A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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The last book I bought before the shelter-in-place order was The Mirror & the Light, which was a celebrity event for me. I had preordered the book, and I went and collected it with a friend who was visiting, the last guest I would have for quite some time, the last lunch inside a restaurant, the last time I worked in the coffee shop, all of that. I read this novel before bed for what seemed like years between approximately March 12 and approximately April something? May something? I don’t know. A commenter on an earlier entry in this series said they don’t want to hear about the homeschooled children. Whoops! By the time I got into bed with this book at night I was worn the fuck out from being the primary caregiver when the playgrounds are off-limits and you just walk in circles around the neighborhood and yell “space” in sepulchral tones and comfort the sad children and make snacks. Sorry it’s tedious to hear about—it was tedious to experience. I’m aware it’s preferable to being dead.

I wasn’t bored by The Mirror & The Light, but I had three brain cells to rub together, so it took me for fucking ever to read this book. And yet when I got to the last third? fourth? I started to pick up the pace, and I could feel what she was doing, not only because I already knew more or less what happened to Cromwell, but because of some authorial magic, and by the denouement there was beautiful catharsis to my creeping dread and endless cooped-up days and I wept with the style and power of it. That was a signal reading moment in a year when there were few.

Before mid-March I read Uncanny Valley, which is also written with great style, and which engages deeply with an environment that is incredibly rarified and niche yet has rapidly become responsible for the water we all swim in without realizing. I read Trust Exercise and while I am still mystified by the structure and final section and had to ask the Internet what everyone thought happened, it seemed that I was reading something dynamic and mesmerizing at the time of reading.

After mid-March books were competing with the circumstances of daily life, which was spent trying to competently parent my young children when normal avenues for their diversion were shut, and doing paid work, in addition to things like blurbing books (10) and reading manuscripts (4), and volunteering for a ballot measure in my town. When I had no paid work I felt idle and worried about money but the minute I obtained an assignment I panicked about when and how exactly I would do the work when life was full of on-the-nose moments of screaming “I’m in the bathroom” through a flimsy plastic accordion door or children saying things like “I don’t want you to work, Mommy!” One is in the room with me right now and she wants me to bite all the skin off of her apple so she can eat the flesh underneath, and she is standing on the printer.

I had a long-standing assignment to write an introduction for a reissue of Count Belisarius by Robert Graves, so eventually I buckled down to read this at night in bed, and it was also very long with a lot of confusing history and wars, and ultimately a sort of nihilistic reminder that we are all teeny tiny hanks of bone and fur in the owl pellets of history. I don’t know who the owl is in this metaphor but it’s not us. I enjoyed the book and think it has a lot to say to us—which you can read in the introduction, completed by the skin of my gd teeth in the wee hours of the night.

Books were also competing with my compulsive doomscrolling (thank you to Karen K. Ho for this word) and with articles with infinite deployments of the word “grim milestone” and with my lifeline text threads with friends and with my third? fourth? rewatch of The Sopranos, which I did lying next to my sleeping husband with headphones in the dark in the middle of the night knowing I was hours late going to bed, that my misery was only compounded by sleeping five hours but feeling so fried and touched-out from interminable days that I could only be soothed by the frictionless pleasure of television in the quiet night. Most books lost to this arrangement and it wasn’t personal. There were a lot that I loved to read and yet never managed to get to the end of.

Early in the pandemic my older daughter expressed interest in graphic novels and comics so I googled and ordered a pile of them and we read them together. We read Sisters and Smile and Hex Vet and Hilo and Black Panther and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Princeless and Ladybug Girl and Cat Noir (ugh) and Calvin and Hobbes and Tiny Titans (ugh) and Superhero Girls (ugh) and others I can’t remember. I spent an enormous amount of time reading these to her, panel by panel, and wishing that reading to someone was all it took to teach them how.

She was just shy of being able to read when
the pandemic started and I found the timing of this heartrending. I’m an only
child and spent many solitary hours reading and feeling soothed and befriended by books, truly formative hours. She is not an only child but she
has been very lonely and I wondered how she might have benefited from this
escape hatch. Thinking about those hours of my childhood is bittersweet because
it is precisely that form of reading that was not available to me, not just this
year but any recent year, not just in the sense that there are precious few
uninterrupted hours, but because my brain feels irrevocably altered by
circumstances to the extent that this experience of reading—the self-effacing
and abandoned reading that is to the book what REM sleep is to the bed—feels
lost to me.

When it was early enough in the pandemic, a couple of months maybe, that I still retained some notion that I would soon return to a larger “work in progress,” I read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street because I was still buzzing from the ending to The Mirror & the Light and because it’s short and because I’m interested in how Anglo-Americans write the so-called expat experience. While the novel, which was written after Mantel spent several years in Saudi Arabia, was at the “craft” level fluid and well-wrought, it was an unpleasant book that radiates phobia–Islamophobia and claustrophobia beyond the manufactured claustrophobia of its plot, the sign of an absence of authorial distance. It’s sort of the opposite of the way that Mantel dealt with the misty European past in the Cromwell novels–those knolls and cloisters approached with expansive curiosity reflected in maximal yet superbly controlled prose.

In June I read White Negroes and despite its author’s elegant point elsewhere on the inefficacy of reading lists to edify white readers it’s a book I think should be taught in high schools, by good teachers, for what it says about appropriation and white engagement with Black art and culture.

In July we went camping on a mountain where The Sopranos was not available and I tried to lose myself in an old favorite, At Lady Molly’s (Vol. 4 of Dance to the Music of Time), and in the camp chair I felt briefly happy, but not so happy that I could embark on a reread of a 12-volume epic just to recreate one outdoors night of pleasure.

In August we went camping at a lake where The Sopranos was likewise not available and I read Madame Bovary, which I have read before but not in Lydia Davis’s translation. Davis’s introduction was revelatory to me: “…this was just the sort of action that really interested Flaubert: the subtle shifts of feeling created in a reader by description and by psychological analysis. ‘I maintain that images are action,’ he says. ‘It is harder to sustain a book’s interest by this means, but if one fails, it is the fault of style.’” I don’t know if this is always true—Hilary Mantel has style and yet it did not solve the problems of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street—but it felt like a life-changing statement in the moment I read it by a campfire and perceived that my three brain cells were stirring as though they might one day write again.

One day after five months? Six months? my friend Meaghan O’Connell who is also a writer who is primarily caregiving left the book The Spare Room by Helen Garner on my front porch. She knew just what would cheer me up and make me stop compulsively watching Sopranos. We texted about how great it would be to be able to write a book like that, about a relationship between two women at a perfectly ordinary but epochal moment in late middle age.

That month I also I tore through Luster in the course of a few days because I was jolted by its wry depressive voice, its hapless but gimlet-eyed deadpan, and relieved by the delicious and singular and lately elusive feeling of reading with sheer enjoyment and appreciation. That was a highlight.

The first days of September were what I am now thinking of as Halcyon days, where I had both children all day but online kindergarten misery hadn’t yet started, and I had a new strategy of taking them to a river beach, where it was quiet during the week and the water was calm and where I felt for a few sunkissed afternoons that my extreme proximity to them during these months might actually be a gift and not something causing them damage. The book I read during these beautiful mid-mornings was Lakewood, a muted, uncanny, potent story of medical harm and racism that eerily fits the times—it is wrapped up in the feelings of uneasy, conditional calm of that short period.

Before the election I had a spate of wakeful nights and I read Red Pill, a fascinating novel touching upon a lot of terrifying things about the Internet that had been on display everywhere but also in my town as right-wing trolls doxed and stalked protestors and held rallies and I read articles like this one about Stephen Miller and the conditions that create him. The novel sort of seemed to fall apart at the end but it was also right before the election when things, me among them, were broadly falling apart, so it’s hard to tell.

This week I took Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko off the shelf, where it sat unread among a set of new Penguin Classics. I loved the author’s own introduction to this edition, about writing the novel during a lonely winter in Alaska while her kids were in school and daycare she paid for with a grant. She wrote letters to her friends and she wrote the book on a borrowed law office table she painted red, and she used the writing as a conduit to return to the southwestern landscapes that she knew and loved and pined for. This made me feel a surge of hope, somehow. The novel itself, which I am almost finished with–which has felt good to return to every night–is about a man who has been ground through America’s gears and history’s gears and is looking for a way to be healed. I worry about how it’s going to end.

I realize that every time I write a Year in Reading I’m undergoing some psychic melodrama, and books are always the elusive lover who darts tantalizingly in and out of life, and I spin a fantasy about how much better it would be if I could be with them all the time. Last year I wrote up my entry at my grandmother’s house and reflected on how keyed-up I had been most of 2019. It turns out that would be the last time I ever saw her because she died last week. What made me miserable this year is so much more consequential and vast in scale than my grievances of years past. When “this is all over,” while I will still be me (best-case scenario), I pray that if nothing else I will have some fucking sense of perspective.

