A Year in Reading: Matt Bell

December 13, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 52 2 min read

coverLooking back at my reading list for 2013, two books stood above all the other new books I’ve had the chance to read: The first is Susan Steinberg’s extraordinary third collection, Spectacle, which I’ve been obsessed with since it came out in January — and really, since ever before. One of the book’s stories appeared in American Short Fiction several years ago and that introduction to Steinberg set up some high expectations that were met then exceeded by the collection. In a year of great story collections, this is the one that stands apart for me. Smart and funny and brutally moving, it’s the most aggressive short story collection I’ve read in a long time, one that forces emotional participation and moral complicity on its readers.

covercoverThe second book is Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, which absolutely thrilled me as both a reader and a writer. Extraordinarily ambitious and well-shaped, I found it one of the biggest reading experiences I’d had all year, the kind of enlarged experience that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary novels. My admiration for The Flamethrowers also sent me back to Kushner’s Telex from Cuba, which I hadn’t read before but which now seems like a formal and stylistic prototype for The Flamethrowers, in addition to being an excellent novel on its own. I hope Kushner keeps pushing her form and her style forward so powerfully between books — I can’t wait to read her next novel to see where she takes us next.

Some other great books from 2013: Tampa by Alissa Nutting. Red Doc> by Anne Carson. A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge by Renee Gladman.

Some books published in years past that were an important part of my 2013: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Kind One by Laird Hunt. Speedboat by Renata Adler. The Complete Tales trilogy by Kate Bernheimer. Light Years by James Salter. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.

Some books I loved in 2013 but that won’t be released until 2014: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller. Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

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's debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was published in June 2013 by Soho Press. He is also the author of two previous books, How They Were Found and Cataclysm Baby. He teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.


  1. Easy on the logrolling there, chief. How about a little basic journalistic disclosure?

    Matthew Gavin Frank is Bell’s colleague at the school where they both teach. Minor is one of his close friends. I think we can assume something similar about the rest.

  2. I generally don’t feel the need to respond to anonymous commenters—if you wanted to have a conversation you’d introduce yourself—but just to be clear: I don’t think I’m a journalist in this capacity, and I’m certainly not handing out awards or anything more tangible than a bit of praise, so I didn’t feel pressured to exempt people I know from my recommendations. But you’re right: I do know a lot of the people here personally. More than you’ve listed, too. The Millions asked me to write about the best books I read this year, and that’s what I’ve done: Some of them happened to be by my very talented friends and colleagues. I’m lucky to have such interesting and ambitious writers in my life. I hope the people in your life have a similar respect and admiration for your work.

  3. Hello, my name is Travis. Now that I’ve introduced myself, can we have a conversation about how you didn’t seem to like being called out for scratching your friends’ backs in a public literary forum? Unless you read work by your friends almost exclusively. That would explain a lot.

  4. Don’t bother getting in a pissing contect with someone like Bell. He and his contemporaries, most of whom belong to that obnoxious clique at HTMLGiant, take pride is circle jerking each other. They aren’t a critical lot. They don’t get what’s so gross about constantly shilling for each other. They see it as their birthright, as part and parcel of growing up under the current conditions we all live in. You won’t make him see it any other way.

  5. This seems rather silly. There need be no “basic journalistic disclosure” when someone is asked for a personal list of books they personally read and personally enjoyed. “Back scratching” implies that the books aren’t as good as Matt is saying they are, and let’s be real here — that’s subjective. Just like this list. If Matt were claiming to have some kind of objectivity here, you would be totally justified in your attitude here, but the reality is, you made the assumption it was meant to be objective when it clearly wasn’t, and when Matt confirmed what you said and made it clear he didn’t see an issue with it, you became combative.

    What discourse are you trying to accomplish here? Do you think writers should not be friends with other writers, or that we simply shouldn’t read the work of people we know? Because that would be an issue with me… I know a lot of fantastic writers, and I quite enjoy their work. Though I’ve never felt it necessary to champion a book I didn’t love and I don’t know a single writer that would risk their reputation on championing a mediocre book simply because a friend wrote it.

