A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

December 11, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 10 4 min read

coverI am writing this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and that has changed my reflections as I look back on what I read this year. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a book that I read early in January and which I reviewed on this site, Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. There was a political aspect to Fox’s book that I did not discuss in my review, but which now seems most important. For those who read my review, you will know that I focused mainly on the imprecise use of the word “pretentious,” especially in literary criticism and in social situations. Fox argued that the word is too often used as a vague, dismissive, insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.”

Fox’s argument was well received, though I noticed that some critics pushed back against Fox’s whole-hearted embrace of pretentiousness as a kind of open-minded ambition, and felt compelled to point out the ways in which pretentious behavior can be obnoxious, smug, and self-congratulatory. But I think those reviewers missed Fox’s larger point, which is that “pretentious” and its supposed opposite, “authentic,” have become so politicized that they have lost any nuance of meaning. Rereading Fox’s book, I was struck by the prescience of this paragraph, which was written before Brexit and before Donald Trump was the Republican Party nominee:

Politics is a game in which actors assert their authenticity in the face of other actors whom they accuse of bad faith. Think of the embattled conservative candidate who, faced with hard questions about policy or public gaffes, plays the ‘biased liberal media’ card. Appeals are made to a silent majority sitting in the stalls, drowned out by the hecklers positioned up in the Gods; socialists, liberals, gays, women, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, the BBC, ‘the political correctness brigade.’ A phantom ‘cultural elite’ is conjured onstage, working against what ‘real,’ ‘ordinary’ people wish. (As if ‘real,’ ‘ordinary’ people could not possibly be left-wing, or gay, or interested in equality, or hold different religious beliefs.) It’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a game of pretense, but the idea of the ‘ordinary’ person is a powerful rhetorical image.

That pretty much sums up Trump’s political strategy, though Fox, a British writer, was likely thinking of his home country. In the wake of Brexit, I read Zadie Smith’s excellent “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” and then I read it again, after our election. I saw some of my New Yorker blindness in her description of her own “Londoncentric solipsism:”

The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naïve and sentimental about working classes.

One can accuse President-elect Trump of many things, but certainly not political naïveté or sentimentality. His vocabulary was always simple, direct, and emotional. He had no qualms riding ugly currents of thought: bigotry, envy, resentment, self-pity, bitterness, nihilism, and hatred. From his stint as a reality television host, he knew they would provoke action.

coverI write these words in anger, and that’s the emotion I’ll probably always associate with this election cycle. Beneath my anger is a sadness that I am reluctant to excavate. The one book that forced me to do that this year was Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I read it in February and it has stayed with me all year. It’s a memoir about the author’s grief over the deaths of five young, black men that she knew in childhood. One of these young men was her brother. Ward grew up in a rural community in southern Mississippi. Her literary talent led her out of state to college and later, to graduate school in creative writing. But her departure was fraught with guilt and longing:

…I wanted to apply, to leave Mississippi, to escape the narrative I encountered in my family, my community, and my school that I was worthless, a sense that was as ever present as the wet, cloying heat. ‘You can’t leave,’ my mother said to me. ‘You have to help me with your siblings.’ When she said that, I felt all the weight of the South pressing down on me, and it was then that I resolved to leave the region for college, but to do it in a way that respected the sacrifices my mother made for me. I studied harder. I read more. How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?

Men We Reaped details Ward’s visits home, the summers and holiday breaks destroyed by death. But this is not a gloomy book. Instead, it’s as full of  joy, youth, and love, as it is of grief, mourning, and heartbreak. The amount of life in this book makes the amount of loss all the more tragic.

coverFinally, regular readers of this site will know that I’ve spent the year reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and occasionally writing about it here. Rereading one of my favorite books has not only been a pleasure, it’s also forced me to set aside more time for reading, and that has brought a certain amount of calm and perspective into my life. The day after the election, in an attempt to find some equilibrium, I returned to In Search of Lost Time. The scene I read happened to be one in which Baron de Charlus misreads a social situation and as a result, loses the person he loves most dearly. His error is a familiar one: he doesn’t observe or even suspect the simmering resentment of someone else. I found myself underlining many sentences, including this one: “We picture the future as a reflection of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.”

