Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
“Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.””It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing.” –Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller.” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn.When it comes to a reputation for difficulty, the book business is second only to the restaurant business… and no one has yet figured out how to run an online restaurant. The ascendance of e-commerce – along with the consolidation of corporate capital, the real estate bubble, and a host of concurrent factors – has over the last 15 years profoundly altered the reading lives of Americans. The changes are not exclusively for the worse; in the small town where I grew up, for example, it’s become a hell of a lot easier for a high-school sophomore to get his hands on a volume of, say, Angela Carter. But, as the recent documentary “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore” suggests, the mercantile landscape grows increasingly inhospitable for independent booksellers. A recent spate of high-profile bookstore closings underscores the point (via Ed).Why does this matter? After a Joshua Ferris reading at an independent bookstore the other night, a friend of mine proposed that our cultural lives are forged by a confluence of information and experience. Information – that Rolling Stone gave the album Born to Run five stars, for example – is a perfectly reasonable way to get a handle on a work of art. But to experience “Born to Run” exploding off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at night, in the summer, with the windows down and a person you love in the passenger’s seat, is to find it seared forever in one’s soul, like Marcel’s madeleine.The corporate book-purveyor, armed with the best market research money can buy, directs information toward consumers. If I want to find out what Barnes & Noble thinks New Yorkers are likely to want to buy, the downstairs tables at the Union Square B & N can’t be beat. And there are fine books on those tables. But as Walter Benjamin observes, “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.” The experience of the Barnes & Noble – quality controlled, wood-veneered, perfectly odorless – disappears as soon as one is out the door.A great bookstore, by contrast, is a staging ground for experience. The experience of the zealous clerk. The experience of the comely fellow browser. The experience of seeing Gordon Lish’s first book of stories nestled against Eudora Welty’s in a teetering pile, and reading the first page of “For Jerome” in situ, and feeling that private excitement of the mind. The experience of entering something larger than oneself… the republic of letters. As public libraries downsize stacks in favor of internet kiosks, this last experience, so important for so many of us, is increasingly the preserve of the independent bookstore.Here in New York, the indie isn’t dead – far from it. Passionate owners and managers and employees understand that they’re not just making sales, but making room for an experience. As a way of thanking them, and celebrating the arrival (finally!) of spring – and in the spirit of Walter Benjamin – I herewith offer a highly selective walking tour of my favorite bookstores in New York. “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” trans. Harry Zohn.Stop 1: Gotham Book Mart (16 East 46th between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue)If my wanderings these days took me further uptown, I’d probably have some more stores to single out. As it is, I’ll start with the Gotham Book Mart. This venerable institution, featured in a sexually charged scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, is also John Updike’s favorite bookstore. This is, as far as I know, all that these two men have in common. In addition to fantastic selection of used & new 20th century literature, the Gotham boasts rare memorabilia, antiquarian treasures, and the best selection of literary magazines you’ll find anywhere… period.Stop 2: The Strand (828 Broadway at East 12th.)Having got your fill of midtown, amble down Broadway past 14th St. Now we’re really in book country. The Strand, another New York institution, advertises “8 miles of books,” but it feels more like 16. A recent redesign has stripped away some of the flyblown, foxed, and watermarked pleasures of shopping in The Strand, but the vertiginous sensation of being surrounded by millions of cheap books remains… a feeling like playing hooky with a slight fever. Be sure to troll the Parisian dollar stalls outside, as great finds abound. Half-price review copies are great if you’re looking for contemporary fiction. The Strand remains a wonderfully terrible place to go searching for a specific book… I never leave empty-handed, but generally spend several hours and several dollars discovering volumes I wasn’t planning to buy.Stop 3: St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 3rd Avenue at 9th Street).Continuing downtown, forgo the cramped Astor Place B & N in favor of St. Mark’s Bookstore. You can’t turn around in this fantastic shop without elbowing a brilliant intellectual… they’re drawn here by the shelves full of recondite critical theory, post-New York School poetry collections, and cutting-edge art books… and by the feeling of rubbing elbows with the East Village denizens who penned them. Pick up some Slavoj Zizek, enjoy the condescension of an existentialist clerk… and be sure to wear your plastic-framed glasses. You’ll emerge feeling 15 IQ points smarter.Stop 4: The folding tables on W. 4th St. (W. 4th between West Broadway and Mercer)Okay, not strictly a bookstore, but what’s better than lollygagging on a sidewalk on a sunny day and discovering W.G. Sebald? Prices are negotiable, and the guys who sell the books make even the most hardcore bibliophile look minor league.Stop 5: Oscar Wilde Books (15 