In any case I remind myself that a book or books or reading was never going to be the thing that would fix what was wrong with this year. It will take a vaccine to do it, and that’s not even the half.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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In the last five days I have driven a little over a thousand miles in a rented Toyota Camry with my two daughters and a large carton of Goldfish crackers. This trip seemed like a good idea when I planned it, but as the date of our departure approached it began to appear increasingly quixotic. For one, the nominal purpose of the trip was to make an author appearance at a book club that I had agreed to visit when I lived in the Bay Area, where it was to be held, and not in Oregon, where I now live. Moreover, the trip was not planned as a straight line. It takes about 10 hours to drive directly from Portland to the Bay Area, but I added several hours to the trip by planning to stop in the town of Alturas, California, to visit my deceased grandparents in the cemetery and spend the night in a historic hotel. (In addition to being quixotic, the trip also seemed like metatextual cuteness, since I had written an entire book about a woman who drives to rural California with a small child in the backseat; it was as if I had decided to insert autobiography where there had been none, and prove my Goodreads detractors correct that the book is artless.)

I decided that the trip was only going to work if I employed all of the tricks that were not available to the book’s protagonist, or to my own parents, who spent a lot of my childhood driving me around in the backseat of a car.  I set up an iPad for the older child, a backup tablet for the younger child, positioned the Goldfish carton so that both could reach down into its maw, and for myself downloaded an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which I realized I had never read despite knowing its plot from various film properties.  

The first leg of the trip was supposed to take around six and a half hours. As the road began to incline up toward the snow-dusted trees of the Willamette pass, Jane got sick (Mrs. Bennett made her go to Netherfield without the carriage), and I stopped to pee on an embankment in sight of the car. I drove white-knuckled and 18 miles an hour over the packed snow at the pass, the soothing voice of Rosamund Pike nudging me onward. We stopped to give thanks and pee at a gas station in Chemult at twilight, which was the advent of Mr. Collins, and he delivered his ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth as we passed the turnoff for Crater Lake with the last bit of pink in the sky. We stopped to pee again in Merrill, and the children crowded in a gas station bathroom with me while I devised an impromptu sanitary napkin out of paper towels and wondered what the Bennett girls did in these moments. Between Ambrose and Hackamore, after Bingley decamped for London without warning, we hit an owl.

At one point in the drive my older daughter, who was watching Cinderella, asked if I was listening to a story too, and I said I was. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cinderella, and I groaned when I heard the voice of the advisor from the backseat, surveying the array of uglies at the ball: “There must be one who’d make a suitable mother…err a suitable wife!” he says. There are so many moments in the raising of girls where the available cultural materials seem sorely wanting. But then I realized that I was listening to essentially the same story, and that it was probably single-handedly responsible for turning an experience that is objectively unpleasant—long car travel with children in sparsely populated country in the early winter dark—into one of the best times I have had in recent memory.

That first night we sat outside the Niles Hotel in twenty-degree weather waiting to be let in, the only guests in a drafty century-old building with period furnishings, and then the girls cozied up together in an ancient bed, and I re-read Of Human Bondage, which I had brought as my physical book. I wondered what was happening with Lizzie and Darcy and Bingley and Jane. I knew what would happen at the end of the book but I could hardly wait to get back into the car to listen to it.

I don’t know if it was the novelty of the trip—Portland to Alturas, Alturas to Petaluma, Petaluma to Oakland to Davis, Davis to San Francisco to Menlo Park—or the iPad, or Pride and Prejudice, but something has encouraged all of us to rise to the occasion this week. As we passed familiar sights I was glad we made the trip: the life-size religious tableaux set up by the In Search of Truth cult in Canby, California, the long-awaited McDonald’s in Burney, the glory of Shasta rising up on a clear winter day. My beloved aunt died in October and I found myself wanting to call and tell her about the things that we saw in her hometown. The importance of aunts is a theme in Pride and Prejudice; aunts as confidants and sources of wisdom. When I was younger my aunt let me smoke in her backyard and tell her my adventures.

This week in the car stands in stark contrast to the last week I spent alone in the company of my children, which was when we moved to Portland at the end of July. The move has turned out to be the best possible thing for our family, but that week, when it was hot and we were in a new city with no furniture and nothing to do, was one of the worst weeks I can remember. My most vivid memory from that time is chasing a 22-month-old around a Fred Meyer grocery store, sobbing on the phone with my former Primary Care Practitioner in San Francisco, with whom I have always had a very cordial and impersonal relationship, to see if there was anything she could prescribe me to get through this experience (she reluctantly but kindly prescribed me Prozac, which I failed to pick up from my HMO before we were switched over to a PPO, and for all I know is still sitting there in a pigeonhole marked K).

The move is one of the reasons I feel as though I haven’t read anything this year. But as in every year, I did read things. Before we moved I read The Revisioners and Women Talking and Lanny and Heavy and The Unpassing, all of which made me weep for different reasons. I read The Parisian and The Old Drift, which are both long and wonderful and address history and which I envied for their beauty and complexity and verve. I know I read other things, but the spring is a blur of thinking about whether to move and discussing the particulars of the move and preparing for the move and then doing the move itself.

Post-move, when my children started camp and daycare and I was alone in the empty house with a number of home improvement projects and a book project I lacked the wherewithal to do, I opened a box of galleys I had previously felt too burned-out and defeated to read. I read Normal People and felt like the raw edges of the preceding weeks smoothed over. I read The Altruists. I went to the library and got a library card and read Loving Day on the porch and on the bed my poor husband put together by himself after going to a new job and coming home to find me crying after a day at the indoor playground. These books helped me feel pleasure in things again.

When I was settled enough to get to work, I read The Smartest Guys in the Room. I purchased and read the “Women of Enron” issue of Playboy, a real object that exists and was produced by our society. I tried to remember the excellent things I had already read for this project, back before moving consumed everything. Before we moved I had read The Oil and the Glory at a table of the Ingleside branch of the SFPL, and an anthology called Working for Oil. At the library of the beautiful Morrison Reading Room at UC Berkeley I read The Oil Road.  (It occurs to me now that I am trying to write a book that combines what all these authors know about extractive industries and business culture and imperialism with what Jane Austen knew about the women of her acquaintance sitting together in a room, and I am still not sure how to do this.)

When I adjusted to the fact of our new city, when we got a bookshelf and a dresser, I could look back and see clearly how anxious and unhappy I had been for a lot of the last year. Oddly, work trips, which seemed like a pain in the ass at the time of their planning and execution, were some of the moments that I remembered most fondly, and they were lonely and strange times. In May I traveled to Miami for a work thing and sat at a restaurant alone reading Cities of Salt in the sea breeze, glowing with happiness at the luxury of solitude and an immersive novel.  Over two solo road trips to Los Angeles, also for book stuff, I listened to the entirety of Oil!, finishing it just before hitting the In ‘n Out burger at Kettleman City on the way to San Francisco.  In Los Angeles I sat at a bar and read The Sea, The Sea for the hundredth time.

Every book that I’ve managed to finish since we moved feels like it helped me regain my equilibrium in some crucial way. Before Halloween, I read Chimerica, which is a book that sounds slightly batshit (it has a talking giant lemur who is the subject of a court case) and turns out to be one of the smartest fictional engagements with the American legal system that I’ve ever read. I read Perfect Tunes with a whiskey sour my husband made me, the children asleep in bed, and I felt young and happy. I read American War on the plane to California to see my aunt for the last time. After Halloween—which since having children marks the start of a period that lasts until mid-January and during which I don’t get anything done due to holiday obligations and inevitable winter illness—I lay on the couch reading In the Dream House at nearly one go while my children watched shit on the iPad and my husband made our dinner in the toaster oven (we were at this time living out of the dining room). It feels peculiar to have such a singularly enjoyable reading experience from a book that arises from someone else’s pain, but that’s one major paradox of reading, and Carmen Maria Machado is so talented that it is pure pleasure to be in that swiftly-moving book. I read Giving up the Ghost, which is also pure pleasure rooted in someone’s pain, Hilary Mantel with her treacherous endometrial cells and her subtly idiosyncratic prose. I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, which is gorgeous and close to my heart because it is about a quixotic trip through California, undertaken for family and personal reasons.

