A Year in Reading: Paul Harding

December 12, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 11

covercoverHappiness, Like Water, by Chinelo Okparanta — I was delighted to see her new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago; I’d hate to see such a fine writer overlooked amid the clamors of splashier books. This collection knocked me out because the stories are quiet and understated and lucid and gather up their power almost without the reader realizing it, then they break your heart, just like that. Such subtle and open and strong writing.

Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner — That this is world class writing is news to no one, but I read this book straight through for the first time as a novel, rather than as stories printed in various collections. Taken as a single, coherent work, the book’s power and vision are as incredible as any of his other masterpieces. All of the previously impenetrable (to me, anyway) genealogical material in “The Bear,” for example, makes earthquaking sense in context of the rest of the book; it’s like the geneologies in the Bible that trace every person back to Adam and Eve, which is to say bind every person together in one family. It’s just like a book Moses would have written, in fact.

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's new novel, Enon (Random House), has just been published. His first book, Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


  1. I had the pleasure of taking a short, non-credit course at a local university solely on Go Down, Moses. The professor was a notable Faulkner scholar and it was a sublime experience. GDM is certainly an elevating work of art.

  2. Alex – yeah but Okparanta went to Iowa, and so did Harding. In today’s sad literary landscape, backscratching takes priority over minor things like plagiarism.

    Astute interneters also found similarities between many of the stories in Okparanta’s book and other short stories. Whether or not these qualify as outright plagiarism is debatable; what isn’t debatable is the fact that Okparanta doesn’t have an original thought in her noggin. Yet she gets published in the New Yorker, and has a story collection published (and gets praised by a Pulitzer-winning writer). This so succinctly, and so depressingly, summarizes the present state of American publishing.

    I vote for this series to be re-titled The Year in Logrolling.

  3. Paul, thanks for the shout-out to two great books. Go Down, Moses is one of my favorite Faulkner books–I’ve not thought of it in the terms you mention: “The Bear” carrying so much weight, the biblical similarities. Fascinating. Thinking of it in this way has also made me re-think that amazing chapter that happens in the middle of Swamplandia!–“The Dredgeman’s Revelation” colors everything around it, though it stands alone. Thank you! Also–thanks for mentioning Okparanta’s collection. It’s a wonderful, original collection. Her prose is so seemingly simple and understated, but in fact, it’s like a whispered scream. Beautiful. One of my favorites. As a matter of fact, I bought a copy for nearly all my friends (for Christmas)!

    To Ed and Alex: Interesting. I’ve also read “Benji” and “Corrie,” and I really liked Benji better. I can see what Okparanta is doing, and I love it: It’s a homage, retold in order to place the story in Nigeria, and the story, being placed differently, with details unique to the country, changes as a result.

    Writers “retell.” It isn’t plagiarism.

    Here’s an interesting take on the issue and another as it relates to a Lorrie Moore story:

    To me, the accusations directed at Moore are similar to the ones directed at Okparanta, and yet neither writer has done anything wrong. They are both writing homages. Moore has retold a story in order to set it in modern times and Okparant has retold a story in order to place it in a different setting. Both retellings change the stories, bring something new. It’s part of the writer’s art.

  4. Cara – homage is one thing, but Okparanta copies phrases almost verbatim. That’s not homage, that’s plagiarism. And if it really was homage, Okparanta would have mentioned it in the New Yorker interview when the piece ran. She only mentioned it after readers called out the New Yorker. Pretty clear case of plagiarism.

    The other question is why? Any writer worth a damn wants to forge their own path, tell stories in their own voice, say something new or in a new way. You really have that little to say that you have to rewrite someone else’s story? And why would any reader be interested in a writer who just rewrites other writers? That’s an exercise in an MFA class. Anyone that cares about the future of literary fiction needs to stand up against this kind of garbage, and instead seek out and promote original voices.

  5. Oh and re: Moore, at least she is upfront about her “homage”. Still a completely useless piece of writing.

    Interesting to note that these rewriters are MFA associated. Just another reason why writers need to spend less time in the classroom and more time in life.

  6. Cara – you should red the very close, point-by-point analysis over on Mookse. I have no idea if you know Okparanta personally or not, but there is zero question–zero–that she ripped off Munro blatantly.

    If you read the order of events laid out on the 260+ comment thread at Mookse, anyone but the blind can see what occurred there was not homage, not borrowing, not modeling – it was out and out theft and subsequent historical revisionism – The New Yorker should be called out for it, she should be called out for it, her agent should be called out for it.

    There are a lot of writers out there who are not part of the farm system, who are original thinkers and who deserve the high praise and placement that writers like Okparanata routinely get. And after reading more of Okparanta, I agree with Ed – she hasn’t any original literary thought.

    I worked in the field for ten years and it is, frankly, an orgy of mutual masturbation, tissue-wiping of the small of the back, ass-slapping and a clubby handshake – if you see a blurb, it is likely the author and blurber are carnally, academically, or socially acquainted. On the next ten books you pick up at the bookstore, get a notebook, take down the names of the blurbers and do a little internet sleuthing – 90 percent of blurbers will have done so because they have a previous relationship with the author and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be objective. The publishers might as well put Mom’s stamp of approval on the jacket.

    I am a lover of good writing and it disgusts me to see how sycophantic all the literary darlings are. They should each engage in some serious autology and see what motivates them – to me it is not the work that does or the truth that can be told with a good story, but it is the same thing that motivates the pathological narcissist – love of one’s own image.

