: Ward SixJune 2, “A Night at the Opera” by Janet Frame – This brief story was a previously unpublished piece by the late writer from New Zealand. It is essentially a reverie – a distant memory – that bubbles up in the mind of an institutionalized woman as she watches a Marx Brothers film. Another more “experimental” piece than is typically seen in the magazine. Frame wrote Faces in the Water and several other novels.June 9 & 16, The Summer Fiction issue: “Natasha” by Vladimir Nabokov – A lovely line: “With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time.” Last year, Verses and Versions, a collection of poetry translated by Nabokov was published. “Tits Up in a Ditch” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – Proulx paints tough life for Dakotah, born to a teen-aged mom, raised by her cruel grandparents. She gets married, has a baby, the marriage falls apart, and she joins the Army. The tragedies are laid on thick from there, but it’s a vibrant, gripping read. “Don’t Cry” by Mary Gaitskill (registration required) – This has a very “issues of the day” feel to it. Janice goes with her friend Katya to Ethiopia where Katya is looking to adopt a child. There are roadblocks both bureaucratic and emotional and all in all it’s a solid story. The rendering of Ethiopia is nicely done. This is the title story in Gaitskill’s forthcoming collection.June 23, “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A sweeping story about a woman named Nwamgba, almost epic in its scope, and in following her life, we are witness to the many changes over the decades that overtake her land and people. Nwamgba bears a son Anikwenwa after many miscarriages but then is widowed. She sends Anikwenwa to school where he learns English. Adichie explores the distance that grows up between Nwamgba and Anikwenwa, she knowing only the old ways, he becoming steadily assimilated by the new. By the time Grace, Nwamgba’s grand-daughter is born and comes of age, the generations are separated by a gulf, and the story itself becomes an intriguing parable of the changes that came to Africa in the 1900s, what many things were altered and what few things nonetheless endured. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won much praise when it was published.June 30, “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro – Munro makes her second appearance of 2008. This story, like the prior week’s story, covers decades. In this one, a family disintegrates and then two of its members come back into contact. It’s not quite as good as “Free Radicals,” but, being an Alice Munro story, it’s still quite good.July 7 & 14, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – With the year only half over, Boyle logs his third appearance in the magazine. There are few “literary” writers that can base a story around the outlandish and pull it off. Were Boyle’s stories to actually take place in real life, the climactic moments would be fodder for those “strange but true” stories that get forwarded to everyone’s email inboxes. It’s a quality that not all readers appreciate. This story, as the title suggests, involves quite a few rats. In my opinion Boyle pulls it off. But then, I’m a Boyle fan. Links: Too Shy to Stop.July 21, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – A very fun read. This story takes us into an elementary school, among harried, altruistic teachers and their petty gossip. I loved how Bynum adopts the proscribed vocabulary of the elementary school, referring to all her characters as Ms. or Mr. The big news in the teachers’ lounge is that the flighty Ms. Duffy has returned pregnant from a long trip overseas. There’s much to love here. It doesn’t have the ponderousness of emotion that so many New Yorker stories bear. The story is an excerpt from the novel Ms. Hempel Chronicles.July 28, “The Teacher” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – A rather strange story and fairly memorable, though we’re getting into the last half of 2008 here, so I suppose I didn’t read this all that long ago. This one could have been tightened up a bit, but I loved the off-kilter characters: the narrator, two spinsters, and some sort of latter day mystic. I have no real-life analogs for them, yet they leaped off the page for me. The plot was less intriguing to me, however. A little tighter, and this story would have been a favorite. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize in 1983 for Heat and Dust. Links: EmdashesAugust 4, “Clara” by Roberto Bolaño – 2008 was the year of Bolaño, and the New Yorker took part in the surge of interest surrounding the late author. This brief story seems almost in a dream. The narrator is in love with Clara. They write letters to each other and talk on the phone from afar. The distance between them seems more than just physical. It’s as if the universe has willed it. Bolaño’s 2666 was published in translation to much acclaim last year.August 11 & 18, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris – More suburban malaise. This time of the variety that takes place in Brooklyn. But it’s not about a dinner party so much as waiting for a dinner party to occur. The dinner party is one of the mundanities of life – the couple hosting the party clearly thinks so – but much as we rebel against these mundanities it doesn’t take much to make you realize that bitching and moaning isn’t rebelling. This story has suspense and a very nice narrative arc that I won’t ruin by divulging its details. Ferris’ debut Then We Came to the End was a National Book Award finalist. Ferris appeared in our Year in Reading in 2007. Links: Too Shy to Stop, I Read A Short Story TodayAugust 25, “Awake” by Tobias Wolff – This tiny story is a well rendered little sketch. Wolff takes us into the head of Richard, lying awake in bed, musing on various things and wanting to put the moves Ana, his girlfriend, lying next to him. The story captures well the competing influences in the mind of the young man: sex and all the complications that come with the pursuit of it. Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories came out last year. Links: Under the Midnight Sun, One Real Story, Too Shy to StopSeptember 1, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame – This is the second story by the late Frame in the magazine in 2008 and this one is pretty mind blowing. Written in 1954, it’s about a dwarf named Naida, who, living very much in her own head, believes that she will be released on her 21st birthday from the institution that houses her. She also believes that she will get married and live some kind of glamorous life. It’s clear that Naida is mentally disturbed and that she would likely not fare well on the “outside,” but she is also incredibly sympathetic. Frame captures Naida’s odd mindset that fuses child-like thoughts with adult desires. It’s a powerful, affecting story that is a major departure from what is typically found in the magazine.September 8, “Face” by Alice Munro – Munro lands in the magazine for a third time in 2008. Like “Deep-Holes” from earlier in 2008, “Face” covers almost a whole lifetime in a short story. The narrator has a troubling childhood featuring a cruel father and a large birthmark on his face. The narrator grows up and becomes a successful radio actor and announcer (“He has a face for radio” was the juvenile thought that crept into my head) and in his old age is reminiscing about a childhood event that haunts him, when his birthmark came into focus for him and when his life was seemingly set on the course that has taken him through the decades. Munro makes one think that many novels might be better served as short stories, particularly in the hands of a master like her. Links: I Read A Short Story TodaySeptember 15, “A Spoiled Man” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – I found this story to be irresistibly charming because its protagonist was so irrepressible. Rezak insinuates himself into a job among the large staff on the estate of a man and his American wife. He lives in a home of his own construction that might be best described as a crate and breaks it down and moves it with him wherever he goes. Much time is spent describing Rezak’s ingenious modifications to the crate. Rezak is, it seems, a man who would be happy almost no matter what. He even finds himself a wife. But the realities of Rezak’s circumstances eventually close in on him. Mueenuddin’s debut collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will be published in February. Links: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was one of Manil Suri’s Year in Reading picks.September 22, “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon – I’m generally a big fan of Hemon’s work though I’ll acknowledge that it seems like he goes back to the same well for all of his fiction, plumbing his own experience of leaving Bosnia before the war and trying to assimilate into American life (and particularly American academic and literary life). In this story Hamon’s narrator is back in Bosnia, returned from the U.S., but he is still at prey to the awkwardness of his double life, illuminated when through a confluence of events, a famous American author visiting the country ends up joining him at his parents’ house for dinner. There is a neat story within a story element to this one as well (another hallmark that crops up in Hemon’s work). Hemon’s latest is 2008 National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.September 29 “Three” by Andrea Lee – Three vignettes about three people who died. This story didn’t do much for me. Even though I read it just three months ago, I had trouble remembering it. Did I inadvertantly skip this one? Could be. Lee’s latest is Lost Hearts in ItalyOctober 6, “The Idiot President” by Daniel Alarcon – Alarcon appears in the New Yorker fairly frequently. This story, like his others, takes place in Latin America. In this one, the narrator expects to be leaving for America soon, but in the meantime he has joined an acting troupe, traveling around. They put on a memorable performance in a mining town for the workers there. There’s not much drama here. It’s mostly a tale of the narrator’s stasis. Alarcon’s most recent novel is Lost City Radio. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.October 13, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Lee – The second story by Li in 2008 and this one is also very good. It is about a middle-aged, unmarried man, Hanfeng, and woman, Siyu. Hanfang’s mother, Professor Dai, was Siyu’s teacher. Dai is the formidable sort and would like to see the two married, less out of compassion that out of a desire to see the two of them squared away. Siyu and Hanfeng pursue the relationship in order to please Professor Dai, but the pleasure in the story is the way Yi explores the relationships and teases the back story out of the various interactions.October 20, “Sleep” by Roddy Doyle – This is Doyle’s second story of 2008, and it’s a snack of a story filled with musing and reminiscing. In some ways the story is about being with someone and what you think about while they sleep – when you are alone, but not really because that person is right next to you – but the story is about a lot more too.October 27, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea” by J.M.G. Le Clezio (registration required) – Le Clezio raised his profile quite a bit in the U.S. this