A Year in Reading: Philipp Meyer

December 9, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 15

coverThe best book I read this year was Brian Hart’s The Bully of Order. It is a dense, brilliant book, and — I don’t say this lightly — I suspect it will be seen as Hart’s first real contribution to the canon.

Hart owes Cormac McCarthy in the same way that Cormac McCarthy owes William Faulkner. He’s that good. So — why haven’t you heard of him?

Well, you won’t see him at parties, because he doesn’t drink anymore and even when he did he was always the guy standing in the corner. He’s not on Facebook or Twitter, and, as far as I know, he’s never set foot in New York City (let alone Brooklyn) — even Austin was a little too high speed for him. Where Hart is most comfortable is the only place that ought to matter, which is on the page.

I’ve been lucky to come up with some talented people — Kevin Powers and Smith Henderson in fiction, Miriam Greenberg and Roger Reeves in poetry — but Hart is one who ought to be mentioned in that group and isn’t. Bully of Order is not always an easy book, but it’s brilliant, and Hart is an incredible writer who will likely go down as one of the greats.

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is author of American Rust and The Son. He lives mostly in Austin, Texas.


  1. Since none of these authors seem to care about ethics, here’s the by-now-expected connection between Meyer and Hart, per an old Salon article:

    “We were roommates for a couple of years, shot our bows and arrows in the backyard, went hunting together numerous times, you were always working on your motorcycle.”

    This rec may as well have come from Hart’s dad.

  2. It is very difficult not to love McCarthy’s lyrical firepower & stark dialogue but I couldn’t help growing weary of the bloodbaths till I finally put the book down 2/3 through. The QUESTION then: is Hart similarly….. sanguiphile?

  3. Why not recommend a writer you know? We could call this “bias” or “logrolling”; arm yourself with your epithet of choice. Or we could call it “informed opinion”. For a friend, sure. But judging from the development Meyer’s own prose (from “American Rust” to “The Son”) has shown, I’m willing to give my cynical side a holiday and accept that there’s more to this assessment than just “this dude is my old bow-hunting buddy, read him”.

    If, 45 years ago, Cormac McCarthy’s best pal had written, “This guy’s unknown, but damn!” would you have griped about ethics after the fact? If so, then you’re blinded by a narrow ethical “principle” that obtains exclusively in your own head. There’s no argument that Meyer’s promoting, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that he’s also offering his informed critique, if in shorthand. Promoting? So what?

    “Ethics” among authors / publishers? Yeah. Hart goes on my TBR list.

  4. il

    Two things:

    1. I desperately want to trust Meyer on this one, as he’s a damn good writer who is concerned about the world beyond his own belly button. Why couldn’t he mention the fact that Hart was his old roommate? Just – why? If he doesn’t trust the reader to properly digest that information, why should we trust that this is really just an “informed opinion” and not blatant advertising? The fact that Meyer goes on to list several writer friends, without even attaching a book to them, makes it seem like Meyer is just pimping his friends here. (See the Lerner entry as well – pretty clear he didn’t even read 2 of the 3 books he recommended.)
    2. I think it’s damn near impossible to be objective about a book by your friend/relative/spouse/etc. This is why publications don’t assign reviews to critics with “conflicts of interest”. This is also why you can’t put your mom down as a reference on your resume. You can choose to believe Meyer is being intellectually honest here. I’d love to, but it’s hard when it seems like every other one of these Year in Reading entries are simply exercises in backscratching. And that’s the saddest thing about what the YiR has become – the cynicism is so entrenched that I’m probably dismissing or ignoring several excellent books.

    To be clear – there are no “rules” for these entries and writers are obviously free to do with them whatever the hell they want. And readers are free to ignore them. And it doesn’t cost a cent to come to this site. So, there’s that.

  5. Um, he makes it clear he knows the guy.

    “I’ve been lucky to come up with some talented people — Kevin Powers and Smith Henderson in fiction, Miriam Greenberg and Roger Reeves in poetry — but Hart is one who ought to be mentioned in that group and isn’t.”

    I always read “come up with” to mean “people I know personally.”

  6. I feel your pain, Ed. But you are closer to a resolution than you are probably ready to admit. It came in your opening sentence:

    “I desperately want to trust Meyer on this one, as he’s a damn good writer…”

    That’s not all that matters, but it almost is. Or we’ll never read Thomas Mann, watch a Polanski film, or marvel at a Gauguin painting. Ethics, morals have proven elusive to each of those men. Yet, I can also understand somebody who would stay away.

    This is small potatoes. Meyer is good. Even if we cringe a bit at his fawning “brilliant” comment, a peak at the evil Amazon preview (talk about your ethics issues) tells me Hart’s got some chops. As does Meyer. Trust the writing, forget the rest.

