I interview Ottessa Moshfegh at Caffe Vita, in Silverlake, earlier this month. Her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been lauded as one of the best books of 2018. Her first novella, McGlue, will be reissued in January. I previously met Ottessa at USC for one of her readings, during which she defined herself “an overeducated egomaniac.” Then she specified: “But I don’t go around saying that I’m a genius. I work really hard. I just try hard and I do it. You just keep doing it and you get there. This is the secret.”
The Millions: I’m interested in this fact that you were a pianist. You said that once you were playing Chopin in a sentimental way and your teacher told you: “You don’t put sugar on a cake.” I think that this tells a lot of what your taste is when you write.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think so. I mean, she taught me a lot of things. But I think voice, the subtlety of the voice, crafting a voice in the way that it translates to the ear is the same as music as it is and narrative writing. So that was huge part of the foundation of my taste and sensibility as a writer.
TM: In Europe we say: “Du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas,” which means: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s nothing but a step.”
OM: I love that expression, that’s perfect, I love
it. That makes totally sense.
TM: You use a lot this word “tacky,” which is also the word I use the most since I moved to Los Angeles, and in your last book you write, “The more you try to be fashionable, the tackier you’ll look.”
OM: I moved to New York when I was 17 but I grew up in a suburb of Boston. Living in New York is such a rite of passage. The visual world there… I mean, it’s an education, about so much. Style, human behavior, culture, individuality, money, so many levels of adulteration and appropriation and being blasé. People move to New York and they’re wearing certain things and you’ll see them three years later and they’re talking different and have a totally different sensibility about what they look like. Even their faces can change.
Maybe that happens in every place, that you adapt and rise to the visual conversation that you’re living in.
I don’t know. New York in a way is a such visual place. It is a runway and it is so interesting. It would make sense that my character would be sort of superficial. Both the protagonist and her friend, Reva, they are sort of obsessed with the way that they look, in very different ways, but in both of them their obsession with the outside is a way to dodge the interior emotional landscape of their lives.
TM: There’s one scene where the protagonist decides
to clean up her life from all the superficial things, she gives away all the
expensive clothes and goes to Goodwill. So my sensation is that in a way she’s
stronger than Reva.
OM: Maybe more willing to step into who you are
instead of trying to be an invented person. Embracing humanity is it something
that people do very often in a way that is prescribed by commerce. I mean, even
like yoga. Things like this are supposed to be connecting with your body. There
is a certain culture of yoga studio. It’s a commercial institution.
TM: Of course, it’s like church in old society.
OM: Yeah. There’s something, kind of privilege, in
the attitude that poverty is cleaner than wealth. And I think that the book
sort of plays with that.
OK, so she gave all her shit away and now she’s wearing secondhand clothes, stuff from the 99 cent store. It’s a little bit delusional to think that just doing that, you know… only a rich person would see that as freedom.
TM: Right. And that’s why this book is so
successful. When I talk about it with my friends, maybe we grew up in Paris, or
Rome, or Florence, but we have the sensation to connect with this story, because
the society you describe is now everywhere. And now we have an additional
problem with social media. What is your approach?
OM: Social media makes me really anxious, and it makes me really hate people, so I just don’t use it. And it also feels like a real invasion of privacy, like a willing, I mean not even just this cyber privacy. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we can show so much of ourselves on the internet and then wandered around so we’re totally invulnerable. There’s something inherently dishonest about it, this friendliness. People aren’t really that friendly, I just don’t trust it. And I think that we’re all kind of getting to that point. Ultimately, what it’s best for now is for businesses, commercial entities, or a celebrity: to be able to advertise market to the masses for free.
TM: Right, because that’s what they are in the end. Celebrities reached a point where they’re commodities. And there’s this general attitude you described perfectly when Reva goes to pick up the protagonist’s expensive clothes bringing the shopping bags from Manhattan’s stores. You write, “I’d seen housekeepers and nannies do the same thing, walking around the Upper East Side with their lunch in tiny, rumpled gift bags from Tiffany’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.” And with social media we have the extreme form of this. A new kind of pornography. The representation of reality becomes more important than reality. Not only with clothes, but even with books. The fact that you post the picture doesn’t mean that you read them.
OM: Yeah. I mean it’s all about images. I don’t
TM: About McGlue, you said that it’s the book you loved the most. Do you still think it, and if yes, is it because it’s set in the 19th century and so you could write it outside of this dynamic of extreme capitalism, or are you referring more to the style?