year with his surprise Nobel Prize win, but I regret to say that this story was a major dud for me. There’s just nothing to hang your hat on in this one. Daniel is the boy of the title, and though he has never seen the sea, he is obsessed with it. So he leaves his boarding school and heads to the water. I didn’t enjoy the thoroughly dreamy language in this one, nor the lack of specifics. It was told like a myth or parable but for no reason that I could discern. It was as if Le Clezio was using the dreamy style to excuse himself from the constraint of constructing a believable narrative. Links: After Le Clezio won the big prize, we heard from one of his American publishers.November 3, “The Fat Man’s Race” by Louise Erdrich – The New Yorker continues to go back through its roster of writers as Erdrich makes a second appearance on the year. This one is the magazine’s most bite-sized of the year, an amuse bouche as all eyes turn to the election. It’s about a woman who is sleeping with devil, which maybe makes it fitting for election week. This story may or may not be in Erdrich’s new collection The Red Convertible.November 10, “Leopard” by Wells Tower – A very inventive story from Tower whose fiction and non-fiction I’d love to see more of in the New Yorker. This one is told in the second person about (by?) an unpopular eleven-year-old boy. Tower gets into the boy’s head incredibly well – the perpetually wounded pride, the outlandish fantasies that punish those who have wronged him. This story appears in Tower’s excellent forthcoming collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Links: Sana Krasikov picked Tower’s collection for her Year in Reading and Tower appeared in our Year in Reading as well.November 17, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem – This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in the New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a “Lostronaut” aboard some sort of space station, to her “Dearest Chase.” She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story. Lethem has an as yet untitled novel slated for September. Links: DiscoverNovember 24, “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat – This story takes us way out of the New Yorker comfort zone to the rundown neighborhoods of Haiti. It looks at Pascal, a young man who occupies two worlds. His parents run a fairly upstanding restaurant but Pascal has been befriended by the gang members who patronize the place. Pascal gets in a bit too deep with them and the result is quite gripping. Danticat’s most recent book is her memoir Brother, I’m Dying.December 1, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – It took me a while to get into this very long story but in the end I liked it quite a bit. It basically chronicles the relationship between an old Pakistani patriarch Harouni and his young mistress Husna. Husna is not of the same social standing as Harouni but her proximity to him allows her to experience an extravagant life. She seems to understand the trade-off, but not enough to maintain her position once Harouni’s daughters appear on the scene. This story, along with Mueenuddin’s earlier in 2008, shows off an expansive, almost lyrical style. This is the title story in Mueenuddin’s forthcoming debut collection.December 8, “Waiting” by Amos Oz – This was an engaging story about a daily routine interrupted. There is a bit of mystery behind it. Instead of meeting small-town Israeli bureaucrat Benny Avni for lunch as she always does, Avni’s wife has sent him a cryptic note. Avni is very rigid in his ways and so we follow him through all of his perfectly sensible rationalizations for Luda’s sudden change in behavior. The enjoyment (if that is the right word) comes in watching a sense of concern creep into the actions of this otherwise aloof man. Oz has a new book Rhyming Life and Death coming out in April.December 15, “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor – Trevor, perhaps the most frequent fiction contributor to the New Yorker over the last decade, makes his first appearance of 2008. I’m not a huge fan of Trevor’s gray, damp landscapes and characters but he is no doubt a masterful storyteller and a genius with the British version of suburban malaise. This one is unique in that it places a pair of itinerant, immigrant painters at the center of the action. Told partly through their eyes, the story of the woman living as caretaker for her crippled cousin is seen from an outsider’s perspective. The prolific Trevor’s most recent collection is Cheating at Canasta.December 22 & 29 – The year closes out with the annual winter fiction issue (slimmer than usual this time). There were four stories in this one. Here they are in order from my most favorite to least: “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim, “Some Women” by Alice Munro (a fourth New Yorker appearance in 2008!) (registration required), “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead (registration required), and “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño.And to wrap up this already overlong exercise, my favorite New Yorker stories of 2008 were “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame, “Leopard” by Wells Tower, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem, and “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim.Bonus Link: The 2008 Year in Reading series
Death is change. This is particularly true for abstract things that, by definition, can’t die. So when someone of some repute pronounces the death of something abstract–of God, of art, of history, of poetry, of fiction–I’m quick to think like a serf cheering at the funeral of a king: X may be dead, but long live X.
