A Year in Reading: Benjamin Hale

December 5, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 7 7 min read

In the months following the publication of my novel in February, I didn’t write any fiction for a long while. This was due in part to being very busy with traveling, teaching, touring, writing nonfiction and little essayettes like this one, but also in part because of a particular type of depression that some other fiction writers I know have also experienced: the strangely sinking, empty feeling that comes after publishing one’s first book. At times I was thinking things along the lines of, “What’s the point of any of this bullshit? What have I accomplished? What have I changed? Maybe I should move back home and go back to painting houses.”

You work with single-minded devotion on something for years with hope, anxiety, desperation, ambition, daily dumping the greater part of your energy into the dream of seeing this thing bound between covers and on display in a bookstore — and then it actually happens. As Bill Hicks once said in a monologue about quitting smoking, “You know, in a way, I feel sorry for people who’ve never been addicted to anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want something that bad… and get it.” True — the elation of seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time is ineffable. But like the cigarette, it’s followed by a vacuous wake. So what now? After the last ripples from the initial splash of attention (if you’re lucky enough to get one) fade, after the bookstore readings are over, after the young, first-time novelist’s amuse-bouche taste of glamour is swallowed, digested, and passed: now what? Well, congratulations — you’re a writer. This is your job now. So get to work. Write another book.

But that first book you were working on for years with slavish devotion because you wanted to write that book. Now you feel like you have to simply write a book. This is the germ agent of the “second book syndrome.” And the unfortunate result is often that a writer’s “second” book (it’s rarely the case that a writer’s second published book is actually his or her second written one) is a disappointment, written as it was under the attendant loom of self-conscious anxieties about the market, one’s reputation, one’s readership. Less ambition, less love went into this one. Behind the surface of the text the reader may faintly hear the sound of the writer punching the clock, just going to work as joylessly and mechanically as a factory worker or Joyce Carol Oates.

And I didn’t want that to be me. Whenever I tried to write fiction during this first-book hangover time, I could feel myself writing just to write — rather than writing because I felt that what I was writing needed to be written, or deserved to be read. I wasn’t in love with what I was writing. One often hears the advice given to aspiring fiction writers, “Write every day.” It’s a piece of advice that I’ve come to disagree with. In fact, a major problem with many of the mediocre books that march out into the world in astonishing numbers is that they were written just to be written. Now I think a better piece of advice is: “Write only if you have something to say.”

I needed to find another novel that needed, wanted to be written. I needed to find another novel to fall in love with. I needed to get as far away as I could from Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Gawker, YouTube, and all the other depressing shit that keeps me from writing. I sublet my New York apartment to a friend and rented a house in a tiny town at the southern edge of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica during September and October. This location wasn’t quite a random decision. I had a good friend who died a few years ago, whose father was from this area of Costa Rica, who had always talked about what a beautiful place it is, and this trip was in small part a personal pilgrimage to him; also, the novel I was trying to make myself write involves Afro-Caribbean labor on banana plantations along the Eastern coast of Central America, so there was an element of a research trip in it as well. But mostly what I wanted was to go to a quiet, beautiful place where I knew no one, to turn my back on the vast and inconsequential roar of the internet’s hive, to be the fuck alone with my brain awhile in a place where I could sit down and get to work, not on a novel, but on a novel I would grow so much in love with I’d take a bullet for it — the only kind that really deserves to be written.

I took along a stack of books to read that all wound up battered, water-warped, and mold-speckled by the time I returned. Most of the books I took with me were research-related. I tend to do a tremendous amount of research for my fiction. So if I’m writing fiction, I’m probably reading much more nonfiction than fiction, because I’m raiding reality for interesting things to steal and fictionalize. Mostly biographies and histories and things like that, but also philosophy, because I think that the realm of ideas is crucially important to good fiction, a position I’m doubly defensive of because I think these days it’s generally poopooed inside the opinion-cloud of what contemporary American fiction is supposed to look like (which, broadly put, says “yes” to characters pensively looking out of windows and blowing on cups of coffee, and “no” to characters talking about the universe in expansive blocks of dialogue, which is more up my alley). And I had realized, or thought I had, that I needed to familiarize myself to some extent with postcolonial theory in order to write this novel, which I imagined would have something to do with the history of colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean. So to get me started I took along a stack of what I figured were some of the seminal texts of postcolonialism that I had never read: a lot of Gayatri Spivak (which is the sort of thing that’s pretty much unreadable unless you’re taking a class in it), Edward Saïd, and Frantz Fanon.

coverAnd I must say, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was doubtlessly the most mind-altering discovery of all my reading in 2011. After slogging through Spivak, I was relieved and delighted to discover that Fanon is, among other things, marvelously fun to read. Granted, Fanon is really a proto-postcolonialist, as he was writing long before that became a word — and indeed, while much of the book remains as potent and relevant as it was in the 60s, The Wretched of the Earth is in some ways an incredible snapshot of its time, as a great deal about the global political situation he was writing about has dramatically changed, especially since the end of the Cold War. But the fury of the dispossessed in his writing is eternal. His writing is mesmerizing, incantatory; his sentences turn circles in the sky before descending to attack, and every word is charged with absolute rage. There is an almost Biblical quality to his writing; it reminds me of Erich Auerbach’s description of the Talmud, words that “must enter the earthly realm from some unknown heights or depths.” It is not brittle academic language, it is the language of prophecy. Listen:

The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. At a universal level, such a statement in no way means we feel implicated in the technical feats or artistic creations of the West. In concrete terms Europe has been bloated out of all proportions by the gold and raw materials from such colonial countries as Latin America, China, and Africa. Today Europe’s tower of opulence faces these continents, for centuries the point of departure of their shipments of diamonds, oil, silk and cotton, timber, and exotic produce to this very same Europe. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks in Bordeaux and Liverpool owe their importance to the trade and deportation of millions of slaves. And when we hear the head of a European nation declare with hand on heart that he must come to the aid of the unfortunate peoples of the underdeveloped world, we do not tremble with gratitude.