OM: I think it was the process of writing the book that felt the most spiritual. But I think it’s also more comfortable saying that that’s my favorite book because it’s the least like me. I mean I don’t know. I like all my books. McGlue has a special place for me because I don’t really know where it came from. I think it came from a place that I’m not so easily in touch with. So it was a difficult book to write, and felt kind of miraculous at the time.
TM: Did you write the book before having an agent?
OM: Oh, yeah. I was in graduate school when I wrote
the book. I’ve barely published anything. I had the freedom of that kind of anonymity,
like nobody was going to care. I could really do whatever I wanted. Not that I
can’t do whatever I want now, but there is just a difference pressure. I know
that if I write a book right now, it’s not just me. Other parts of the world
TM: I think that it’s kind of funny that everyone
always refers to your writing as noir or stuff like that.
OM: I think people talked about Eileen as noir because they’re sort of playing with that noir novel genre, in its formalities and with some of the elements of the story. But I’m definitely not a noir writer. I don’t think anyone who reads my short stories would say this is a noir collection.
TM: I love how you’re always able to find a voice. You
have your personal style but actually everything is always different.
OM: I feel that is the challenge. That is the project. I’m in the voice of that particular story. And I know what you mean. I think stories are about people wanting to change. Whether is change in a misguided way or more profound.
A lot of writers might disagree with me, but I think that stories are
illustrations of transformation.
I don’t want my character to be the same on page one as page 250 or else haven’t given the reader something. I like artwork that I feel like I’m different now that I’ve experienced something.
TM: I think that some readers don’t like your
stories because they make them uncomfortable and put them in the condition of
question themselves, and not everyone is open to this kind of process.
OM: There were times in my past where I was really interested in making the reader uncomfortable because I felt so removed from the reader. When I was writing Eileen and some of the stories I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be allowed into the world, financially speaking, to have a life as a writer that I was kind of angry. So my approach to writing was like a little bit volatile. Sort of like “fuck you” what drove a lot of my creativity—sometimes, not all the time, but I can identify that.
TM: You said that in your writing you balance
satire and sincerity and regarding your characters that you both relate and
make fun of them. And I think that the reader can agree or disagree with you
but they know that what they’re reading is authentic. The truth, at least your
OM: Or the truth of the character. I think it’s more challenging to hold onto a sort of old philosophy when you’re working on something really different. This book that I’m writing now is about a Chinese teenage girl from the early 1900s and she kind of came to me as a spirit, like “I need this book. You’re going to write this book.” I can see her sense of humor, but I don’t see anything satirical about her. I have no interest in exploiting her vulnerabilities, whereas in my last novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation I was really interested in doing that.
TM: I know that you don’t like to define yourself
as a female author.
OM: You know, if it’s a male author we just call him an author. So having to qualify my identity as a female author is silly. I think we know what it is. We’re at the beginning of a kind of movement and when things change the pendulum swings to an extreme. I feel a little bit like, maybe I caught a good wave and if I had been writing 20 years ago maybe people wouldn’t be as interested in me, but it just corresponded to the times that someone named Ottessa Moshfegh, people would for socio-political reasons feel pressure to pay attention to her. But also I think people do respond to my work and not because I’m a woman or because I have a weird name. Nobody wants to be successful because they’ve been pigeonholed.
TM: Absolutely. But unfortunately, still, at your last reading the boy came out with, “How could you write from the male point of view?” You would never go to a male author’s reading asking how could you write from the female point of view.
OM: I disagree. I thought that was a fine question and I answered him sincerely, but it seemed I was making fun of him. And that’s why I think people were laughing, but actually it’s a good question, like, how do you write from another person’s point of view.
TM: Yes, but my point was more that you would never go to a male author’s reading asking that because you’re just used to it. Even back in time, nobody has never asked to Flaubert how could he write from Madame Bovary’s point of view.
OM: Yeah, I take your point and maybe there’s a little bit of that, but I didn’t think that. Who knows why he asked that question. He seemed very nervous.
TM: Yes, and very young and nice. It’s not about
OM: Maybe I’m wrong but I think that is a very good
question. I mean the answer is always really stupid: I tried my best, so I
observed and imagined what it was like to think as another gendered person.
TM: I don’t think writers or artists really have a
OM: I do. I think the female and male minds work
very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the
last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written
language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the
realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult
to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I
do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever
everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a
different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very
nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest
that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how
to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
TM: I saw this interview where you were joking about the fact that female characters in literature are always described as “the magic source of drama.” And it’s true. I read this year Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and I was horrified by Catherine Barkley. I mean, there’s the war, people die around them, and she keeps talking about the fact that she wants to be skinny so that he can love her again.