I never canceled the book club thing in California I think because I wanted to tell myself that moving to Oregon would be just like moving to another neighborhood, and that I would continue to be able to access my family and friends and the landscapes of California with total ease. This road trip has made it clear that it is not the case. There’s the distance, which is vast but surmountable; more than that I’m realizing how difficult it is to visit your grown-up friends when you have children in tow. This is a trip where I’m seeing very few friends, despite my breezy assurances when we moved that “I’ll come back all the time.” This realization is one in a series of recalibrating lessons, but I’m in a better frame of mind lately to receive it. I’m typing this at two in the morning in my grandmother’s house in the Bay Area, and my children are sleeping, and they have been such good girls, and I have been such a comparatively calm and pleasant mother to them on our strange road trip, maybe because it was one I conceived of and undertook entirely on my own steam, or maybe it was because Pride and Prejudice made me happy. Tomorrow we will start the long drive back home; I downloaded Sense and Sensibility to ease the way.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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1.
My first book was published on September 4, and I was supposed to interview the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard in front of an audience on September 24. In early summer I obtained the six volumes of My Struggle, and the four volumes of the Seasons Quartet. I put these together in a pile and added the book he wrote about soccer, and noted down the names of his earlier books. I was going to read them all, I told myself, and I also told this to the somewhat incredulous organizers. The writer who first interviewed him for the same program, I suspected, did not read all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s works to prepare. But that writer had male authority, and I don’t.

The middle days of summer slipped by. I developed a “bit.” “How are you feeling about your book?” someone might ask, and I would say, jauntily, “I’m glad I have this Karl Ove Knausgaard thing looming, because it means I can’t even be anxious about my own book, haha.” This was not entirely true. It is true that my anxiety was more dispersed than it might have been, but it was still there in quantity. The Knausgaard assignment felt like a metaphor for other things in life—everything I have ever enrolled in and then realized, with absolute certainty and invariably too late, that I do not have the constitution for. (This is usually how I feel about good things: The book that I myself wrote, for example, or sometimes, the children I gave birth to.) How had I, a person genuinely awe-struck by people who do half-marathons, so cheerfully signed up for the greatest feat of endurance in contemporary letters?

The waning days of summer slipped by. I started to panic. There was always a volume of My Struggle with me, and thus Karl Ove, or the version of Karl Ove that Karl Ove had seen fit to enshrine on the page, was with me. Karl Ove was with me when I got into bed at night, before my husband demanded that we turn out the lights. He was with me on the bus. He was with me at restaurants and coffee shops. As my own publication date approached, as I had less and less time to read, I read volumes 1 and 2 closely. I was not insensible to the fact that I had taken on an enormous amount of labor for A Man, and that angst about this was going to overshadow my own big day. I noticed that I was developing a little rash on my neck, just under the hairline (it is still there). Karl Ove was with me when I ate two orders of fried chicken wings from the restaurant around the corner, even as I was supposed to be slimming in advance of my publication date. “I was wondering whether you would finish all of those,” the server said admiringly. She was talking about the wings, which I could finish, and not the books, which it had become obvious I couldn’t. I skimmed volumes 3 and 4.

2.
One problem with reading My Struggle is that after each session I could remember almost nothing substantive—certainly no lines stood out in memory, although there were many that stood out as I was reading, many that I underlined and circled and asterisked. Reading the books was a strange, dreamlike experience, a quiet onslaught. When I first started, when I still felt like I had some time, I took notes on almost every page. When I knew that I didn’t have enough time, I started taking only very crucial notes on the endpapers. I told myself I was only allowed to have as many thoughts as there was room on the endpapers of each book.

What do I remember? I vividly remember the part where he and his brother clean the filthy house of his grandmother after his father dies there. I remember that this was one of the parts that incensed his litigious uncle, who loomed over Karl Ove’s own pre-publication period. I remember that Karl Ove seems to hate things involving book publicity, like, for example, being interviewed on a stage.

3.
I spent a lot of time, after delivering my “bit,” hearing people be scornful about Karl Ove Knausgaard. And I understand it, even though I love the books. I am mad, too. The project is amazing in its hubris. But it is also very interesting. The character of Karl Ove who is written in the pages is maddening. But he is also very interesting. When I was reading I thought about how similar I felt to him in some ways, but how I am really probably more like his second wife, with whom I felt less affinity (he wrote her, after all). I felt utterly reproached by his level of involvement in the housekeeping, by his mania for order, by a participation in domesticity that demolished my excuses about my own artistic production and my domestic shortcomings. I have fewer children, and fewer books written or read, and a messier house. Karl Ove writes about how this discrepancy enraged his second wife, too.

It pained me how good his descriptions were of getting children out of the house, or just doing anything with children. One place where Karl Ove was not with me was when I was on my way to or from daycare and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs, when I only “read” my phone as I swayed on the bus. Sometimes I had a baby strapped to me as I did this, one of the cuter babies in history, and sometimes I would forget that she was there for a while and then look down and find her playing peek-a-boo with a grandmotherly figure on the bus. I felt reproached by this, too. “Put your phone down and notice her, idiot,” I imagined these women were telegraphing to me. “Life is so short.” Now I am reading Socks by Beverly Cleary to my older daughter and it makes me feel a little better: Mrs. Bricker sits at her typewriter typing papers while her baby plays on the mat. She gives the baby spoons and other kitchen junk to play with.

I became obsessed with Norwegian and Swedish social policies. Back with Karl Ove, I underlined every part where he scoffed at Swedish sanctimony and hypocrisy. TRY LIVING HERE, I would scream in my head, to no one. I couldn’t help noting that this reading assignment was the corner office in the women’s work of thinking about men who are not thinking about you.

Rather on the nose, right before my book came out, I was afflicted with strange long-term bleeding (27 days) which, after much poking and scanning and taking of pills, was determined to be the result of inefficiently weaning the baby two months before, and resulting hormonal storms.

4.
Book 6 came with me on my short book tour. When it arrived in the mail I laughed because it’s simply enormous, and a peculiar shape. It became its own metaphor. On the airplane, it was my personal item. I jammed it under the Ziploc bag of 3-ounces-or-less toiletries, in a shoulder bag whose straps weren’t up to the challenge. At JFK, I was called for extra screening. The agent removed the book from the bag and wiped its fore-edge with the strip of paper they stick into a machine to see if it’s a bomb. I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying something like, “It’s not a bomb, haha, just a very big book!”

But it was a bomb. It was a ticking time bomb, poised to blow me up on the stage of San Francisco’s historic Nourse theater, the detonation broadcast by my local NPR affiliate. “How do you think Sweden’s social policies have fit in with your life as a working writer and parent?” I would say. “Why do you want to know?” he would say, smoldering and furious. I would forget everything, I would sound stupid, I would look ugly, I would have the wrong outfit, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Karl Ove Knausgaard, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Knut Hamsun, no one would buy my book, I would never write a second book, I would be mean to my children.

Meanwhile, I purchased more makeup products so that if someone took a picture of me at my own book readings I wouldn’t look as shitty as I felt. I calculated the number of pages I had to read per day to finish the book and skim the neglected book 5. I wished I could be reading anything else. My book came out around the same time as a huge glut of wonderful books, some of which I decided to read instead of Karl Ove: Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Incendiaries, Boomer1, All You Can Ever Know, A Terrible Country. Before Karl Ove loomed I read Like a Mother, which every person in America should read whether they intend to reproduce or not.

While on vacation I read Severance and have evangelized madly about it to anyone who will listen: a book about work that puts the work in the context of globalization, a book that is mordant and sad and full of quicksilver allegories. I loved that book so much. I also loved A River of Stars, which checks my favorite boxes for fiction—it communicates something complicated about society, you root for the people in it, you see the sights and taste the food and hold the babies it describes. It’s also a great California book. Before Knausgaard I read other books about the American West, city and country. I read The Wild Birds. I read In the Distance. I read This Radical Land, the parts about California. I read Chosen Country, about the Bundys and Malheur. I read There There. I missed these books. I missed reading books that you could finish.

The prospect of going on the book tour was very exciting from a distance, because as a concept it combines “business trip” with “artistic temperament” and everything decadent and slightly immoral that is supposed to go along with those things. I laugh to think about this now because like many things that seem sexy and glamorous from afar, the reality was somewhat different. The reality was me, and my anxiety and my rash, missing my family and feeling guilty for leaving them, and eating roadside muffins and carrying Karl Ove around in my bag. On the train from Philadelphia to New York I thought suddenly about a book I had read months earlier, Fire Sermon, which is a quiet bomb of a book about fidelity and infidelity and desire. I remembered it being about about the spot where desire and reality coincide, and this applies to sex and love, sure, but also to career and art and everything a person might secretly yearn for in the night, every road not taken, every experience of the thing you want and the thing you get being both the same thing and somehow, different things entirely. I thought about that novel with a kind of yearning. I wanted to cheat on Karl Ove. I also wondered if Karl Ove would have delivered me anything like this amount of angst if he weren’t so handsome in all his author photos, if he didn’t cavalierly smoke cigarettes and famously break hearts. (Probably not.)