    The Lerner rec was pretty weak, as were a couple of others, but this is FM radio: we take the good with the bad, and Lerner will have better days. Then again, I’m new here, and too much of this could get old fast.

  7. Small potatoes, maybe, though I think it is interesting to look at which writers use this to roll logs, and which ones don’t. My grand hypothesis is that the better the writer (in my opinion, of course), the less likely they are to backscratch (or self-promote); I would also hazard a guess that Brooklyn writers and MFA writers are more likely to backscratch, not (necessarily) to suggest that they are inferior writers, but because they obviously are more likely to “know” other writers.

    I think I will track this and present my results at the end. I will say that the best writer to post so far (Jane Smiley) scratched exactly zero backs.

  8. I can buy all of that, Ed. Confidence is hard, and living in a cloister isn’t necessarily a surefire path to building any. Or any that you can count on once you’re outside the walls. Then again, Denis Johnson is an MFA graduate, for what that’s worth.

    Agree on Jane Smiley, but she’s just pretty much across the board outstanding as it is.

    I may track this with you, compare notes at the end.

  9. But doesn’t it follow that writers currently publishing/teaching/attending seminars/readings/etc. would kinda know each other, and wouldn’t that place them on one another’s radars, reading and thinking about their respective projects? And wouldn’t they want to kvell over the last ripping yarn they read, whoever wrote it?

    Authors and artists have always championed their contemporaries and pals — Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound, Melville and Hawthorne — it’s a long list. Il’ja makes a great point — imagine what treasures might be lost to us but for the loud cheering of interested parties. There’s something positive and celebratory here, a generous nod to talented peers. It would be sad, not to say confining, if they could only recommend work by dead authors or by people to whom they haven’t been introduced yet. And thanks to the internet, everyone seems to know everyone, so complete neutrality may be hard to find.

    I would hate to think that contributors have to second-guess themselves. The wide range of writers and their choices is what makes this feature so successful for me — so many eras and genres! so many things to add to my list.

    I appreciate this thread and everyone posting. It made me think — thanks for letting me spew.

  10. It seems obvious that the ethical thing to do is to at least mention your relationships, particularly if the book you’re recommending was written by a family member or close friend. But I think it’s also the best strategic thing to do if your goal is to get others to read that book. If you truly love a book written by a close friend and you can articulate why it’s so great in a way that convinces others to read it, you shouldn’t be concerned about disclosing the relationship. I would think you’d want to make that connection clear to avoid undermining your goal. There is this thing called the internet that people can use to find out that you didn’t disclose the connection and if they do find that out, they are going to feel like they were misled (even though that wasn’t your intent) and many will disregard your recommendation entirely. But maybe I’m being too naive here?

    Now if your goal is less pure than that, strategically it might be better to conveniently forget to mention your connections. See Ben Lerner’s entry for an example of someone who doesn’t seem to have even read the books he’s recommending for an exercise called “A Year in Reading.”

  11. Chris, you make a great point about mentioning relationships, which many of the writers seem to have done. Maybe I am missing something but I didn’t get the sense that anyone was hiding info. or that they didn’t read the books, a comment that has echoed through the thread.

  12. The ridiculous claim that it is “pretty clear that Lerner did not even read two of the books he is recommending” is no more true for repeating it with a huff and a puff.

  13. @William

    Apart from the fact that they happened to be in view, Lerner’s recommendation of two books that he apparently read consisted solely of the words “incredible” and “brilliant”. This coming from a writer. So what if he did read them? He clearly has nothing to say about them. It’s like recommending a hamburger because it’s in the same room as you. Well, if you can see it, you obviously haven’t eaten it…

    As for Philipp Meyer, he also thinks his friend’s book is “incredible” and “brilliant” (and “brilliant” again). Unlike Lerner, Meyer can at least write a sentence without causing vomit to eject violently from my esophegus, but like Lerner, he has nothing interesting to say about this apparently astounding achievement of literature. That’s probably what bugs me most about the logrollers. They pop up, spray adulatory adjectives around the room, and flee before anyone manages to bash them on the head with the mallet.

    At this point, I’m more interested in what books were notable to the nascent community brewing in the comments here… Moe? Ed? my god? What did you get your noses into this year? At least none of you subterranean misanthropes have friends with backs that need scratching (kidding… right).

  14. Here’s what Lerner said, in gist: “You ask me to recommend a book. I see this brilliant book, and this incredible book, but the book I want to recommend and write about is the following.” How f’ing outrageous. Sure, his statement parsed like a deposition transcript, Lerner doesn’t say he read the incredible book and the brilliant book, but neither does he say he recommends them, so there — off the imaginary ethical hook, isn’t he?

    Since every sentence he writes makes you vomit, I have to commend you for nonetheless putting yourself through the pain of policing the ethics of his recommending for free a book or two.

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