OM: I mean, Hemingway, I don’t know how self-aware he was, but I have to give every writer the benefit of the doubt, that these are just completely blind self-presentations. I didn’t read A Farewell to Arms but I have to believe that a writer isn’t necessarily as stupid as his character might be in your assessment. So maybe there was a deeper intention, I don’t know, we make decisions. Getting back to your point of human being impetus for spiritual change, it makes perfect sense, because maybe one of the only things that can disarm the male ego is romantic love and sexual desire. So I don’t think it’s necessarily stupid, but I do think that it’s not very creative. It’s kind of boring when that is the thing in a book or a movie, “This magic girl!” You’ve seen the movies all the time. It’s like there’s a very cliché—like, the hair and slow motion closeup on her mouth from the way that she moves her eyes and she’s looked at. But you know, she doesn’t have a will or an intelligence unto herself is where the things start to be problematic.
TM: Yes, because they focus on the ideal of the perfect woman as society trained them to think.
OM: Men and women play that game. I mean I think that’s the difference between dating and sleeping around and then falling in love. When you’ve fallen in love with someone, that person has to become your best friend. So you’ve got to get to know them. They can’t just be some kind of anachronistic fantasy.
TM: I don’t think beauty exists in general.
OM: What do you mean?
TM: Ideal beauty changes with society. During the Italian Renaissance women had to look like Botticelli’s paintings, now they have to starve to be super skinny. But even when you fit in your society’s standard the truth is that beauty is about personality.
OM: Yeah, I understand. I think photography has
changed a lot of things to capture the way that someone looks in a way that is
beautiful but there is no living beingness in their beauty. With painting it
was probably different because you had to sit there for hours and there was a
relationship that took up time with the artist. Photography just becomes this
thing like you can take a photo of someone and they don’t look like themselves
at all. And now with technology you don’t even need to look like yourself. You
just have a Photoshop.
TM: I think you’re right. Beauty is when you’re
OM: Yeah. I think that health is the first source of attraction. Beauty and attraction. I mean we’re attracted to what we find beautiful, it’s subjective. But looking healthy… that’s what makeup has been for in many ways. The history of makeup is really long and very very interesting but one way that it was used was to hide the disease of prostitutes so that they could continue to work. Isn’t it weird that aesthetic got like that Kim Kardashian, Avatar-type makeup style which makes people look like cartoons? It is so attractive now when it’s actually like a mask.
TM: That is what I was referring before when I said
a new kind of pornography. Even though they’re not naked, it’s even worse. I
don’t think nudity itself is vulgar. You can be naked and elegant, and be all
dressed up that way and be really tacky.
OM: I think that Kardashians are really important
cultural family for digital media. They look like Avatars and you can you can
only see them on TV.
TM: Or social media.
OM: Right. They come through your phone or
television or computer and they’re fielding some new sense of what a person is
in this weird way. A person is an emoji, a person can be an emoji and then they
can also have a baby. It’s just weird.
TM: You said that you’re not intimidated by
inspiration and that you just sit and work.
OM: I don’t know, maybe it’s the thing that I was just raised to do. If we’re given something, you take it and you do it. When I have an idea for a book it doesn’t feel like “Oh I’m so smart.” It feels like actually that idea has come and landed on me and it’s my job now to execute it, so you better do it.
TM: Can I ask you about your astrologer? Because since I read your interview in The New Yorker, I’ve been telling to all my friends this story about the astrologer and your fiance.
OM: [Laughs.] I really trust this one type of science, part of my belief system. I consult her about a lot of different stuff. I started talking to her, maybe, five years ago.
TM: Do you feel it as a sort of destiny?
OM: Yeah. It helps me to see the larger framework
There’s a line in my book that reads, “I have been so many things along my curious journey: a poor boy, a nigger, a Yale man, a Harvard man, a faggot, a Christian, a crack baby (alleged), the Spawn of Satan, the Second Coming, Casey.” My reading tends to be torn between—or at the nexus of—all these little (or ginormous) vestibules of myself.
Sobonfu Some’s The Spirit of Intimacy helped me rethink ritual and relationship. Lucille Clifton’s sublime poems in Good Times gave me many nuggets of joy during a difficult year. Richard Siken’s Crush was so devastating when I first read it in 2016, that I try to read it again every year. I don’t think I’ll do the same for Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, though I’m glad I spent time with it, once.