All this was irrelevant, because September 24 loomed. With seven days to go until Knausgaard Night, I worked on Volume 6 in the subway during a day off on the tour. I went to the Metropolitan Museum. The subway was nice and cool and I had a seat and a pen and the air felt conductive. I didn’t itch, my brain was working: I was getting serious. And as so often happens in the procrastinator’s life, it felt like I was getting serious just late enough to do a less-good job—to have a sense of the job I might have done, and to mourn it. I paused to mourn; I scribbled notes on the nice woven endpapers. I had questions I was going to ask, about politics and national identity. I could feel a woman adjacent watching me. Shortly before we disembarked she asked me if I was a writer and I said, after some hesitation, “Yes.” She said she wished I could teach her to write and I said I wished so too, although there are many people more qualified. In the museum I looked at paintings and sarcophagi and papal frocks and I was so happy, and the bomb felt light in my bag.

The next day, I was standing in the rain outside a subway entrance and checked my phone before descending. There was an email: due to unforeseen events, Karl Ove Knausgaard was regretfully canceling his appearances. The bomb detonated with a fizzle. I had not even gotten to Hitler. The relief was tremendous, but after the adrenaline something else swept in, something bittersweet.

5.
And then I could freely read other things, books on their way to publication: I read American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which is about what it says in the title but about so much more—about patriotism and disillusionment and black Americans in federal service and communist panic and American governmental and para-governmental fuckery regarding foreign governments. I read The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a collection of short stories that finds many terrible and miraculous moments—real and less-real, past and present, in America, in Turkey, in the Ottoman and other empires—and turns them into gorgeous, living, provocative stories and vignettes. I read The Round House, which is not new but which was new to me. I loved these books.

I took a break from Karl Ove, so I have still not gotten to Hitler.

6.
Two months later the organizers of the Knausgaard program, who are lovely people (and who still paid me something for the canceled job), invited me to deliver a brief introduction to Jonathan Franzen as a consolation. This is another man who people are often mad at and whose work I love. This didn’t carry anything like the drama of the thwarted Knausgaard night, because I didn’t have to read anything new and the introduction was three minutes long. It also took place a few days after my father-in-law died, and this had put things into perspective.

Our friends and neighbors cared for my children like they were their own, picking them up and feeding them and putting them to bed while I got my hair blown out and taped up the hem of my formal jumpsuit and practiced saying my three-minute introduction into my phone. Jonathan Franzen was affable, and the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, who was there too, was kind (actually, I did read something to prepare—I read this remarkable essay by her). When I got home I took The Corrections off the shelf. Although the particulars are wildly different it still seemed like a suitable thing to read when you are mourning the passing of a white father from a particular generation in America. My father-in-law, a member of the Silent Generation, was another man with whom I carried on mostly imaginary conversations. Now that he is gone I don’t find myself using Facebook as much, because lately I had mostly used it for these conversations. I had used it to say: “I’m furious about the state of the world.” He had used it to say: “I’m proud of you.” My husband wasn’t home, because he was still with his family doing the much harder work of a grieving son. I kept the lights on in bed as long as I wanted, read a book I knew I could finish, and was briefly consoled.

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The Possibilities of Coexistence: The Millions Interviews Michael David Lukas

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A few years ago, Michael David Lukas wrote about what he calls the “polyphonic novel” for this site. His new novel is a jewel of the form, weaving voices of modern Cairo with those from the city’s millennium-plus history, and describing events leading to the discovery of the famed Genizah trove in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Lukas is interested in the sites of Jewish history in Muslim-majority contexts–his first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, was a magical realist work about a Jewish girl during the waning days of the Ottoman empire.  The Last Watchman of Old Cairo juxtaposes the peregrinations of Joseph–a young American graduate student with Egyptian Muslim and Jewish roots–with the life of a distant forbear and those of the so-called “Sisters of Sinai,” who played a critical role in the development of scriptural history. In addition to his novel-writing, Lukas works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley (where I also used to work, although we didn’t overlap–we met on a losing team at a book trivia fundraiser thing, and now meet up every so often to discuss books and babies). At Berkeley, he runs an online exchange between students in the U.S. and the Middle East. I spoke with him about how this novel, like that work, looks for the sites of coexistence in a long shared past.

The Millions (TM):  Tell me about the Genizah and the source material for the book.

Michael David Lukas (MDL):  So, I’ll start with the first seed, which was that I studied abroad in Cairo during my junior year of college. It was a weird period in my life, and in the world, and it was my first time living in the Arab World. I was feeling somewhat alienated from my Jewishness. It was during the Second Intifada–I was hyper aware of, and also very conscious of, and also sort of defensive about, and alienated from my Jewishness all at the same time. I was really enjoying the city but having a hard time figuring out how I fit into it. And in the midst of this, I came upon the synagogue at the heart of the city. Seeing that, and realizing that there was thousand-year-old history of Jews in Cairo, I had a sense not only of the possibilities of coexistence, but also of how I fit into the place.

And then later on, I learned that this synagogue is the site of all these amazing stories and of the famed Genizah in its attic. Jews would hold onto any piece of paper that had the word “God” written on it; there was a prohibition against throwing away those pieces of paper. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, they kept these pieces of paper up in the attic because it was dry. They didn’t mold, and in the 19th century they were discovered by Solomon Schechter and the British twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson.

That’s the first seed, and it was dormant for a long time. Then many years later I had an experience where I sat next to this woman on a plane and we ended up talking for basically the whole flight across the country, and she told me that her family had been the watchmen of a synagogue in Kolkata. She was Bengali Muslim. That sparked this memory of that other synagogue in Cairo and the Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and it all kind of came together.

TM:  What sort of sources did you use to familiarize yourself with the twins, and with their part of the story?

MDL:  They were so interesting. They were very Victorian, bible-hunter-type folks, but also very quirky. Luckily there are a few books written about them. One in particular called The Sisters of Sinai was useful. They actually wrote a couple of books about their experiences as well, so I knew their voices, and I knew how I wanted to position them in the narrative–kind of this driving force behind the discovery that didn’t really get recognized as a driving force at the time.

One thing that was difficult about it was that as much as they were proto-feminists, and really remarkable for what they were able to accomplish at a time that was quite misogynist and when women weren’t able to go to Cambridge, they were also, as one would imagine, pretty imperialistic. So I didn’t want to lionize them even though they are in one sense heroes of the story. Since it was such a close point of view, it was hard to figure out ways to show their colonialist mentality, without reifying it, or supporting it. I ended up having them be proven wrong in a number of ways about their assumptions about Egyptians, or about the way things work in Egypt, when these assumptions were undercut by events.

TM:  Your last novel also had a Jewish protagonist in a Muslim-majority context,.

MDL:  My brother-in-law was like, “You gotta stop writing these Jewish novels, no one cares.”

TM:  Your novel-in-progress is also a Jewish novel, right?

MDL:  My current novel is different because it’s set in the future. You don’t necessarily realize that it’s a Jewish protagonist, although it’s a rewriting of the Book of Esther. It’s more like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a Christian novel. I think to a Jewish reader it feels very Jewish, but I think to other readers it might not.

TM:  It’s an Abrahamic novel.

MDL:  Exactly, Abrahamic. That was really the whole point. That’s the idea behind the original title, which was the 43rd Name of God. The idea being, there are lots of names for God, to encapsulate one entity or one way of being.

TM:  I love how The Last Watchman highlights the fact that Jewish history–and Arab history, and Muslim history–is so rich and complex as a result of the interplay of cultural and religious traditions. When you talk to Jewish people and tell them you’re writing about Jews in a Muslim-majority context, what kind of responses do you get?

MDL:  I think about it this way: Jews have been in the United States for 350 years. Jews were in Cairo for a thousand. Within that kind of time span, you have ups and downs, obviously. But that long history of Jews in the Arab world has been erased in a lot of ways, for political means, or political purposes, by all parties.

I’m very careful to paint neither too rosy a picture, nor too much of a picture of conflict. I chose the time period of the novel specifically to be able to paint a picture that was complex. The two books that I can think of about Cairene or Egyptian Jews are Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, and André Aciman’s Out of Egypt. Those are both personal memoirs about the expulsion of the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled foreigners from Egypt and put Jews in that category. Some Jews were foreigners, from Italy, France, or what have you, but there were other Jews who were from Cairo, whose families had lived there for a thousand years.

In terms of the response I get, generally people are pretty interested. There’s a kind of wide appetite for this sort of thing, if only because it stakes a Jewish claim in this place. Then there are a lot of Jews who are very focused on the late twentieth-century conflict, and that history. So they aren’t really trying to hear the previous history, which doesn’t fit into the narratives of “it was really bad and then Israel came along and they were saved,” which sort of reverses the chain of events as they actually happened.