Or how about this, which gave me no small degree of inward pause as I sat reading it on the beach in Costa Rica:

The national bourgeoisie establishes holiday resorts and playgrounds for entertaining the Western bourgeoisie. This sector goes by the name of tourism and becomes a national industry for this very purpose. We only have to look at what has happened in Latin America if we want proof of the way the ex-colonized bourgeoisie can be transformed into “party” organizer. The casinos in Havana and Mexico City, the beaches of Rio, Copacabana, and Acapulco, the young Brazilian and Mexican girls, the thirteen-year-old mestizas, are the scars of this depravation of the national bourgeoisie. Because it is lacking in ideas, because it is inward-looking, cut off from the people, sapped by its congenital incapacity to evaluate issues on the basis of the nation as a whole, the national bourgeoisie assumes the role of manager for the companies of the West and turns its country virtually into a bordello for Europe. Once again we need only to look at the pitiful spectacle of certain republics in Latin America. U.S. businessmen, banking magnates, and technocrats “jet down to the tropics,” and for a week to ten days wallow in the sweet depravity of their private “reserves.”

I read Richard Philcox’s more recent translation from the French, and in his afterward, he discusses his process of trying to preserve the hypnotic and songlike quality of oration, knowing that Fanon dictated the book to his wife in the last year of his life as he lay dying of leukemia (it was published posthumously in 1961):

In fact the many lyrical, not to say delirious, digressions in Les Damnés de la Terre are proof of a man dictating his text with the knowledge that he has little time left to live and desperate to put his thoughts, every single one of them, down on paper.

coverAnd it is precisely that quality to the book — the urgency, the necessity of it — that I found most relieving, most inspiring, most invigorating about it. So often I will read a book that feels as if it was written just to be written. For instance, at some point earlier this year I read T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, a novel he wrote a few years ago (I think he’s put out a few since). Boyle has written some great novels, but when I read that book, I could not help but think he phoned that one in. It’s not completely awful, but it simply reads like what it is: a book that was written because, well, it was time to write a book. The Wretched of the Earth was not such a book. I know it’s apples and oranges comparing fiction to nonfiction, but this is a book that has a fire under it. Frantz Fanon was not punching the clock. He was not writing a book because he was a writer and writers write books. He was writing with dire passion, with an intensity of hate that only true love can birth.

That is the kind of book I want to write, and in this respect I hope I can draw some kind of inspiration from it.

“Have the courage to read it,” Jean-Paul Sartre writes in the preface, “primarily because it will make you feel ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling.”


More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011). He is the recipient of the 2012 Bard Fiction Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Award, a University of Iowa Provost’s Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Fellowship, and was nominated for the 2011 Dylan Thomas Prize and the New York Public Library’s 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and The L Magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared, among other places, in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Dissent Magazine, Triple Canopy, This Recording, The Outlet, and The Millions.


  1. I was a factory worker for a few months between college and law school (about 30 years ago) and can affirm that it is joyless and mechanical work, but I am not sure it is fair to state that Joyce Carol Oates goes to work joylessly and mechanically. I’m no devotee of Oates’s fiction, though what I’ve read of her work does not seem to be mass produced. You should have put a period after “factory worker” and avoided the gratuitous cheap shot.

  2. The Wretched of the Earth is a part of my year in reading every year. Thanks for sharing, and good luck finding a novel that you love and would take a bullet for (hopefully you won’t have to).

  3. Benjamin, with all due respect, get over yourself. As someone who has worked a variety of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, your entitlement and arrogance is an insult to labor in its myriad forms. Writing IS rooted in hard work. That apparent import of what your consciousness thinks it has to say may not be nearly as interesting as what your subconscious has to offer. I’ve talked with over 400 writers and the best of them have given into this accidental self-discovery, with the reader carries the torch into the cave, finding more marvels in the dark. Sure, there are a lot of false starts and terrible drafts along the way. But what we presume to know isn’t nearly as wise as what we find out we know (or, more often, don’t know).

  4. I completely agree with you on that last point. But sometimes you carry the torch into the cave and don’t find marvels, and wind up with a book at the end of it anyway — that is quite often the case. My point is, sitting down to think, explore, experience and reflect is often time better spent than forcing yourself to write when you know the juices aren’t flowing. Generally, when I read a book, the critic in me asks three questions: (1) did this book do what it set out to do?; (2) did it do it well?; (3) was it worth doing? When you work at a “real” job, whether it’s blue collar or not, all you need to think about is the first two questions — you can think about the third if you want, but it doesn’t need to be your concern. When you write a book, you must think about this third question. Or, in any case, you should. I once heard Richard Price say, “Don’t worry about writing every day. What’s more important is finding the story you want to tell, that you need to tell — that only you could tell. And when you find that story, you’ll be amazed at how much better your writing is.” I found that comforting, and I’ve very much come to agree with it.

  5. I have to agree wholeheartedly with B.H. here. I write everyday, but better writing happens when one is inspired, when the muse visits. And then the walls could crumble and wouldn’t be noticed. I could block out all sound, disturbed by nothing, as I proof, edit, and find the song in what I am writing. Yeah, it has to sing.

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