I was glad to write my book without first reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, though I was even more glad to finally read it once I finished, and to know that I was writing in that tradition. Also, it’s hard to complain about anything in my writing life when I compare it to Mr. Douglass’s.
A critic told me, this summer, that my book reminded her of reading Beckett’s Endgame, which I took as a compliment. I read the play myself soon thereafter, and I suppose it was a compliment, though I am a bit less sure now.
Edouard Louis’s History of Violence is a book I keep evangelizing about, along with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Everyone seems to evangelize about Elena Ferrante’s novels, but I have found her Fratumaglia to be so vital as an example of making a creative life on your own terms. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet did the same. So too did The Gospel According to Luke. I think it was Oscar Wilde who suggested Jesus was an artist. Something like that.
Speaking of Jesus, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son knocked me out. The way he describes the sun. I mean. Yes. So much of my work is trying to take old images, old stories, and bring new language to them—maybe that’s any writer’s job. Johnson got it done, as did Anne Carson with Autobiography of Red. Loved it so much I named a character in my book “Red.”
Perhaps the most important books I read this year were: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Not important in terms of being the greatest books (though I do believe The Color Purple might be one of the most important queer books ever). These books were important because they helped me better situate myself in certain lineages—or rather, know which lineages I would like to belong to—Genet and Walker, rather than Austen and Hemingway. Not that I am conflating the four into two pairs. But there seemed to be more life and danger and strangeness in the former, and that’s the kind of work I’d like to read and write.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
John Wray’s fifth novel Godsend is both a culmination of his magpie approach to fiction writing and a complete departure from his work thus far. The premise—a young American woman joins the Taliban in the summer of 2001—is so straightforwardly narrated, with such unerring control, that Wray’s ambition and achievement only dawned on this reader in the days after finishing it. This is partly due to novelty. Godsend is the kind of go-for-broke political novel that’s rarely attempted and almost never succeeds. A writer would have a better chance of turning a eulogy into a wedding proposal than maintaining Wray’s high-wire act. Godsend supplants traditional elements of the political novel—a large cast of characters, thesis-driven monologuing, signposted symbolism—for an intimate approach: We’re positioned just over the shoulder of 18-year-old Aden Sawyer on her journey of inexorable destruction.
The novel opens in suburban California, where Sawyer is saying goodbye to her alcoholic mother and philandering father (who happens to teach Islamic Studies). She’s off to a madrasa near Karachi—toting her Pashtun boyfriend Decker, who oscillates between ambivalence and sarcasm—to study the Koran. In Pakistan she passes as a teenage boy by shaving her head and binding her breasts; she calls herself Suleyman. Soon she is recruited into the Taliban by the charismatic, reluctant Ziar (the madrasa elders repeatedly advise against this). As James Wood pointed out in The New Yorker, Aden’s coming-of-age narrative is intertwined with greater radicalization, a cruel hyperbole of the old “loss of innocence” trope: We know Sawyer will commit greater and more terrible acts of violence. We also know we can’t stop reading.
Wray has previously received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. I expect Godsend will bring a few more accolades to his CV. We conducted this interview over email as he traveled for his book tour.
The Millions: First things first: I understand the novel came out of a chance aside during interview research for a nonfiction piece on John Walker Lindh?
John Wray: That’s right. I was in Afghanistan on a journalist’s visa, looking for people who’d known Lindh during his time as a soldier in the Taliban’s infantry. At one point, in a small, half-destroyed village north of Kabul, we were delighted to find an old man who claimed to have known the boy soldier, Suleyman, which was Lindh called himself. Then, to my amazement, the old man mentioned, in passing, that he’d also known the girl. That’s how he put it: “the girl.” He couldn’t tell us her name, or much about her at all. That’s when this novel began.
TM: How did you come to Aden Sawyer’s voice? The novel places a heavy burden on her, which she wears lightly: She must be credible as an 18-year-old American, with knowledge of Islam, who is deeply rebellious but must operate within an order and religion which prizes submission (no pun intended).
JW: That’s always a slow and mysterious process, arriving at the voice of a book’s central character. In this case, it could be argued that Aden’s voice is the book’s voice—we’re always with her, always seeing the strange world she moves through with her eyes. I think I found the voice of the story—how it would sound, how it would feel, the somewhat stark, ominous mood it should have—and Aden’s voice came out of that.