Generally, people are pretty happy to read about Jewish lives. The book is so much about this interplay between Muslim and Jewish identity, I’ll be curious to how people react to that.

TM: What is the Cairene Jewish community like today?

MDL: There aren’t that many Jews who still live in Cairo. When I was there in the year 2000, I went to Rosh Hashanah services and the synagogue was completely full, but it was mostly staffers from the American and Israeli embassies, and oil company employees. There were a few Cairene Jews who were there, and I based some characters in the book on them, like sort of seeing them from a distance.

But apparently there’s been a real resurgence in interest in Jewish history in Egypt. There was a little mini-series on TV and there have been a few people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots, including one famous actor who came out as Jewish, with a Jewish mother. There were a couple of famous Jewish actors during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, one of whom converted to Islam in order to advance her career. Which sounds crazy, but it happened in Hollywood all the time.

Jews were a part of the cultural fabric. You can see these little traces of that history if you know what to look for, but you really have to know what to look for.

TM:  You were an undergraduate when you were in Cairo the first time. Did you go back and do more research for this book?

MDL:  Well I set it in the year 2000, which is when I was still there, which is sort of a cop-out. I went back a couple times subsequently, just to get a sense of the place and the feeling of being there. Being in Cairo is such a visceral experience, the sweaty taxi seat sticking to your back–that’s basically what I went back for, to reacquaint myself with what it’s like to be in the city.

TM:  Why do you say cop-out?

MDL:  I wanted the book to take place before the Arab Spring, because that’s the city I’m familiar with. When the Arab Spring was happening, I was two or three years into writing the book, and every person I would talk to about the book would say something like “Oh, that’s so relevant. You’re going to work in some Arab Spring angle.” And I really didn’t want to do that. In part because it was happening as we were talking, and in part because I knew I wouldn’t do it justice.

TM:  Well it seems that few people who tried to sound authoritative about it at the time did it justice.

MDL:  Yes, looking now–where the security apparatus is deeply paranoid, even more so than it was, even more authoritarian and regressive than it was.

TM:  I think the angle of your story is so specific, and it’s looking at a kind of interaction and historical mosaic that is not usually emphasized in discussions about the so-called “Middle East” in the United States. But you’re still an American writing about Egypt in a weird American moment. Did you feel anxious about how to fairly depict Egyptians?

MDL:  I definitely thought about it a lot. The answer that I came to is that it’s sort of a story that would be difficult to be told by anybody, because there are so many different perspectives and identities at play. That was sort of the point, was to create a mosaic of different perspectives. There’s the Presbyterian Scottish twin. There’s the half-Muslim, half-Jewish graduate student. There’s the Muslim teenager in the 11th century. In writing a polyphonic novel, you force yourself into writing perspectives that aren’t your own.

TM:  And your graduate student protagonist is also a gay man.

MDL:  That was something I definitely thought about. As with all of these characters, his identity was fully formed when I met him, so it’s really not an issue of deciding, is he going to be gay or not? It was about deciding how to represent that and deal with who he was, protagonist-wise.

TM:  When you say, when you met him, he just shows up in your brain?

MDL:  Yeah. Joseph just kind of showed up as who he was. The thing that was hardest was not trying to write a half-Muslim, half-Jewish character, or a gay character, although I thought a lot about those things and talked to a lot of friends as I was doing it. The thing that was most difficult is that he’s the character who felt closest to me, closer than any person I’ve ever written, and I really identified with him. I got, I think, overly identified with him, and was trying to write him as me, as a sort of version of myself. At a certain point I realized I needed to take a step back from him. He was his own person, a fictional person and I needed to write him as who he was–someone who had a lot of the same experiences as me, but also separate.

TM:  I’m laughing because that’s exactly the way you could talk about having a child. You just meet them and that’s just what they’re like–you can’t change anything fundamental about them so much as steer, or course-correct. You forget and try to make them you (a better you, obviously), but they’re not you.

MDL:  It’s exactly like that. It’s like trying to be the best parent that you can be to that particular child, and wondering who they are, rather than trying to impose who you are on them. While also recognizing that they’re a piece of you.

I do think having a child made me better understand my own writing in general.  I think for Joseph I didn’t fully get him until I was able to see him as a child, from his parents’ perspective, and to see the brat that he was, in a way. Seeing that I was like, oh, now I get it. Because it’s a novel about his relationship to his parents in a lot of ways. I was missing that huge piece and didn’t know I was missing it.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
 

The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016.  I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, MarlenaThe Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker.  The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.

In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.

This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future.  When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.

Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.

Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.

But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.

It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies.  My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.

During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.

Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.

I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.

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Writers and Money: The Millions Interviews Manjula Martin

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The grim economic prospects of being an artist are well-established, but the cold, hard numbers behind writing and publishing — particularly in the digital age — are mystifying even to many of the people who are trying to make a living doing it. Anything that illuminates the financial realities of the writing game becomes a precious commodity; essays featuring frank money talk tear through the internet, g-chats and Slack channels hum, aspiring novelists desperately glean what they can from Publishers Marketplace before their (tax-deductible) $25 runs out.

Enter Manjula Martin, the woman behind Who Pays Writers?, a hugely valuable resource for freelancers trying to figure out the numbers behind bylines. Martin established the site in 2012 to bring transparency to the woefully opaque writing business using crowdsourcing: writers anonymously offer up the rates they were paid by various publications. The following year, Martin expanded the territory with Scratch, a magazine about money and writing co-founded with the writer Jane Friedman. This spring, Scratch the magazine became Scratch the book, an anthology on “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living,” with contributions from writers including Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Kiese Laymon, and Cheryl Strayed (we excerpted Sari Botton’s fascinating essay on ghostwriting here at the site).

Martin lives in San Francisco, where she writes and edits in addition to her full-time job as Managing Editor of Zoetrope: All Story, the literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Adrienne Brodeur. Martin and I are friends — coworkers, too, as all freelancers are coworkers — and she agreed to speak with me about the numbers behind her book and the contradictions of making art under capitalism.

The Millions: You are currently nearing the end of a book tour that has you working a full-time day job during the week and hopping a plane every weekend to a new city. Is this bonkers?

Manjula Martin: Yes. But geographically and plane ticket-wise, it actually made no sense to do the tour dates all in a row. It’s not cheaper.

TM: And you’re paying for this out of pocket.

MM: Yes.

TM: Is it customary for publishers to not pay for a book tour?

MM: I’m told that it’s common, unless you’re a very big investment for the publisher. But while the publisher has not paid for it, they have been incredibly helpful in terms of booking the gigs — the PR department has surpassed my expectations in that regard.

TM: I guess that’s a form of money.

MM: That is a form of money. That’s labor. A lot of authors don’t get book tour help at all. I was fortunate enough to get some free advice from Lauren Cerand, an amazing (not free) independent publicist. She told me, “Just do a book tour, put it on your credit card if you have to. It’ll be great.” So far, it’s been great. She’s right.

TM: Could you share the numbers of the book as a whole: what you were paid, how the contributors were paid or not paid, and all of that?

MM: I went into the anthology with a really solid table of contents; the book proposal I wrote had pretty much the same table of contents as the book did once it was done. The essays weren’t written, but I had gotten buy-in from most of the contributors, and I had a well-developed topic. I’m convinced that this is what sold the book: the editors could see how the contents would inform the topic, and they could understand that I had access to very high-caliber contributors.

There were a lot of emails right when I was first doing the book proposal along the lines of “Hey, I’m thinking of doing an essay collection. Would you like to sign onto this not knowing any of the details or timing or anything?” People said yes, which was wonderful. My agent sold the book. I got an advance. The advance was $30,000, paid in three different installments. As of this writing I’m still waiting for the last installment, the installment “upon publication.” The way my contract was set up gave me the majority chunk, on signing; a smaller chunk upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. (By the way, this is not when you turn in the manuscript, it’s when the manuscript is done. It’s not like, “Hello, editor, here’s the first time you’ve seen it.” It’s like, we’ve been working on it for six months and now it’s done and they’re going to send it into production.) Then the final installment upon publication.

The way my contract is set up is, I am the “Author” of the book. My contract is with the publisher. Then I have basically subcontracted with all of the contributors. The contributors and I have separate contracts. My agent just found me a template for that contract language.

TM: What were you left with after you paid all the subcontractors?

MM: Each of the contributors were paid between $100 and $400 for their essays, depending on whether it was a reprint. Everyone who wrote a new essay got more. The reprints were less and usually between $100 and $200, depending on various situations including whether or not they did additional work on the piece. What anthology contributors get for that few hundred dollars: they’re in the book. They can sell second serial if they want to. That’s basically it. In this particular situation my publisher owns the first serial rights. That’s pretty common. We don’t have a royalty agreement with the contributors.