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and thelmaandalicesubstack.com. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. God love Zadie, but ‘Fences’ actually makes you understand why Brexit voters dislike metropolitan liberals so much.

  2. I came here looking for book recommendations, but I couldn’t get past the liberal lecture. Amazing how little the Left understands (even now) why Brexit happened, why Trump was elected, and what is happening across the globe as we speak.

  3. “Amazing how little the Left understands (even now) why Brexit happened,”

    Considering the fact that America is coming to the end of a phase of eight years of foreign and domestic policies that were slightly to the right of the Dubya regime prior to it (all pseudo-progressive, LGBT lip-service window-dressing aside), I don’t think you quite get it, either.

    “Both” sides of the American political spectrum are conservative… and “populist” when it suits them. And the “Brexit” hiccup just shows that Duh Masses are still pretty bad at picking their targets. Ferners/ refugees/ immigrants are not the problem.

    It would be great to see a rational, fact-based discussion of the topic, but I realize now that will never happen: The Millions’ various posters prefer to keep raising the issue with passive-aggressive, wound-licking nods/winks/nudges/sighs which pretend to be, primarily, about books; they’re partisan snipers. Engagement is not their style. Oh, and: Dissent will not be tolerated. Very cozy and definitively anti-Intellectual. But “books” are all about The Feels now, so…

    PS Liberals are not the “Left”… the Left was quite effectively quashed during the Reagan counter-revolution of the 1980s. The pro-business, “support our troops” Consumeristas that replaced the Left are Ideological Adolescents who take political images at face value, actually believe in the nugatory content of campaign speeches and thoroughly believe that the Truth is whatever soundbite makes them feel best. Just like their parent-category The Right.

    The Left would have found a much better opponent in Trump than they found in Nixon… what a rich counter-culture that might have triggered… but they’ve long since been scattered to the winds. What we’ll get is 8 dreary years of Clintonite melt-downs and whining instead. And then the inevitable: “Chelsea 20_ _” buttons. Maybe Chelsea will run against the First Black Republican Female Lesbian candidate… for all the real difference that will make.

  4. I think the larger issue is a simpler one — stop inserting politics into everything. Yes, left wing radical snowflake, I know you’re going to say “Well, everything is political.” Just realize that maybe one percent of the population actually agrees with that. Most people read books for their escapist and storytelling qualities, some of us read them for their literary or aesthetic merit (and of course some works of both mainstream and literary fiction are about politics, whether it’s Warren’s All the King’s Men or King’s The Dead Zone). But honestly, politics are usually ephemeral and uninteresting and most importantly unartistic. Look at newly minted Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, who always rolled his eyes at people trying to politicize him. if you want to read politics, read the slough of non-fiction titles that pepper the non-fiction best seller rack at Barnes and Noble. Stop crowbarring your whining (whether from the left or the right) into discussions of art.

  5. “I think the larger issue is a simpler one — stop inserting politics into everything.”

    You mean, as in, “I am writing this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and that has changed my reflections as I look back on what I read this year,” ?

    Or, “Rereading Fox’s book, I was struck by the prescience of this paragraph, which was written before Brexit and before Donald Trump was the Republican Party nominee: Politics is a game in which actors assert their authenticity in the face of other actors whom they accuse of bad faith. ” And so forth?

    Did you read any of the “A Year in Reading- 2016” entries on this site? Most of them are rather politically charged. Quite a few articles beyond those entries, starting a couple of months back, are blatantly political as well. Did you somehow miss that in your skimming? This one-sided meshing of the Literary and Political is something I mention in the comment previous, in fact. The utter (bad faith) lack of any provision for room for debate. Does there always have to be a hefty dose of Normative Brainwashing mixed in with the Content? I had to ask myself this question when I checked the New Yorker this morning. Is it still The New Yorker or is it HuffPo Slate, now?