  6. Travis,
    The writing community is just not that big. Matt has friends. He knows people. Is he not allowed to like their work? Should writers make efforts to only like the work of people they’ve never met? And, I don’t know Matt all that well, but I’m guessing he’s not BFFs with Steinberg and Kushner, the two writers that he really called attention to here. You just sound a little bitter.

  7. Thanks for being more open, Travis. For what it’s worth, I don’t feel called out: I was happy to explain my thinking behind the list and to acknowledge the “disclosures” you wanted. I didn’t read only books by friends, of course, but I do read a lot of books by friends or colleagues or people I’ve met or know in some professional or personal capacity: It’d probably be weird if I didn’t. I’m a writer and a teacher and a former editor, and through those different opportunities I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of people that are making work I find particularly interesting. I will say that almost every relationship I have with another writer generated in the work first. (That would be true of all three of the writers you mentioned in your comments.) I often reach out to people whose books I’ve read, and sometimes those correspondences become something else over time. That’s a wonderful thing. I try hard to be a good literary citizen and a champion for the work of others, especially books I care about. Sometimes I care about the writers of those books as well. You’re welcome to find fault with that, but I don’t.

  8. I think it’s okay for someone to recommend books by their friends, and it might even be hard to avoid connections to other writers if you spend enough time in the industry.

    But past a certain point, there needs to be a disclosure. If it’s just I met this dude at a reading once, that’s one thing. On the other hand, a co-worker or good friend should be acknowledged for the sake of the audience. Doesn’t mean I won’t check those books out, just that I trust the recs MORE if I have all the info and it protects the recommending writer’s credibility.

  9. That makes since. I get it. But there are other factors. Just because you share a press with someone doesn’t mean you know them. If I recommend a book by my press, would you feel it’s necessary for me to acknowledge that?

    The truth is that Matt probably knows a bunch of these people. Because he knows a bunch of people. I think it would have been annoying to have disclaimers everywhere (‘I stayed at this person’s house once,’ ‘I see this guy at AWP every year and drink beers with him,’ etc.). I think the problem, essentially, is that Matt has too many damn friends. ;)

  10. Probably only close relationships need to be shared, maybe? There’s a difference between the once a year drinking buddy and the person you pass a manuscript back and forth with while you work on it or your professor or classmate who you spent a lot of time with.

    I guess the irony is that the people you’re closest to are the people whose books you’re going to be most enthusiastic about. I want to know if someone is someone’s student or buddy, though. It’s like blurbs on books. I can’t tell what’s bullshit from what isn’t so I assume it’s all bullshit. I think these books all look interesting, but I have to admit, the whole bunch is a little tainted because I didn’t get the full 411.

    I dunno about a book from the same press. Might depend on the size of the press? Random House is big, corporate. If it’s an indie, you get the feeling everyone knows each other. But it wouldn’t be fair to have different standards.

  11. First of all, I don’t think Cranky and Travis are the same person.

    Secondly, it’s okay to recommend the work of someone you personally know, but if there is a close relationship like a colleague or friend, it’s customary to mention that relationship, even in a personal opinion post like this one. It’s called a conflict of interest.

    Be upfront about relationships and the reader is more likely to believe you’re recommending based on sincere enjoyment of that work–which I’m sure is the case here. If you don’t mention it, and people find out, you look like you are hiding something or promoting out of political reasons, or other shady stuff. Why cause yourself trouble?

  12. Most people in writer community wouldn’t take a list of Matt Bell’s seriously. They know his modus operandi is self-promotion, self-elevation, all the time. To be fair he’s certainly not the only one. I’m sure he enjoyed each and every work he mentioned although I am also sure there’s a calculated and deliberate reason for each choice.

  13. No one says you can’t pump your friends’ tires, chief. Just tell the world these are your friends.

    Alfonso’s got it right. Doesn’t matter if you’re sincere or not. Tell us the conflict of interest, except to do that would expose the depths of the shillery which is maybe why you didn’t do it.

    You said there’s other friends on the list who are they?

    Lucky’s one word for it.