TM: So how does this all break down in the end, money-wise?

MM: The advance was $30,000. Agents take 15%. That’s $4,500. Contributors were $7,050 total. That leaves $18,000-ish before taxes. For 2015 and 2016, the years that cover that income, I will have paid about $8,500 in taxes. All told I will have paid probably a third of the advance in taxes, but it’s been spread out over a couple of years. I can write off the agent commission and the contributor fees. That should leave me with about $10,000…

TM: That’s not too shabby.

MM: … before book tour costs, which will probably be around $3,500, I’m guessing. So I think I’m going to end up with $6,000-$7,000 for two years of work. Plus the prior two years of unpaid work I did on Scratch mag and Who Pays Writers?.

TM: That’s not a living wage.

MM: No. But I also don’t know what the P&L for Scratch looks like, so I don’t know how much money Simon & Schuster is going to make off of it.

TM: What’s P&L?

MM: Profit and loss statement. It’s what an editor at a publishing house does to figure out how much to pay for a book, what it’s worth, what they think it’ll make. It’s how an editor pitches a book to the rest of the team; a P&L is the way they figure out, “If we pay the advance this much and then the royalties are this much, and it costs this much for the book, this is how many books we have to sell to make a profit.” Actually, Scratch just went to a second printing.

TM: So you should get royalties soon!

MM: [laughs] That doesn’t mean that it’s earned out the advance. It’s a highly relative statement.

TM: I went to one of your readings, where three contributors spoke. That reading became a conversation about workers’ rights and empowering women writers — there was a lot of counsel from participants not to write for free, that you should always be paid for your work. But then [our mutual friend] Caille Millner gave advice along the lines of, “If you want to be a writer, you should expect to have a day job,” which in some ways obviates the other elements of the discussion. I mean, both pieces of advice can be correct, but her comment was a tacit acknowledgment that even when you are paid for your work, it’s not enough. I don’t know many writers who don’t have a day job.

MM: Particularly writers who don’t have other support.

TM: And from freelancing myself, and particularly from my years with The Millions, I have confronted the harsh truth that your/my/our work often has very little or no market value as it is assigned by our cultural and economic system, particularly as it plays out online. It certainly does not usually translate to a robust income (or big revenue for this website, for example).

MM: And there’s no meaningful correlation between monetary value and quality.

TM: One of the contributors to the Scratch anthology, who wasn’t present at that reading, talks about this problem, and describes how she wrote for free…

MM: Yes, Nina MacLaughlin.

TM: …and then got a book deal as a result.

MM: Directly from that free piece. Yeah, there’s not really an answer to these contradictions, but I do think we should start airing these financial realities. And to your larger point, it’s perhaps as it should be that great writing is not necessarily something that someone wants to click on and pay for. I don’t know. As you were saying before the interview, the kinds of essays that I want to write, the kinds of novels I love to read, are probably the kinds of things that are not going to be viral hits or whatever. A small number of people will read them, but they are still valuable, because they will really fucking matter to that small number of people. And hence to humanity.

They way I’ve been thinking about it is that art doesn’t necessarily fit into capitalism. There’s no real profit motive in literature, even great literature. I think what we discover when we all start talking about this is that, first of all, there are tons of contradictions, as you just stated. But what concerns me is that the position of art in capitalism typically means that people, myself included, with slightly (or vastly) more economic privilege, are the only people who are writing. I am middle class (although right now in San Francisco, where I live, I am probably the very bottom of the lower middle class, but San Francisco is crazytown). I can work on a book for two years and only make $7,000 from it, because I also have a job that I work at all the time. I’m not exactly rolling in it, but I’m okay. I’m not going hungry. I don’t have to stagger which utility bill to pay every month. Not everyone is like that. Some people cannot afford to work for free, and so it becomes a real problem when an entire industry is set up that way. This works across art forms, by the way — you see the same thing when you talk with painters. It’s maybe even harder for painters, because they have to have a physical studio and expensive equipment.

So on the one hand I’m like yeah, people who do work should be paid. On the other hand…there is a way in which artistic value cannot be quantified. These two things can be true at the same time. But I think where things become far less ambivalent is when it comes to writing for publications and companies that make a lot of money off your work while you’re not making money off your work.

TM: Certainly.

MM: Exploitation is a lot more clear-cut, and that’s why I encourage people to understand where the money comes from in media and publishing (which is not to say that I myself entirely understand the deep economics of both those industries!). That’s why I think Choire Sicha’s essay in the book is really great, because it breaks down the way websites actually make money. We should know this. We work for them.

When I started doing Who Pays Writers?, people said “Yay, everyone’s naming numbers.” But I wanted more context. Why did you only get paid this much? What was the situation? Did you pitch, or did they approach you? That need for context evolved into Scratch mag. Then again, I also hear the flip side a lot, which is that freelancers just want numbers to figure out how to conduct their business.

Naming numbers is a radical act and it is important to have transparency, particularly in a business where nobody knows how it works because it doesn’t really work any one way for any one person, and there isn’t a set career path. But I realized pretty early on that if we restrict the conversation to just the numbers, there’s a lot that we’re ignoring. If you only talk about numbers, you’re not talking about all of the cultural and historical, and economic, and emotional issues around money that actually really do affect how — and whether — people make money.

TM: There are so many things about the digital economy that seem to invite exploitation, but then you also hear that many books never earn back their advance. As if the publishers are doing some sort of charity work.

MM: Ha. Well, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. And, much like nonprofits, the publishing industry tends to attract people who already have financial resources. If you don’t happen to come from the middle or upper classes, or an Ivy League-adjacent school, and you’d like to work in publishing — or start out as a full-time writer — you’re fucked. Because the pay is awful. And I’m very interested in how all that affects the stories we end up reading, with journalism as well as with books.

This was very much on my mind as I was doing the anthology, obviously. I wanted to make sure that I was compensating people enough for their work. I’ve been told that $400 is actually a really high amount to pay for an anthology essay, which is horrible and sad.

TM: You’re now the “writers and money” person. Is that your forever beat?

MM: Maybe? I’m not sure how I feel about that! I’m writing a novel! This wasn’t a topic I set out to be an “Expert” in, or really focus on. This project evolved very organically in different ways. A lot of it was just based on me noticing that people really wanted to talk about it, and going, all right, let’s roll with that and see what happens

TM: You followed the market!

MM: Ha. I remember when I had first had the idea to do Scratch magazine and was talking about it with Jane Friedman, who co-founded it with me, I actually thought of doing an anthology. Then I thought, No, that seems like a lot of work for no money. What if we made it a paid subscription thing and it was a magazine? There were enough stories to have it be a periodical. Then cut to a year and a half later. [laughs]

I suppose for me this project could be chalked up to that cheesy “say yes” thing. While I think it can also be very powerful to say no, for me, this whole experience was very much an exercise in saying, “Well this isn’t really the thing I set out to do, but it seems to be that I have a take on it that people value. Sure!” Not like, the masses are clamoring, but there was obvious interest.

In terms of my expertise, all it takes to be an expert is experience. And confidence. I’ve always felt like writing is my hobby, but I have in fact made my living as a writer for many, many years — copywriting, journalism, freelance essays — up until now, when I’m working as an editor. At some point recently I was bemoaning my lack of Expertise to my partner, and he said, “You’ve been making a living as a writer for 10 years. You are an expert in this.” I was like, “Oh, right. Yeah, I guess I am.”

TM: You didn’t think of yourself necessarily as a capital-W writer.

MM: Exactly. I like to tell that story because there is no capital-W writer when you’re in it. Few people think they’re a capital-W writer. There are so many different ways of doing it.

TM: And now you’re writing a novel that takes place in Santa Cruz.

MM: Yes, in the dystopian near past, also known as the late 1980s.

MM: And doing a second book.

MM:  Yes! A seemingly random topical departure: I am writing a gardening book with my dad, who is an expert on organic gardening and farming. We’re writing a guide to growing fruit trees for Ten Speed Press. Alice Waters is writing the foreword! It will be in stores in 2019.

TM: I know that we’ve just talked about contradictions, but is there one major thing that you wish were different about the writing economy?

MM: I think it’s pretty clear that writers should be paid more. I don’t know where that money comes from, because I don’t know how much money publishers are making off of books. But, as I said, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. It’s just not always us.

TM: And now there’s probably no more National Endowment for the Arts.

MM: I feel that increasingly there’s no concept of how art is important in this society, even without the funding. I think that’s really scary and I think that it makes it even harder to break down some of those access barriers that we already have.

TM: Your day job’s model is basically one of patronage. Is that our best worst option at this point?