    Either focus on Literature or don’t… but don’t try to get away with enforcing some kind of “no politics in the comments!” policy when the articles themselves are unilateral dispensers of one-sided political content. Yeah, sure, I know: you’re totally comfortable with self-serving spin and jaw-dropping contradictions. You’re just a modern guy with little use for Unfiltered Reality. Noted.

    Here, I’ll cite the article’s citation of Proust:

    “We picture the future as a reflection of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.”

    Yes indeed.

  6. Politics ‘N Lit, an Informal Study.

    The following are the Top Ten samples of Inserted Political Content at The Millions for December of 2016. Because I only wanted to spend 20 minutes on this, tops, I limited this study to A) December B) a Top Ten list.

    Remember, as you read this, that the following ten entries were culled from a month that’s, thus far, only two weeks old. This non-stop barrage of Inserted Political Commentary on a Literary Site is not, of course, a problem exclusive to The Millions. And I’m not taking The Millions to task for the one-sided barrage as much as I’m questioning the ethics of A) providing no “safe space” for debate/ dissent B) making no effort to locate and feature…. just *once*…. an article presenting an alternate worldview.

    1. A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

    “And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending: ‘The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.'”

    2. A Year in Reading: Claire Cameron

    “Just before I started university in the early-1990s, more than 15 years before Donald Drumpf bragged about grabbing pussies, there was a campus rape awareness campaign called “no means no.” In response to the campaign, a group of students put up signs in their residence windows mocking it, “no means harder,” and “no means tie me up.” On Dec. 6 of that same year, a gunman entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal. He specifically targeted women and ended up killing 14. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life.”

    3.A Year in Reading: Megan Abbott

    “For those of us who read incessantly — books often serving as a kind of muzzy hideyhole from the world, our lives — our reading memories of 2016 may be forever tied to the presidential campaign. Pre-nomination, post-conventions, pre-Access Hollywood, post-James Comey, pre-November 8th, and The After. So it is for me and the three books I want to talk about, each one tentacled to the election, but far more for the intensity of feeling the election induced:”

    4. A Year in Reading: Esmé Weijun Wang

    “Good books in 2016 have been bright lights to remember and hold close. I write this in the wake of the election, when almost no books seem appealing, and all I want to do is sleep and cry.”

    5. A Year in Reading: Tess Malone

    “These books have nothing in common with each other, other than how I found myself fully engrossed while reading them. But they remind me that sometimes the best reading experiences are the ones we least expect. So I plan to read boldly and bravely because I’ll need some good escapism these next four years.”

    6. A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne?

    “First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of ‘Hillary lied!’ and ‘Grab them by the pussy,’ the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this — this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum — was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president.

    Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.”

    More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover.”

    7. A Year in Reading: Jacob Lambert

    “As I made my way through, another unsettling drama — the 2016 presidential campaign — was mercifully winding down, and until election night, The Shining was just a way to escape the noise. What better way to distance myself from Donald Trump’s noxiousness than to read about an eerily quiet, snowed-in hotel, written decades before the terms “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” entered the vernacular?”

    8. A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

    “In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote: ‘We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs. We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women…And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.’ (Glamour, August 4, 2016)


    9. A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

    “2016: The year my daughter learned to stand on her own and walk away. It’s also the year my son learned about the Holocaust, that it happened, and not that long ago. He is five, she is one. If this opening relies too heavily on the metaphorical, please forgive me: I refuse to besmirch my entry with a certain someone’s name, he has crowded my Internet and my brain too much already.”

    10. A Year in Reading: 2016

    “We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.