Christopher Street between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl.)The country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore has been serving the West Village for more than 40 years. For founder Craig Rodwell, a “gay and lesbian bookstore” was not a clearinghouse for erotica, but rather a bookstore whose shelves spoke to the lives of the gay community. The store has been central to advocacy efforts for gay rights and, in the 80s, recognition of the growing HIV/AIDS crisis. Many a young poet has worked the register here, and a recent program invited authors like Michael Cunningham to spend an afternoon clerking, offering patrons a unique chance to chat informally with their favorite writers. Or was that Three Lives I’m thinking of? (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place)Stop 6: Unoppressive, Non-Imperialist Books (34 Carmine St. between Bedford and Bleecker Streets)This tiny shop on Carmine St. seems to run largely on remainders. Thus, prices are low, low, low. The sensibility is well-represented by the name. Here’s the place to find Zen esoterica, punk rock poetry, and various books from the political left. And you don’t have to worry about your money going to right-wing PACs. Much like…Stop 7: Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston) Having worked up an appetite, stop into this gorgeous loft space on atmospheric Crosby St., and buy soup or a knish or coffee… for a great cause. This bookstore, staffed by volunteers, stocked with donations, sends 100% of its proceeds to its parent organization, Housing Works, which provides medical care, job training, housing, and other services to New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS who have faced homelessness. It’s truly an amazing project, and boasts some of the best literary programming in the city… like a recent reading/concert featuring Jonathan Lethem in conversation with George Saunders. Free! Of course, I’m biased, as Housing Works signs my paychecks.Stop 8: McNally Robinson (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)McNally is maybe the most lavishly appointed bookstore in the city. Here, much attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the literary experience. Book displays feature small presses that produce beautiful books, like Coach House Books or Archipelago Books. The fiction section used to be arranged nationally (French, German, English, etc.), but is now, alas, alphabetical. Still, it’s hard to leave McNally without something lovely. If you’re not sure what to read, a friendly and knowledgeable staff is eager to share its favorite titles.Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)BookCourt is not only my neighborhood independent bookstore, it’s the very model of a neighborhood bookstore. The selection of books and periodicals is large enough to meet everyone’s interests, and well-curated enough not to be overwhelming. Displays are tailored to the neighborhood’s reading habits… the BookCourt top 10 is always strikingly different from that of any bookstore in Manhattan. Benches on the sidewalk out front offer a comfortable place to crack open one’s latest purchases.Stop 10: Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw)This ur-used bookstore is where I took in the above-mentioned Joshua Ferris reading, and so I’ll defer to Mr. Ferris for a description: “There’s creaking hardwood floors, a pleasant dog on a thrift-store recliner, and the inimitable smell that comes of old comforting books long shelved back to back. It’s my favorite used bookstore in New York because it gets everything right: the big plate-glass window, the bell on the door, the enviable view of Manhattan, and the always well-stocked fiction section. Plus, a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well. […] Open Mic, special guests, and food and drinks, including Moxie soda (oldest in America) and corndogs. Freebird is the kind of place that reminds you of why you read, why you wander New York streets in search of something, and why you know it when you find it.” (via TEV)And now my feet are tired and it’s time for a beer and a corndog. But if you want to keep exploring, you should check these out, too (commenters, please feel free to add to this list):Community Bookstore and Cafe of Park Slope (143 7th Avenue Brooklyn, between Carroll and Garfield Streets)Spoonbill & Sugartown (218 Bedford Avenue Brooklyn, between North 4th and North 5th Streets)Nkiru Books (68 St. Marks Place Brooklyn between 5th and 6th Avenues)
Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
An investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer. A journalist’s creed is more like “tell, clarify, prove, cite, reiterate.” When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing. Such is the Millennium trilogy by investigative journalist Stieg Larsson, composed of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which currently sits atop every bestseller list in the country. It’s also one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read.
The Millennium trilogy, so named for the magazine where he works, is the story of Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his frenemy and sometimes collaborator Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive computer hacker who most likely has Asperger’s (and definitely has a dragon tattoo). It’s a thriller told with a journalist’s obsessive devotion to detail, classification, and explication, so that it reminds me of nothing so much as intermediate fiction, where a good deal of stating the obvious is common. Stieg’s characters respond to plot twists with broad, stock reactions taken straight from the repertoire of middle school plays. Their eyes bulge, they freeze in terror, they audibly gasp. When one character learned of a murder of good friends, she “put her hand over her mouth” and “sat down on the stairs.” She was surprised, you see.