MM: I would say it’s not an option to rule out. You know, every model has its flaws and patronage is no more flawed than other models. It certainly is a long-lasting model, which Colin Dickey talks about a little bit in his essay in Scratch, where he looks into the Greek patronage system and the first Greek poet to ask to be paid by the word.  But we’ve seen recently with places like Medium that even if you have a benefactor, the benefactor can withdraw their goodwill at any moment. That happens all the time with media companies that have venture capital funding. We need the guys who have no profit motive and want to replace the NEA out of the goodness of their rich bastard hearts.

There’s also the reality of writers who are funded by their spouses, and that gets into a whole other level of micro patronage, I guess you would call it. Right now my boyfriend is doing the laundry, and it was my turn to do the laundry this week, but I was like, “I have this interview.”

My partner and I are also beneficiaries of a government patronage system called rent control. That’s a big deal. I think about that a lot at this political moment too, that there are a few benefits left that self-employed people get from the government. And they didn’t get many in the first place! At our recent Scratch event in Texas, contributor Austin Kleon talked about having his entire family on the ACA and being really freaked out about what will happen. And he makes royalties.

I guess while I think that everyone should get the money — go get the money, please get the money — I do fundamentally think that the arts are not necessarily a thing that should be profitable. That’s not why the arts exist in our society. Part of a healthy society is one that understands that and finds ways to support its artists. With money.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.

When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones  — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.

Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.

I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.

After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)

Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.

Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.

I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)

I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.

Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things.  The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes.  This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby.  I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Modern Library Revue #5: Brave New World

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On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.

But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.

After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.

In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers).  Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.

I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.

There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.

We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.

Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”

Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:


This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”

I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.

So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.

People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.

Death and Heirs: A View from the San Francisco Housing Market

- | 14

As I rode the train home from work one afternoon a little over a year ago, I read the “gnostic truth of real estate” put forth by the realtor Frank Bascombe in Independence Day:
People never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself.
A moment later — timing that would have been ham-fisted had it taken place in a novel — my phone buzzed with a text from my husband. “Pack your bags” it read, accompanied by screenshot from Redfin showing a dilapidated property with a “sold” banner plastered across.  We had gone to look at this house the previous week — a teardown monstrosity in an unhip San Francisco neighborhood adjacent to our own unhip San Francisco neighborhood. Listed for $338,000, at that moment the lowest price in the city, the house was called a “contractor’s special;” two of its three bedrooms were qualified on the listing agent’s half-assed flier as “legality unknown.”  When we went to the open house, the same agent eyed my eight-months-pregnant stomach and advised me to cover my mouth and nose before stepping inside.  My husband’s screenshot indicated that this house had been purchased by someone for $550,000, ostensibly in cash. Add to this the cost, whatever that should happen to be, of building an entirely new house in its place.

At the time, my husband and I lived in a rented, one-bedroom, 750-square-foot house that, like any standalone single-family dwelling in San Francisco, is not subject to rent control.  When we learned that we were expecting a baby, we thought we should try to find something with more space (and rent control). Our landlady, who we think was born in the 1930s, cautioned us against a month-to-month lease.  Her health was not good, she told us, and she mentioned, not for the first time, an ominous set of people she called “heirs” who would swoop in from the Central Valley and sell the house out from under us in the event of her death. She also told us that she had lived in the house with her parents until she was 23 years old, sleeping in the small dining room. Her counsel notwithstanding, obsessed with bourgeois aspirations of a second bedroom, we went month-to-month and began looking at Craigslist listings.  The appearance of heirs, it turns out, would cast us — with baby, two cats, student loans, and no car — into a rental market where a transit-accessible two-bedroom apartment could exceed $5,000 per month in San Francisco and $3,000 in the East Bay.

Ludicrous prices are old hat to people in the Bay Area, who find themselves in the tiresome position of having thoroughly exhausted the topic of the housing situation but being nonetheless unable, most of the time, to talk about anything else.  That is a feature of housing bubbles; in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House, Meghan Daum’s account of her real estate travails in Los Angeles circa 2004, she wrote: “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

We punched numbers into questionable online mortgage calculators and began touring open houses. Houses that listed for $279,000 and sold for $365,000 (East Oakland). Houses that listed for $365,000 and sold for $500,000 (West Oakland). Houses that listed for $499,000 and sold for $700,000 (San Francisco, barely). And these were the low, low prices of 2014. Median home prices reached $1.3 million at the end of last year.

People who have actually experienced home-ownership advise the uninitiated against getting romantic about it. But when you have a bun in the oven and are looking at Craigslist rentals, it is easy to invest the condition with near-sacred profundity (even before totting up the tax breaks that the government has seen fit to bestow upon the property-owning class).  I began placing an outsize burden on every undistinguished property we saw; every dubious condo, every termite-eaten hovel miles from the train, none of which we could afford in any case. I pictured the dour heirs, and our growing family in one of the illegal basement in-laws listed for more than our current rent. Like V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable Mr. Biswas, it seemed critical to find a place to call our own: “How terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and accommodated.”

Unlike that of Mr. Biswas, though, this is the housing account of an intensely privileged person, in both the local and the world-historical sense. We began our search at a time when the U.S. news was just starting to register the desperate people streaming out of Syria, when there were already one million displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone. A month before the baby was born I watched a presentation at work about an entire nation’s middle class decimated in only a couple of years — a cataclysm that will take generations to repair. And this is only the most recent and the most vivid cataclysm. There are people who have been living in camps for decades — people whose children and whose children’s children will be born outdoors.

In our local context, we are privileged because we do not live in a state of economic precarity, like many people in San Francisco and the East Bay who are being rapidly pushed out (often by people like us sniffing around for cheaper housing). Low-income people are disproportionately affected by the outlandish housing costs, and while it is a nice feature for us to live near family and friends, it’s a necessity for people who cannot afford regular childcare or do not get paid sick time. Just last Monday, activists shut down the Bay Bridge in a truly breathtaking action, protesting not only police killings of black people, but gentrification; first on their list of demands was “The immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.”  The housing concerns of people with a statistically high household income are not in and of themselves compelling, as this author points out, and if we have to leave the Bay Area we will find somewhere else to live.

Like everyone we know who lives in San Francisco, we have thought — we think every day — about moving away. And like everyone, we hope to stay. My husband works for the City of San Francisco and I work for UC Berkeley, which seem like important local institutions. Neither of us grew up in San Francisco, but four generations of my foremothers were born in California (although if you’re white, which I am, that just means your people were in on the ground floor of some original displacement). Even so, my baby, now a year old, has a grandmother and a great-grandmother a short train ride away. Why should we be the ones to move?, we think, just like everyone else. Self-righteous defiance is never a good feeling; add to it the knowledge of complicity in a fundamentally unequal society, evident in every public housing-adjacent Victorian flipped and sold for enormous profit, every gingerly-worded spiel from a realtor about Oakland neighborhoods, every crowd of white house-gawkers on streets where black people have lived for a century.

Our situation is not remotely dire — it is merely one of recalibration. Most Americans our age are letting go of the cherished, unexamined assumption that they will be able to give their own children the comforts — or preferably more comforts than — they themselves had.  These are comforts captured in movies and books from the very recent past: I idly remember the movie Home Alone and my first thought is How the fuck did they afford that place?  (Don’t get me started on Full House.)  In The Sportswriter, the first of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, Frank is a writer and his wife doesn’t work; they have three small children and live in a house that they own:
We went on vacations…We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults.
Yesterday’s magazine writer is today’s millionaire. As one of Meghan Daum’s friends lamented in her book: “…boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.”

The beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary enshrined a much humbler vision of middle-class life on Klickitat street in Portland, Ore.; her characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby live in a modest but pleasant house with parents who haven’t finished college and who have a series of jobs that couldn’t comfortably support life in most urban areas today: shop clerk, office worker for a moving company, medical receptionist.  Beezus and Ramona live in Portland, but many of Cleary’s less-well-known books — Mitch and Amy, Sister of the Bride, Fifteen — describe middle-class families giving their children good lives in nice Bay Area dwellings, the air scented with eucalyptus. Cleary herself was a California transplant; she attended UC Berkeley and lived around the Bay with her husband Clarence.  In 1948, they bought a house in the Berkeley hills. She was a librarian-turned-writer and he was a contracts analyst at the university, a job which today commands a respectable annual salary between $49,000 and $65,000. But I’ve seen a two-bedroom, 792-foot-square-foot house in the same area list for over a million dollars.

After the news that our local wreck, the “contractor’s special,” sold for $200,000 over asking, I began to cling desperately to the rental we were in. Heavily pregnant, I lumbered around the place with loving purpose, directing my husband in the hanging of new curtains, adjusting the crib in the baby’s corner of our room, filling our closet with elaborate stacking drawers. I moved so far from my original position about the house’s size that I even schemed to buy it from our landlady, until it became clear that we couldn’t afford it at its current valuation.