    It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)”

    Philosophically speaking, I’m as anti-Trump as I am anti-Clinton: both of these humans, being power-hungry liars, are terrible examples of the species. However, being in possession of actual facts (on the record, as reported by the MSM; I don’t need to source any wacko right wing reptile/UFO/Michelle is a Man sites… everywhere from the NYT to TIME to Huff Po to the NYer to the Atlantic to CNN, et al, has presented, over the years, damning information on Hillary and her rapist husband)… I have to say that, between the two, Donald Trump never oversaw (and then laughed at, on camera) the rape/murder of a head of state. Trump had nothing to do with Kosovo, or ongoing drone-deaths (courtesy of the charming, smile-as-they-die, Nobel Laureate), or the *pointless* starving-to-death of 500,000 Iraqi children, or the bloody destabilization campaign (collabing with “ISIS”) in Syria; how many of us even have a clue what the “Syria” situation is about?

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who probably knows more about it than many, writes (excerpt; entire article linked below):

    “Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link. In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria. It is important to note that this was well before the Arab Spring-engendered uprising against Assad.”

    Do you understand that people over *there* are dying for no reason greater than “Our” money? And that Propaganda/ Brainwashing is working hard, always, to keep you from awareness….?

    If Reading/Writing is an Escape from All That, in your opinion(s): fine.

    But if you’re going to bring All That up, in the first place, *please* try not to be so self-servingly Huxwellian about it.

    (Oh, and try to stop being so blatantly anti-Intellectual. It’s unseemly on a Lit Site)

    RFK Jr article about the machine you seem to think is more noble than it is:


  7. I agree that The New Yorker’s post-Trump coverage was laughable and, if anything, sub-HuffPo, sub-Slate.

  8. Wonder if the Millions will shut down comments haha. Nobody likes to be reminded they are in an echo chamber.

    Thanks for collecting all those quotes Steven. You are right. These are supposed to be writers and they sound about as self-aware as someone’s college kid ranting at Thanksgiving. I never asked for some kind of fair split – this is coming from people in NYC, and the entire publishing industry is probably 98% liberal. But literally *everyone* they can get treating the triumph of the other major party in America as the rise of Hitler? It’s just nuts. You couldn’t satirize it.

    I’m honestly beginning to believe that literary culture wasn’t killed by the lack of interest – but rather that 90% of Americans would read those quotes and say – fuck these people, they sound like gender studies professors, not writers. Why read their whiny, preaching-to-the-choir, virtue-signaling fiction?

  9. @Wjat!

    I wasn’t trying to score points against The Millions with that list… there’s often quite a lot I like about The Millions as a Lit Site…. I posted that list in self-defense.

    Posting it (a very small sampling, btw!), I wanted to show that I’ve been *reacting* to a fairly monolithic, ongoing presentation of politics blended with the Lit Chat. Such blended content is, of course, the prerogative of the management, but I was acting under my longstanding assumption that it’s my right (duty!), as an engaged reader, to respond. I’m not really the Faceborg type of commenter who thinks posting an “AWESOME” or a “LOL” is even worth it. We’re dealing with ideas here. I’m all for going into detail.

    You and I are, perhaps, polar opposites, politically, but I’m interested in your opinion… weird, eh? If you have some facts and logic to organize the facts with, I’m eager to listen and engage. Even if you were a member of the Klan, and you had some facts you thought could prove that I’m congenitally inferior, I’d enjoy the opportunity to prove you wrong! Laugh

    I really don’t get people who explode over dissenting opinions. Yeah, sure, I feel contempt for uneducated opinions, but they don’t turn me into a vintage Linda Blair doll with a 360-degree head rotation feature… maybe it’s an Internet-driven Evolutionary Advantage?

    Re: Literary Culture: de gustibus and all that but there is just an *awful* lot of e-z-2-read cack piling up out there and it’s festooned with glittering prizes. I say the only proper response is to hunker down and live through it until it’s over. And it *will* be over. It always is… for awhile.

  10. Enjoyed your essay, Hannah.

    The comment section is still under hijack from windbags of every variety. Tired.

    Word of the Day: “pithy”

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