Then there’s this description of happiness – “Her smile grew bigger and she suddenly felt a warmth that she had not felt in a long time filling her heart” – that makes you wonder if Stieg was an alien who learned about human emotions from a dictionary.
Most other useful information is inserted awkwardly into dialogue, such as when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a gun shot wound to the head, and the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:
There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?
In fact, although much has been made about Stieg’s unique heroine, she spends a large part of the second book in hiding and most of the third book in the hospital. The majority of those two books is told through the dialogue of other characters. Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski:
“Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.”
“My family comes from Armenia. And yours?”
“How can I help you?”
Stieg will never let anything happen in his book without telling you about it at least 97 times. No coincidence goes unremarked, such as in this conversation between a writer and his editor:
“I stumbled across something I think I had better check out before the book goes to the printer.”
“Ok – what is it?”
“Zala, spelled with a Z.”
“Ah. Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of and nobody wants to talk about.”
Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.
These constant, gratuitous recaps might be useful in a book that is hard to follow, where the plot moves at breakneck speed, or where the characters are multi-faceted and pulled by opposing motives. None of those conditions apply here.
Which brings us to another glaring flaw in Stieg’s estimation of humanity. There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women. This is not to say that hating women is the only thing that makes you a bad person, but rather that, in Stieg’s world, any major flaw is always coupled with mysogyny. The mobster/drug dealer beats and rapes his girlfriends. The corrupt psychiatrist has thousands of pornographic pictures on his computer. The bad cop just plain hates women.
Men Who Hate Women is the Swedish title of the first book, and the common enemy of all the good people in the book, Mikael and Lisbeth especially. Lisbeth is motivated by personal vengeance. Stieg is motivated by how perfect he is as a human being. I’m sorry, I mean Mikael. It’s easy to confuse the two, so let me set them apart. Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.
Having used his imagination and flair for nuance to create Mikael the character, Stieg sends him out into Sweden to avenge the oppressed. He faces down embezzlers, rapists, secret agents, and gangsters, then he exposes them in his magazine. When he is cautioned from publishing a controversial story, he actually says, “That’s not the way we do things at Millennium.”
In one gaspingly improbable scene, his superior sleuthing earns him a meeting with the prime minister, who thanks him for his work and starts divulging state secrets. One of the other perks of being so exemplary is that, with no effort on his part, women throw themselves at him.
In the 1000 pages or so of the trilogy, Mikael never says anything charming, never does anything romantic, never goes out of his way to woo anyone. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mikael falls in with a 6-foot blonde ex-gymnast federal agent, and this is his move:
“How long have you been working out?”
“Since I was a teenager.”
“And how many hours a week do you do it?”
“Two hours a day. Sometimes three.”
“Why? I mean, I understand why people work out, but…”
“You think it’s excessive.”
“I’m not sure exactly what I think.”
She smiled and did not seem at all irritated by his questions.
“Maybe you’re just bothered by seeing a woman with muscles. Do you think it’s a turn-off, or unfeminine?”
“No, not at all. It suits you somehow. You’re very sexy.”
Who wouldn’t want to hit the sheets with this guy? Nonetheless, he is irresistible to women. How do we know? Because Stieg tells us so. And because all the women he sleeps with in the trilogy (roughly half of the primary female characters) do us the favor to reflect at length at how great he is in the sex department. In what claims the (hard-won) prize as most tasteless passage in the series, a victim of decades of sexual abuse ruminates on how she thought she’d never sleep with another man, until she met our middle-aged, out of shape, Swedish Adonis.
Of course, even she is aware that he’s sleeping with someone else, his married best friend and co-editor Erika, whose husband is cool with it. Stieg so delights in this open marriage/lover situation that he re-explains the dynamic a handful of times each book. Erika, in turn, knows about two other people Mikael is sleeping with at about the same time in the first book. His sexual partners have a way of running into each other, having emotionless conversations about what they share, and then accepting that they can hardly be expected to keep him to themselves.
All the women in the Millennium trilogy are strong, independent, and intelligent, living in a world simply seething with men who want to abuse or repress them. Federal agent gymnast Monica, magazine editor Erika, and computer genius Lisbeth all appear as resilient victims living amidst rampant sexism. But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.