  14. I am an author happy to see my work listed in Matt Bell’s “Year of Reading.” I am here to say I have never met Matt Bell. I wonder why “Christy Nix” and “Christy” and “Travis” and “LP” make comments that appear designed to hurt Matt Bell’s reputation and/or feelings. I hope none of these people are masquerading elsewhere in Matt Bell’s life as his “friends.”

  15. Actually it doesn’t look like you made his list, Jo. Unless Jo March is a special alias for one of the mentioned authors. ?

  16. Last winter I saw Matt Bell rolling some logs up to Kyle Minor’s cabin for the fireplace. And this year I heard he’s going to compete in the caber toss for Rachel Kushner at AWP’s strongman competition. The guy just doesn’t get it. Put up the logs and go home, Matt Bell. You’re a disgrace.

  17. The internet has turned the entire world into one big giant cafeteria. I don’t take anyone seriously,and I don’t take their work seriously, if they recommend their friends when you ask them what’s good. Cronyism is gross. It’s like inbreeding. It just makes everything all slow and watery. Plus it makes other people feel left out. I don’t think Matt Bell understands that. It makes me feel like I am on the outside looking inside at a large group of people having a good time. “Me and all my friends write awesome fucking books, man!” That’s the vibe Matt Bell is giving off here. I know that’s not his intention, but that’s what comes across. Then again, I haven’t seen a picture of Matt Bell where he isn’t smirking a smirk that would put Bruce Willis to shame, so maybe he’s just a smirky kind of a guy who’s proud of his cool group of buds.

  18. Tim, unfortunately Matt and his friends don’t write awesome books. They write competent books that primarily seek awards, lectureships, and a higher notch in the literary world instead of seeking readers and real impact in the world. They could care less about the world outside of their own head, their own experience. It’s mostly boring and silly.

  19. He can recommend any books he wants. Who the heck cares? It’s just a recommendation list. Settle down, folks.

  20. Yo!

    Come by to the “Mohsin Hamid Year In Reading” section — the room is really empty but observations will air out your brain pan!

    Moe Murph
    (Wrote Comment There So May Be Sorta Self-Logrolling, But Seriously His Recommendation Is Very Cool)

  21. Great list, Matt. Speedboat was incredible, wasn’t it? Kind One and A Beautiful Truth are both high in the stack of books I’m hoping to get to in the next couple months.

    (Full disclosure: I met Matt for ten minutes in a bar once. I did a reading with Colin McAdam in Calgary in 2009. I think Kyle Minor and I maybe have the same agent. A friend who’s a bookseller once met Renata Adler and took a picture with her and I think I maybe hit the Like button when she posted it to Facebook.)

  22. Wow. had to wade through a lot of, um, *Internet commentary* to get to just wanting to say I, too, read that Susan Steinberg piece in American Short Fiction a few years back and liked it a lot and am looking forward to reading Spectacle when I can get my hand on it and, um, also, I like meeting writers whose work I like and sometimes I read the work first and meet them later and sometimes the other way around but it is a social world and, um, can I just say, as a veteran of *Internet commentary* … Sheesh.

  23. I strongly recommend Matt Bell’s short story collection “How We Were Found” – the inventiveness, the humor, the language he bends to tell a story.

    Full disclosure: Matt and I live on the same continent.

  24. Wow, what a cruel, bitter comment thread this is. Every time I see a public comment by Bell, it’s to champion a book he loves or to promote reading more poetry in addition to fiction or to be a good literary citizen in some other way. From my perspective, he gives quite a lot of himself, and I don’t think he deserves this acrimony. I, for one, found his list intriguing, and I was hoping for some good recs for my husband’s Christmas gifts this year. Thanks for the leads, Matt.

  25. I find it funny that “not bitter”‘s moniker is the complete opposite of their comments. Success breeds jealousy. It’s unfortunate but unavoidable.

  26. You saps are hilarious. You think sincerity is judged by niceness on social media.

    These hacks are circle jerking all over you and you ask for more because he says, “yay poetry” or some such shite. “Please, Matt Bell, tell me what other great books your close buds wrote this year so I can buy them!” I know you only want what’s best for me, and there isn’t any problem with touting your friends books without saying they’re your friends.