    The whole thing with Okparanta is execrable and i am stunned that it has passed without TNY or her being held accountable.

  7. Alex – the saddest thing about the whole TNY thing is that it hasn’t gotten more coverage. Look at what happened with Frey, Lehrer, etc. The so-called pre-eminent literary publication in the country publishes a ripoff of one of its own writers, refuses to address the issue, then secretly amends the author interview to play the “homage” card and backdates the amendment to make it appear that it ran with the original piece and not after readers called them out. This story is so rich – beyond the plagiarism angle, you’ve got the institutional obfuscation angle.

    So why isn’t this getting more “pub”?

    The only thing I can think of is: NOBODY CARES.

    That’s the scary part of this. This is how culturally irrelevant fiction has become, when the majority of what gets published are plotless, voiceless, totally unoriginal stories about comfortable white upper-middle class professionals (writers and professors, mostly) doing a lot of thinking.

    It appears the New Yorker become basically an MFA alumni newsletter. And no writer is going to call plagiarism on a writer they may need to lean on for a blurb down the road, right?

  8. Ryan – agreed, no one seems to care – not only about fiction (to me the pinnacle of not only emotional, psychological and character evaluation for humankind, but also the most effective information transfer vehicle from era to era – Dickens, Dostoevsky, Upton Sinclair, Steinbeck and on and on and on have reflected and taught us more about the social pulse as it RELATES to the facts. After all, historical facts mean squat without our marinating in them), but also no one seems to care about blatant theft – in art, business or politics. And I’m not talking about the kind of theft that all artists should engage in – Steal From Everyone and create something new. That is, after all, the exact point of art. To create in your book or painting or piece of music a fresh recipe that utilizes known and recognizable things in life (stealing, if you will) and whips up a fresh morsel on life.

    What I am talking about and what you seem to agree with is the kind of theft that petty, small-minded, unoriginal artists engage in because they want to be a Writer or Painter of Musician. I swear – and I may very well be underestimating this – for every 100 stories or novels that I begin, I finish maybe one. This is because the writing is so derivative, the story so tired, the relationship to language so cavalier that it induces in me a physical reaction akin to some nasty bile spitup that burns your throat. And by start, I mean I give a novel three pages, tops. Henry James said long ago that the only rule of fiction that he could be certain was universal was that it be entertaining – that can mean a lot, I know, but an entertainment and an important story can be and often are both well-written, considered, and original. If the writer hasn’t grabbed you in three pages in a novel, or in one or two sentences in a story, they have failed.

    I am really hoping that someone smart and unafraid and with a national readership (Matt Taibbi, are you listening?) takes this instance with Okparanta to put some hot coals under the feet of the gatekeepers at TNY. What Okparanta did is not only ethically foul, it has implications that may be too abstract for a legal judgment, but very well could be grounds for contract voiding – not only for her books, but for her teaching gigs, speaking gigs, etc. I talk about this stuff to non-writers – and writers, too – and very few even give it three seconds of thought before dismissing it as meaningless and ubiquitous. I am astonished because something like Okparanta’s story becomes the record and it pisses me off that record has been smudged.

    I’m a passionate student and writer of fiction as stories are the way I navigate, evaluate and come to love the world of my creative mind and stories also help me embrace more penetratingly the world I wander and work in. I think all of the readers here at The Millions feel similarly and people who read TNY probably do too. But the suits who run TNY don’t give a f*ck about anything but demographics and ad sales. I guess they also don’t care about offending someone of Munro’s stature by having a fiction staff that so clearly erred and wouldn’t pass muster as a high-school yearbook student management team.

    Another issue with TNY that really boils me is the fact that it has become a regular advertising segment for upcoming novels by excerpting them (NOT a short story, TNY eds). I love both forms, but if you’re going to reduce a 600-page novel into a 3500 word story, tell us you are providing, essentially, a paid billboard for the novel. This is becoming more and more of a problem with a lot of respected and self-described publishers of short stories – One Story recently published an excerpt of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel and it is in the magazine’s public and highly cited code that they celebrate and publish ONLY short stories. I canceled my subscription to One Story the moment I saw Gilbert’s piece running. You can be sure her agent, her publiciist, maybe even her BFF paid good money to get that placement and they took it to help pay the bills. Why in the hell does Elizabeth Gilbert, who is worth upwards of $25M from Eat, Pray, Love Product, need to take the space where dozens of other writers who are exceptional and struggling for readership would give a kidney for? Oh, I forgot – Gilbert was marketed as a woman who traipsed off to her exotic countries as a lark, heartbroken and with the same resources as someone who quit a job on a dime and left with little in the bank – people forget that she was able to take that trip because of a six-figure advance.

    Good god could I go on – but it breaks me up after I read a story that blows me away and I know that poor author who is ten times the writer of blankety blank will likely, at some point in their life, write less and less because it is just not feasible to spend decades doing something that is not properly remunerative – in both dollars and readership.

    Publishing is such a nasty field and I’ve seen the sausage made from many vantage points along the line. Hard to stomach.

    I have an acquaintance attending Iowa right now and just heard back from her after the first semester – the report reinforces everything you can imagine – I suspect that if she plays her cards right, she’ll have some incandescent blurbs from people who just maybe, might have, quickly skimmed the book. Then they can tick off the IOU as paid and call it a day.

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