So it went with a recent Mother Jones article by Ted Genoways. Presiding like a priest over Fiction’s sinking casket, a number of people in the literary world rushed to the scene as though it were a birth. The possibilities of online “comment” sections shined their brightest as writers and editors of some of the better fictional content on the Internet pronounced, with great clarity, that fiction isn’t dead at all. It’s changing, they said. Castigating and criticizing Genoways like any good town hall mob or meeting of minds, they built an insight that, in my mind, goes like this: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.
Literature is supposed to be a culture’s conversation with itself. A way of telling the story of its time, its moment. It’s a healthy and necessary thing, an authentic expression of the truth of the age. As a writer and student of literature and of this conversation, I went in search of the new fiction. I wanted to see its extent, the borders of its world. I wanted to do a little cartography to glimpse the map of our conversation with ourselves.
And I found gobs and gobs of it. Voices upon voices upon voices. Blogs and journals and magazines, communities of writers and readers and editors all talking at the same time to everyone and therefore no one in particular. It was and continues to be overwhelming. In my search for the conversation, I didn’t know who to listen to or why. I kept looking, keeping track of what I found as I went.
Much of this fiction is short. That is, from 50-1000 words. I’m not sure why. Long fiction exists all over the Internet, but I don’t see it surviving as well as shorter stuff. This could be because of the different kind of attention people pay to text on the Internet as opposed to text on the printed page. We might call this the Tab Effect. If I’m at my office working on the computer, I’ll have at least three tabs open at the same time: The New York Times, Gmail, and something for work. I’ll split my time between these, periodically reading, working, and chatting with friends or writing emails. While these periods of attention may vary, they usually don’t last longer than 30 minutes. The long-story form doesn’t survive this multi-task attention. It’s basic evolutionary competition.
With that in mind, what follows is an annotated list of a few of my favorite finds. These are places I’ve found during my search that I like for various reasons, sites notable for quality of design, content, and approach. Consider them a taste of the new fiction, places to start.
First, look Ben White’s Nanoism. White is a medical school student in Austin who’s developing the quality and presentation of twitter-sized fiction (140 characters or less). This isn’t a new form of fiction: fragments have existed from Gilgamesh to Kafka. But now these small pieces of language have won a currency in our minute-to-minute lives, a chirping and ambient speech. Sites have come about to present these “litwits” (Escarp, Thaumatrope, Outshine, PicFic). The difference with White’s stuff, both his own writing and the writing he publishes, is that in it you can see the litwit taking shape as a valid form, shaped by our technology, for getting at the truth.
For more good editing, but of avant-garde and fantastical stuff, see Dream People. The writing I’ve found here is immaculate in its imagination, both dark and humorous.
Anemone Sidecar also has good avant-garde prose/poetry/language stuff. Organized in unique chapters, these are lighter, more emotive and pastel-ish pieces presented in a very attractive way (sponsored by the ever-growing Ravenna Press).
Robot Melon has a completely unpretentious design. I get an excellent vibration from them. No bells and whistles, just issues full of writing, each piece with a different solid, metallic background. The ancient problem of the throbbing ego is ever-present in online fiction, but RB seems to manage it (as does Sir! Magazine, which I found yesterday.)