    These cats aren’t successful. Look at the shiv the Times stuck in Bell’s book when someone was tasked to read it who didn’t share the massive self-regard of these dopes.

    Better cruel than phony nice. That ain’t jealousy you’re smelling, it’s disgust.

  27. I get it now: we’re dealing with bitter wannabes. Protesting the idea of jealousy, laughing at the idea of contributing to the literary community — it all comes clear. I had figured we were communicating as readers instead of failed writers. Here’s a suggestion, though: Go write something. Maybe you’ll do better in 2014. I’m pulling for you. You don’t have to be a decent person to write an entertaining book.

  28. Honestly, I would like to stop, but this tidbit from the Bell/Minor mutual-love story is too good.

    A list of Kyle Minor’s “literary pillars” has Philip Roth, Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, a host of other major figures in literary history, and…you guessed it…Matt Bell.


    Here’s where Minor recommends Bell’s “Cataclysm Baby.”


    And now, go figure, Matt Bell returns the favor as a little pre-reelase hype for his buddy.

    I’m willing to believe their mutual regard is sincere, but the public backscratching is gross, gentlemen.

  29. Contributing to the “literary community” whatever that is, isn’t publicly stroking your buddies. It’s writing things that are interesting and true and not treating your audience like saps, which is what these two seem to consistently engage in.

    That you think that people critical of this practice are failed writers, as opposed to interested readers -as is the case here- shows how far up your ass you’ve inserted your noggin. There’s no literary community. There’s literature and not literature.

    No amount of publishing success absolves Bell/Minor from the stench of dishonest shillery, and that, dear lady, is the veritable definition of failure.

    Worse, it’s treating their audience like suckers. I’m surprised there’s so many here who buy it.

  30. So I’ve never commented on something like this before, especially since I figure people get off on being (finally) seen or heard, but just in case any of that stridency is real—what is your issue, Cranky? Where is the “disgust” coming from? That a writer who has an MFA and is a former editor for a large independent house happens to know and like the work of other writers? That when asked, ‘what books did you enjoy reading this year’—about half—I’d guess—of the ones he mentioned are by some of the 800 writers he most likely knows? Think about that: every writer providing books in these lists probably knows a hundred people who published books in the last year. And they’ve probably read a good number of them. What is so insidious about 3 or 4 of those making a totally subjective best-of list? Also, it’s worth noting that Matt Bell is hardly the only one talking about most of these books this year? Most people had The Flamethrowers as their bet to win the NBA. That can’t just be because Matt Bell was “shilling for it? Anne Carson? James Salter? Alissa Nutting? Laird Hunt? Renata Adler? You knew about these authors and these books. And you probably read them. What’s the problem, exactly?

  31. I think it is time for the millions editors to use their discretion and remove the anonymous posts that do nothing to add to the conversation.. It has become a personal attack on matt bell and is quite sickening. Heather Curran.

  32. It’s not clear what’s so difficult about understanding what it means to disclose a conflict of interest. All this talk about James Salter and Renata Adler or that other people also like certain books on the list is smokescreen. The argument isn’t whether or not books “deserve” to be on the list. It’s how the writer treats his audience in publishing the list.

    Bell can put whatever books he wants on his list, but when there is a close relationship, it is, as Alphonso says, “customary” to disclose that relationship for the benefit of the audience.

    One of these people (Matthew Gavin Frank) will ultimately sit in judgement of whether or not Bell gets tenure. In the Bell/Minor case we have two writers who are friends who consistently flack for each other without disclosing that friendship.

    That is the disgusting part, that they care so little for their audience that they shill for each other without shame and without the basic courtesy of disclosing the personal friendship. That’s treating the audience like saps. I’m shocked that so many people defend it. It’s the stuff of infomercials.

    I don’t doubt Bell’s sincerity that he likes these books, just like the guy peddling magic chopper or some such shite believe it’s a labor-saving device that will change your life (or he wouldn’t be so convincing). It’s just a lot EASIER to believe when the writer is transparent with the audience.

    The Millions should probably do better on that front too and ask the contributors to disclose any close personal relationships in the recommendations. If these were reviews (which some of the entries are, and even these are in capsule form), they flat-out wouldn’t be allowed.