In any other book, I would see these tactics as pandering to the baser instincts of the reading public. But in this book, in which Mikael is so obviously a stand-in for Stieg, it’s just tacky. Especially since this Stieg/Mikael amalgamation has also appointed himself head of the Respecting Women Committee. For someone so earnestly devoted to preserving and protecting the rights of the modern woman, it’s strange that Stieg couldn’t conceive of one who could do without his manhood.
Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.
The Millions turns 10 years old this year, and to celebrate, we’re trying something new. The Millions Originals will give our talented writers a platform to publish as ebooks longer, magazine-quality pieces that will explore a variety of unusual and interesting topics. They cost just $1.99 and provide a jolt of entertainment that we hope will be worth much more than the price. Our ebooks will generally run about 15,000 words (a good deal longer than most magazine articles, but not nearly as long as a book). So please, hop on over here to learn a bit more about our first title and to buy it from the ebookstore of your choice. Or, read on for an excerpt, if you still need convincing.
To kick off our new series, Dublin-based staff writer Mark O’Connell has penned an exploration of the Internet-era obsession with terrible art – bad YouTube pop songs, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, and that endless stream of “Worst Things Ever” that invades your inboxes, newsfeeds, and Twitter streams. What, exactly, draws us to these futile attempts at making songs, movies, and art? What are the essential ingredients that render a ridiculous failure sublime? More importantly, what does our seemingly insatiable appetite say about our aesthetic impulses? In setting out to answer these questions, O’Connell uncovers the historical context for our affinity for terrible art, tracing it back to Shakespeare and discovering the early 20th-century novelist who was dinner-party fodder for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Read on for the first chapter of The Millions‘ first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. – C. Max Magee, editor, The Millions
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1. Behold the Monkey
In the Sanctuary of Mercy church in the town of Borja, in northern Spain, there used to be a fresco by the 19th-century painter Elías García Martínez. It was a fairly standard Ecce Homo scene, portraying the scourged Christ—the crown of thorns, the expression of serene forgiveness—in the moments before crucifixion. No one much cared about this fresco. It was the unremarkable work of a minor painter, of little or no interest to art historians, and the priests and parishioners of the Sanctuary of Mercy clearly didn’t hold it in especially high regard either. Until recently, Martínez’s fresco was in a state of severe decline, with most of the paint having rubbed off around the middle of Christ’s torso and some pretty serious chipping and flaking going on toward the right-hand side of His face. Because no one else had bothered to do anything about it, and because the church seemed uninterested in commissioning a professional restoration, an 81-year-old parishioner named Cecilia Giménez decided to take matters into her own hands. She had lived in Borja and worshiped at Sanctuary of Mercy all her life; even if the fresco was not a parish priority, she saw artistic and devotional value in it and was upset to see it fall into disrepair. She did her best with her limited talents, but the restoration attempt was not successful, and the fresco looked considerably worse by the time she was through. The attempt was so badly botched, in fact, that she wound up becoming internationally famous because of it. For a while there, Cecilia Giménez was probably the most talked-about artist in the world.
Chances are you’ve seen the result of her work, in which Martínez’s Christ is transfigured into what looks like a beady-eyed baboon wearing an ushanka. It very quickly became an iconic image; the Spanish took to calling it Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey), while in the English-speaking world it became known simply as “the Jesus fresco.” For much of the late summer and early autumn of 2012, you couldn’t go online or open a newspaper without seeing it. People were obsessed not just with the aesthetic monstrosity of the restoration itself but with the idea of the devout and well-intentioned octogenarian who had created it. Twitter timelines filled with jokes about Giménez and links to articles about her, and tribute Tumblrs featured smudgily simian faces gimmicked onto the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Van Gogh’s self-portraits, Warhol’s Marilyn, Michelangelo’s David, Munch’s The Scream. The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and Libération all covered the story of the restoration. The chief art critic for The New Statesman skittishly considered its supreme incompetence on Sky News. And here was the poor woman herself, grilled by television journalists, poignantly insisting that she had the full permission of the parish priest and that, anyway, she hadn’t finished the retouch yet; she had been called away mid-job to go on a trip with her son. (“When I got back, the whole village was there, and I couldn’t defend myself! I said, ‘Let me finish it,’ and they said not to touch it!”). More than 23,000 people signed an online petition to have the piece preserved in its current, profanely post-Giménez form. In a more or less textbook illustration of postmodern irony, the Church of the Face-palm Fresco became a site of tourist pilgrimage, a sacred location beyond the event horizon where ridicule becomes veneration. “The truth,” as one local small-business owner put it in a television-news interview, “is that we should be thanking her because of how much it has helped catering trade in the town. We were having economic problems, and now, thanks to this woman, we are recovering.”