For lots of bells and whistles, but not necessarily ego, see two online writing communities: Fictionaut and Six Sentences. Each is under the auspices of another journal (the unstoppable and incredible Luna Park and the smaller but more town-like What Can You Say in Six Sentences, respectively). Each community provides the opportunity to share writing, read and comment on others’ writing, and organizes the data therein by theme and length. These are like perpetual workshops that one may watch as they happen, like a surgery or a convention. There is good writing here, but also many other opportunities to communicate about writing. (Fictionaut is by invitation only, though I’ve joined 6S and made several friends).
Bartleby Snopes is a no-nonsense, well-edited, straight ahead website for consistently good fiction. I’m impressed with their content, but maybe more so with their emphasis on editor-writer communication. Responses to submissions come within two weeks with personalized comments–a rare thing.
For a somewhat small place with great editors and a silly, intrepid style, see Zygote in My Coffee. The issues flow like water with all manner of poems and stories–it’s like going to that small coffee shop whose t-shirt you bought and wear all the time. You root for them.
Though it’s not a journal anymore per se, Eyeshot has created a unique approach to fiction’s relationship to social justice. Email the editors of Eyeshot with a donation for earthquake relief in Haiti, and they’ll thoroughly comment on your short story or poem. Everyone’s looking for comments on their fiction. The world is full of problems. Eyeshot puts these two truths together. For more of what I’d call “pragmatic fiction,” or fiction that works, see Greg McQueen’s project 100 Stories for Haiti, The Zero Emissions Book Project, Bottom Dog Press, and this issue of The Short Review.
I also think more conversation should occur between the literary and genre worlds of fiction. Images and fantasy are a part of storytelling, and each community would benefit from increased interaction with the other. Space Westerns is a reliable site that provides stories about exactly what its title says. Space Westerns. These are imaginative and indicative stories presented by a magazine that cares for its writers and readers. (See also Jason Sanford, Short Story Me, and Short, Fast, and Deadly.)
Meanwhile, the famous comment of the Nobel committee-member about the insularity of literature in English in the US continues to be true. Here we’ve only mentioned literature written originally in English and not literature in translation from everywhere else in the world. To branch out to more world literature, see the St. Petersburg Review, The Barcelona Review, and Words Without Borders.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to recognize all the purveyors of fiction that don’t need recognition. The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Esquire, etc. There are also many literary magazines that have been around for years or decades that post fiction online. I know this list should continue with these other names, but I’m more interested for now in learning about what exists but isn’t as well known.
And furthermore, let all this be said with the obvious caveat: there’s much much more out there. Every site has a list of links to other sites that have lists of links to other sites that have lists of links, etc. The above are merely good indications of different types that I’ve found. (For a growing list, see the site I curate, fictiondaily.org.)
If one were to make a map of this new world of fiction (and it’s starting–see the Indie Publishing Wiki) the title of the map would have to be something like “The Thriving Life of Fiction.” This is because fiction is flourishing in myriad directions. Though, to continue with the map metaphor, its capitals and governments are shifting power and location. What was once a strict monarchy is evolving more and more into a muscular democracy. Voices, speaking from all corners, are gaining legitimacy through their own emergent means as opposed to the upper crust of university journals and large publishing houses. This isn’t a new shift: small zines and self-publishers have existed for decades (Chicago seems to have a penchant for tracking this: see Quimby’s and the Chicago Underground Library).
What’s changing is access. I might read a short story in a magazine in Australia. Then I’ll follow a link to a new journal that’s just popped up in York, England. Then I’ll read an author bio and find the author’s blog, which has more of her writing and links to other magazines and the magazines and blogs of her friends in Nashville, New York, Portland, Austin, etc. The et cetera continues indefinitely. I find new places everyday. More and more and more writing.
Like the political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the people are acting and felling old, crumbling giants of power in favor of their own voices, slowly bringing the system to the masses. And this is the hope of fiction: that it take an active role in our culture’s conversation with itself. That citizens read and explore and question what it means to be a human being by reading the stories that their peers compose. In this sense fiction is very much alive, but in the mode of becoming. It’s old forms may be dying, but in these small journals and blogs it’s being born again. So I say, once more: Fiction is dead, long live Fiction.
[Image credit: boo!berry]