    As for anonymous comments. Who here isn’t anonymous, other than Bell?

    Sure, we should remove the anonymous comments that point out facts and reveal the truth underneath the list. How very polite of you.

  33. Re: Heather – I hardly think these comments require censorship. If someone was outright threatening or despicably mean, then, yes, perhaps so. But this is criticism and opinions being discussed. I thought writers were supposedly open to free exchange of information and the idea that ALL points of view are relevant and meaningful, blah, blah, blah, that you all learned in your lit crit/theory/cultural relativist blah blah. Bell’s a professional, he should expect some pushback from time to time. I’d argue it’s healthy to be kept honest, nudge loose complacency and the ease of personal/promotional politics.

  34. >If these were reviews (which some of the entries are, and even these are in capsule form), they flat-out wouldn’t be allowed.

    But they’re not. They’re not even really “recommendations.” It’s a year-in-reading list.

    Fighting for full transparency is one thing. The whole tone here just seems to be something else.

  35. Everyone seems to be missing that this is a horrible article that does nothing to recommend any of these books besides giving their titles and the sense that two of them are… well, what, “smart and funny” and “ambitious and well-shaped”? Too vague to get any sense of what the hell they were about. Pity!

  36. All I know is that I’d love to read Cranky’s latest book. Must be sensational. And while I’ve never laid eyes on Matt Bell, we are published by different arms of the same publisher. And I had a friend named Matt in fourth and fifth grades until he threw a rock at my dog.

  37. I’m sure all of these writers have Millions: A Year in Reading clauses in their contracts and suddenly qualify for $100,000 bonuses. And the 6 extra copies of these books that will be sold because Matt put them on his list will certainly enable their authors to retire to a desert island and write more of these “competent” books, laughing at everyone outside the circle. And I’m sure because Matthew Frank has been listed here on the Millions by Matt, Matthew Frank will overlook all of Matt’s ineptitude at his job (a book published in his first year, for example, and two more books contracted) and sway the entire committee to give Matt Bell tenure, which he would have never, ever earned had he not listed Matthew Frank’s book on a year-end favorites list. And Susan Steinberg, his top choice? She obviously owes Matt a baby or a million dollars or something (whatever the going rate for babies is nowadays). I bet that her million-dollar bonus for being named book of the year on this Millions list goes right to Matt Bell. If only I’d published a book this year, then I could blow Matt, be on this list, then we could laugh about it together at George Clooney’s chalet while the have-nots serve us drinks and cocktail weenies.

    Because being on a Millions: A Year in Reading list matters that much. What a racket.

  38. “The (gentleman) doth protest too much” – Shakespeare (Kyle Minor literary pillar, just like Matt Bell)

    All you’re pointing out, Michael C., is that Bell is willing to shed his integrity for little to nothing, which is only sadder. It might even make one wonder if he has any to begin with.

  39. Is Matt Bell “extraordinarily ambitious and well shaped”? If not, why does he say he is in the second sentence of the second paragraph?

    The first duty of a writer is to learn how to use the tools correctly.

  40. Good list. I will be purchasing all these books. I really like Renata Adler’s and Susan Steinberg’s books, which I have already read. Thanks for taking the time so generously to share the books you enjoyed this year.

  41. I’ve never met Matt Bell. I sent him an email maybe five years ago because I read a story of his that I liked in a small online journal called Storyglossia. It was a simple fan letter asking him a few questions about writing. He wrote back a long, generous message later that day.

    I sent Bell a story a year or two later asking for some advice on it, and again, he wrote back a long, meticulous message.

    About a year and a half ago, I had some students setting up a new online lit journal, and they were looking for some respected writers to contribute to a feature they were putting together. They liked a Bell story I had once taught in a class (the same one that made me want to write him a fan letter in the first place), and reached out to ask him if he would write an essay for them about Denis Johnson. He wrote a detailed, original work based on their prompt and gave it to them (free of charge, of course), and then used his time to help them promote their wordpress site.

    Writing to young writers who email you out of the blue? Giving your time and energy to writing students? Blatant logrolling.