Anyone who had read Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise would have found it difficult not to think of the famous scene in which Jack Gladney (professor of Hitler Studies) and his colleague Murray Siskind drive out into the New England countryside to visit a tourist attraction known as “the Most Photographed Barn in America.” They stand back from the crowd of tourists, observing them as they take photographs of a building that is noteworthy solely for the frequency with which people like themselves take photographs of it. In the epigrammatically deadpan idiom of DeLillo’s characters, Murray refers to the scene as “a religious experience in a way, like all tourism.” They are, as he puts it, “taking pictures of taking pictures.”
What was being enacted here, in the little town of Borja, was a kind of exponentially ironic pilgrimage. The object of fetishization was not so much the icon as the very act of fetishization itself—of participating in, and contributing to, the fame of the thing being venerated. More troubling, though, was the fact that this involuted self-regard was also characteristic of the precise way in which Cecilia Giménez herself had become famous. The consideration of her fame, in other words, was itself a major element of that fame. The woman herself became caught up in the seething vortex of our cultural self-fascination.
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The Face-palm Fresco Affair is a definitive example of our obsession with a particular kind of bad art. Its watchword is “Epic Fail”—the collective cry of elated online schadenfreude that greets each new disastrous attempt to create art or entertainment. The success, through captivating dreadfulness, of R. Kelly’s R&B opera buffa Trapped in the Closet. The brief but intense fame of the impressively atrocious American Idol contestant William Hung. The meme mother lode that was Insane Clown Posse’s attempt to illuminate the wonder of everyday “Miracles” (“Fuckin’ magnets: how do they work?”). The Irish mother-daughter-and-son country trio Crystal Swing, whose viral success with their transcendently lame and somehow insidiously creepy video for “He Drinks Tequila” saw them appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show without any apparent awareness that they were an object of fun. Every day brings some new fantastic artistic outrage, some new Greatest Worst Thing Ever. There is now an entire echelon of viral celebrity populated by people—your Crystal Swings, your Giménezes—who have become known for their resounding failures.
I suspect that had the Spanish fresco simply been the anonymous work of an unknown guerrilla retoucher—if there wasn’t a body to be seen to undergo the indignity of the slapstick—the story would not have been nearly as compelling to nearly as many people. The personal element is crucial, and this is what accounts for the paradoxically humanistic and cruel constitution of the Epic Fail. It is predicated not just on the appreciation of the failed artwork but also on the aesthetic fetish for a particular misalignment of confidence and competence. We insist, in our judgments, on a sort of cultural habeas corpus. We don’t just want to look at the horribly disfigured Jesus fresco or listen to the horribly misfired effort at a pop song; we want to look at the person who thought they were talented enough to pull these things off in the first place. And I think part of our perverse attraction to these people and to the bad art they make is a particular sort of authenticity. Vigilant self-consciousness is both a primary component and a primary product of our online culture; an entire generation of Westerners (i.e., mine) has become preoccupied with the curation of permanent exhibitions of the self. We hate ourselves for the inauthenticity of these exhibitions, even if we wouldn’t have it any other way. And so the Epic Fail is, among other things, a paradoxical ritual whereby a pure strain of un-self-consciousness is globally venerated and ridiculed.
To watch an interview with Cecilia Giménez is to glimpse the strange and flamboyant cruelty of this phenomenon. The scale, the intensity, and the bewildering modernity of the attention that has been imposed upon her is something by which she is very clearly mortified—an essentially Catholic term, this. Soon after the restoration attempt went viral, she retreated behind closed doors and took to her bed, in the grip of a sustained anxiety attack. According to her family, they were having trouble getting her to eat anything. Perhaps, then, it’s worth thinking about what is truly emblematic of our contemporary culture here—and where the real Epic Fail actually is. Is it the smudged, monkey-faced Jesus and the exultantly amused response it provoked, or is it the debilitating case of viral celebrity now afflicting a frail old lady who just wanted to do some small good deed for her church?
Special thanks to our pals at Byliner who helped us turn our idea into an ebook.
Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.
Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”
As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.
The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).
When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.
But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.
What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.
If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.
Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.
Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?
Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)
It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.
Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”
Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”
Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.
All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”
While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)
Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.
After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)
These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).
The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.
The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.
Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb
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