There are spiritual implications for a person’s dwelling. As Frank Bascombe puts it, thinking about this anxious clients, the home they buy will
…partly determine what they’ll be worrying about but don’t yet know, what consoling window views they’ll be taking (or not), where they’ll have bitter arguments and make love, where and under what conditions they’ll feel trapped by life or safe from the storm.
I understood that the manic bursts of scrubbing and fussing and considering pillows that afflicted me during pregnancy were something called nesting, and were a known biological phenomenon. I was not expecting this mania to stick around. But, a lifetime slob, I now find myself in the kitchen making the practiced gestures of somebody else’s mother — wiping away a piece of wet fuzz or straightening a placemat, putting all of the puzzles together and stacking them in a corner at night. Some of this, I’m sure, is garden-variety patriarchy stuff that is bound to pop up after millennia of foremothers tidying up. But I am surprised by the feeling of total, whole-body well-being that comes over me when I’m in my special corner of the couch surveying the clean living room. And by the way this feeling seems obscurely connected to the panic-making wave of love that overcomes me at odd moments as I watch my daughter play on the living room rug (a rug, as it happens, that I coveted and lobbied and hoarded for and finally bought when it went on sale).

“Home is so sad,” wrote Philip Larkin, but he probably never held a baby on a soft rug on a sunny day in a nice room that he made for her. I know it’s very irritating to hear people describe the ways that having a child changed them, but this is one that really caught me off-balance: I’ve become house-proud. I think of all the other house-proud women leaving their special corners and favorite rugs in Syria and Iraq, holding close their precious children and stepping into the waves.

When we consider the people in camps, the people in the frigid sea off of Lesvos and Ayvalık, if we believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, none of us deserve stability in the broad moral sense. Aim the telescope back at America, where we have codified a national myth that if you have a good job you’ll have a nice place to live for as long as you want to live there. Articles like this one show how untrue that myth has been for vast swathes of our citizenry, and for how long it has been untrue. If you are a narcissist who was raised in a religious tradition you might feel that your own, absurdly mild housing anxiety is the opening sally of an absent-minded deity who has finally put down his paperback and noticed that things seem off-kilter. I know that I don’t deserve to have a nice place to live for as long as I want to live there, apart from the idea that all human beings deserve this. But that doesn’t mean I don’t — the we all don’t — want it real bad.

The “contractor’s special” went on the market again for $850,000, and sold for $1.1 million a couple of months ago. From the outside it’s still one of the ugliest houses in San Francisco. What ended up happening to us is the thing that you find happened to any San Franciscan who isn’t rich but has a good living situation: we got unreasonably lucky. When our baby was three months old, our next-door neighbors did the almost impossible and managed to buy a short-sale house with a special loan from the city. Our landlady, who also owns their place and is a deeply decent person, let us move in without significantly raising the rent. Deus ex machina. The people, meanwhile, who moved into our old place had been evicted from their decade-plus rental in another neighborhood; they are in their 50s or 60s and clearly paying more for less space than they used to have. Last week a woman strolling up and down our block told me she had grown up a few houses over, but that she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. “It should be me in there,” she said, gesturing at her old house. And begrudgingly corrected herself: “I wish it were me.”

We are favored, for now, in San Francisco’s zero-sum housing game. We dearly love our new place, even though it has wall-to-wall carpeting and it isn’t ours. We still don’t have rent control, but we hope for the best. We walk to the BART; we walk to the daycare, where our baby learns Cantonese words from her fellow sixth-generation Californians. What will the gods exact from us, for our good fortune? The twin specters of death and heirs loom all around. But death and heirs are waiting in the wings, I suppose, whether you rent or own.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

- | 3

I wrote my last Year in Reading when I was about to have a baby, and now the baby is here. In accordance with all platitudes, the year has gone by very quickly, and yet its component moments were glacial, with a glacier’s way of doing a lot while appearing to do very little. Richard Ford, whose novels I re-read just before the baby came, divided Frank Bascombe’s life into the Existence Period, the Permanent Period, and the Authentic Self. My year comprised three epochs which were, more or less, 1) Magic, 2) Bad, 3) Decisive. The Magic Period was all soft blankets and endless afternoons in the nest and long, slow walks across the city. The Bad was clumps of hair like hamsters in the bathtub, and tiny plastic pump pieces, and vanished milk, and finding myself on lunch break smoking cigarettes in a shrub. Then, perhaps as a consequence of this period, came a time for making plans. Motherhood is not unlike drugs in that it has caused me to question the arrangements of life in even its most privileged iterations. “Why should people go to a desk and sit in front a computer and write emails all day,” I would say to my husband, like a very young, very high person.

I suppose the thing that most characterized the year, apart from the presence of the baby herself, is an overall failure to modulate, some mechanism gone haywire, so that seeing someone with a bag on a seat on a crowded train made me want to scream “The bag doesn’t get a seat!” out of all proportion. When a series of administrative fuckups created a reversible but maddening problem with my maternity leave, I felt my rage could electrify a small village. I noticed the other day that a Vanity Fair I bought in an airport seven months ago is still sitting on our coffee table, because I’ve become strangely obsessed with ensuring my husband reads an article by William Langewiesche about commercial space flight. “You’ve got to read this amazing story — you’ll love it!” I keep telling him, and Robin Wright gazes serenely from the cover, asking me whether I need to talk to somebody.

How to describe a year where I felt simultaneously so powerless and so powerful — when the prospect of buying a stamp or fully participating in electoral democracy seemed insurmountably difficult, but writing a book seemed possible. Or moving to a new place. Or having another baby. When I felt so inept at the womanly art of taking care of my appearance, but so unexpectedly okay at taking caring of the baby (she is what they call an easy baby; I know it could have gone any number of ways). How strange it was to go to work and long to be with her; to long for solitude in her presence.

I know that I read a lot this year, but I can remember almost nothing, and what I remember is tied to the epochs outlined above. Like most efforts at periodization, things fall apart when you begin serious excavations. There was plenty of magic distributed through the year; it smiled in the winter and laughed in the spring and crawled in the summer and stood up in the fall. And the Magic Period, if I think about it, was actually marked by frequent crying episodes (mine, not the baby’s), like little bursts of rain against the roof. But like rain in California — and it actually did rain, those first few weeks of her life — there was something nourishing and necessary about the jags. During that period I read Mating, and whether it was the time or the book I don’t know but it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. I loved it so much that I immediately tried to write a novel in its image, but fortunately realized, somewhere around the third paragraph, that it wasn’t a very good idea. I read Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and even though it was before my own rage came home to roost, I felt the force of her beleaguered, gimlet-eyed narrator.

As my milk dried up and the Bad Period began, I read Beloved and Preparation for the Next Life, and they were vivid and perfect, although they didn’t make me feel less blue. I read The Ghost Network, which has as its heroine a Lady Gaga figure, and because of it I listened to Lady Gaga on purpose for the very first time. There was a stretch of about a week when I couldn’t bring myself to climb the hill to my office without blasting the song “Do What U Want,” imagining myself pirouetting up the road like someone in a training montage. I mentioned how much I liked the song to a friend, who said, “It sucks that it’s R. Kelly”; I hadn’t realized that it was R. Kelly, who is known for doing what he wants with the bodies of underage women, and I understood then that verily there are no pure pleasures.

I read so many sad things this year, and felt that life itself has a failure to modulate. I read Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium,” about his daughter, and my friend Katie Coyle’s essay about hers. Sad things so generously written have a way of momentarily recalibrating the haywire apparatus, so that it registers, These are the real things — not bags on the seat, not misfired paperwork. But it’s not as if there’s comfort in the suffering of others; hugging your own family close only illuminates the supremely inequitable hazards of existence. Reading the news has, of course, been unspeakable, when every drowned child and murdered child assumes the characteristics of your own, and it feels like all there is to do is watch events unfold on a chyron, and read Facebook posts.

As I clambered toward the Decisive Period I read Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart, which is out next year and which is breathtaking. I read J.M. Ledgard’s “Terra Firma Triptych,” also breathtaking in the very particular and somewhat confounding way of J.M. Ledgard (he seems to also be a person who has reached a decisive moment, but whereas mine was, “I should quit my job and write things,” he schemes to build drone ports across rural Africa, and has evidently arranged his life thus). I read a stirring article about small-boned women and ancient cousins who bury their dead. Finally, I picked up Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, which I had once put aside after a dozen pages, and discovered that she was exactly who I needed to read: a woman writing about women, their ugliness and their ambition and their promise and their rage — their utter humanity. I ripped through the remaining volumes. You’d think a cheerful book would be the thing to pull me out of my funk, but I needed something pitiless, something about the messy arrangements of life, something about a writer trying to “imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things,” and failing up into something vital and perfectly-formed — more lifelike, somehow, than life itself.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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