    As it turns out, when you like talking about books with other people who like talking about books, you end up having connections, however tenuous, with a lot of writers. There’s a difference between that and walking around book fairs with business cards. Sure, social media cronyism gets a little out of hand from time to time, and it’s frustrating when people recommend work clearly just because it’s by a friend. But I don’t think that’s what is happening here.

    I wanted to stop my comment here, but then some troll would probably search the internet for any possible hidden connections I have with Bell and try to use that to invalidate anything I said.

    So here goes: I once wrote a positive book review of Cataclysm Baby because I thought (and still think) that it is a fantastic book. I have read other work by Bell that I like, but CB is the only book I reviewed, because that’s the only one I feel passionately about, and that’s the only book of his I recommend to people, again, not because I’m in love with Matt Bell, but because I very much like the book.

    Also: On two occasions I wrote (unpaid) reviews for Gabe Blackwell, who works alongside Bell at the Collagist.

    Also: I went to school with a guy named Josh, who I believe now teaches on the same faculty as Bell. (This is kind of exhausting and unnecessary, isn’t it?)

    Also: Are any of the critics from this thread from the Underground Literary Alliance? Just curious.

  42. I tried to stay away from this article/comment chain, but it fascinates and saddens me. It seems to have become a very powerful giant brown mushroom-type fungus, oozing a glowing green substance that drips across my computer screen and demands attention! The sheer magnitude of comments (46!) makes me feel like a war is about to break out, or the “Underground Literary Alliance” — whoever that is, is about to attack.

    No dog in the fight, I don’t know Mr. Bell, but just had a general observations about how I become attracted to a person’s writing, being around writers, etc.:

    a.) I love it when I’m bowled over by something someone has written, and they are very cool and cavalier about their Importance. My all-time favorite (I am leaving name blank) biography, after loving a great article was;

    “__________ _____ did not receive an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2008. Her unwritten short story “Flügelhorn Blues” was not published in the New Yorker in 2011 and was not short-listed for a Fotherington-Vanderbilt Weiss Literary Arts Award. You can follow her on Twitter. She does not live in Brooklyn.”

    b.) Being in a big group of writers at some events can be enervating, like a badly-led AA meeting, if you say/read anything, you can feel everyone champing at the bit to say/read their own thing… you can be reciting poetry and suddenly hear the scratch of a pen and someone right next to the platform is sitting there writing away! Not always the case but often enough I feel very tired out, not energized, after these affairs. As a group, musicians seem nicer, except for the ambitious young ones, who only “seem” nice, but are actually attempting to shanghai you into their street team as unpaid labor. :)

    c.) Last night, I had an image of a group of 19th century writers (all unknown now) having a dust-up of this sort (albeit at a much slower pace) by post. Meanwhile Melville would be sitting around after writing “Moby Dick” unknown, depressed, and feeling a failure, but, at the same time, a little spark inside him would allow him to say “I have written a wicked book and feel as as spotless as the lamb.”

    d.) Speaking generally, can’t over-done self-promotion rise up and bite you later (same goes for real estate agents)? Reread today a funny but hopeful little quote from an updated “New Lifetime Reading Plan,” which had demoted Andre Malraux from their Greatest list to the “Sort of Greatest” list: Quote:

    “Posthumous revelations suggest that his reputation was based in part on self-promoting exaggerations; but his written work endures.”

    e.) Finally, the concept of malign plotting by the “Underground Literary Alliance” absolutely cracks me up. It reminds me of something that might have turned up in “The Confederacy of Dunces.” The mind boggles at the creative possibilities here so, in the end, this whole confusing saga may bring about something creative and positive after all.

    Moe Murph
    Too Old And Worn Out to Roll Logs

  43. Well, I’d never heard of Edward Champion before, and I took your claim with a fair amount of cynicism but now I’ve read some of his work and I believe you’re right. Bile for all of us, with plenty left over, it would seem/

  44. I don’t think Edward Champion hates The Millions more than he hates anything else. He just hates. That’s his thing. But he thinks he’s doing the world a favor by “calling people on their bullshit” or whatever.

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