TM: I would say it’s a departure from your previous work, but every one of your novels is quite different from the others. The Lost Time Accidents was a 500-page, century-spanning novel on metaphysics written in a kind of comic high-European register. Godsend reminded me of a line from Philip Roth: After he wrote a long book, the next one was inevitably an act of rebellion. Was that true for you? I gather there may be more an element of chance to how you begin each project.
JW: I couldn’t agree more with that quotation from Roth. In my case, every new book is an act of rebellion against the last. It takes so damn long to write a novel—for me, anywhere from two to seven years—and I couldn’t imagine sitting down afterward and beginning something similar, either in tone or subject matter. I’d jump off the nearest bridge.
TM: That’s a risky way to write though, isn’t it? No temptation to pen a Lowboy sequel? (Kidding. Kind of.)
JW: It is a risky way to write. But not as risky as jumping off a bridge!
TM: There’s also risk in tackling the subject. A cursory glance at the acclaimed books of the past few years shows an interest in autofictional inwardness (Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard), historical settings (Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan), or multigenerational portraits (Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee)—though in truth that last group is a perennial for writers. Terrorism and Muslim extremists are such third-rail subjects; did you approach the writing differently because of this? Related, are you nervous about being misread along these lines?
JW: You can’t court acclaim. The third rail has always been the one with juice in it, at least for me, at least so far. The best writing is the most urgent writing, I think. By which I mean the writing that matters most to the writer. I suppose that’s common knowledge, but it’s important to remind myself of it from time to time. Because of course the pressures to write acclaimed (not to mention marketable) books is considerable. And it only gets heavier with every book you publish.
As far as being misread—well, that’s another thing altogether. I did have that fear, and to some degree I still do. But it’s that fear that keeps me honest. It makes me work harder.
TM: The book’s surety and evenness of tone is a great strength here: It’s apparent on close inspection how much work went into its seeming effortlessness.
Sawyer’s early line, “Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body” signals her growing desire for self-effacement, which called to mind Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Were there texts in the Godsend constellation you read as research or saw as touchstones?
JW: I read Hunger in my early 20s—luckily, or unluckily, before I’d found out what a Nazi its author was—and it impressed me, though I can’t remember why. It wasn’t a touchstone for Godsend, though of course many other books were. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind, and Shirley Hazzard’s novels, and All the Pretty Horses, and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. I’m not exactly sure why those are the books that I’m mentioning—others were maybe more important. But there you go. My memory is terrible.
TM: I’ve heard you enthuse for Shirley Hazzard before, and lament she’s not better known or read widely. I haven’t read her work yet—tell me what I’ve been missing.
JW: Finally an easy question to answer! Shirley Hazzard is one of the masters. No one writing now has her eloquence, it often seems to me, or her intelligence, or her judgment. In an era in which the writer’s identity and persona are the industry’s main marketing tools, it’s no wonder that she isn’t better known—she had no interest in inserting herself between her readers and her books. The idea of letting one’s work stand for itself seems almost quaint these days, and Shirley’s “profile” no doubt suffered as a result; the fact she often took a decade, or more, to write her deceptively slender novels most likely didn’t help, either. But The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels in English of the 20th century.
TM: This is your fifth novel. Taking a step back: Are there ideas or concerns you see across your work?
JW: It’s so hard to take stock of one’s own work in this way—it’s like trying to study the back of your head without a mirror. A perceptive reader told me recently that my books tend to feature protagonists who carry belief to extremes—political radicals, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, lovers in way, way over their heads. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I do like the sound of it.
TM: It sounds accurate to me. There are often protagonists of great conviction, and of course a strong narrative voice.
In terms of structure, Godsend has an accumulating momentum, a kind of awful, inexorable feeling of doom (in a good way). It’s so rare to read something for 230 pages without a moment of friction. How does that come about for you? Are you drafting with an outline in mind? Or rearranging and cutting in the revision stages? Or—and I would believe this—is the muse just dictating into your ear while you exclaim, “Yes, yes! Bingo!”
JW: I never use an outline, strange to say. Outlines feel too much like school. I’ve always operated under the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that if I’m excited by what I’m working on, the reader will be too. An advance plan would certainly speed things up a bit. But whoever claimed that the easiest books to write are the most gratifying books to read? Not this cowboy.
TM: The New York article about your place in Park Slope looks like a midwestern undergraduate’s fantasy of life as a Brooklyn writer. Do you debate autofiction while playing ping pong? Read Proust to each other over corn flakes? And more seriously, how’s NYC for novelists these days? Gary Shteyngart said in an interview all his friends have left for Berlin or the Hudson Valley.
JW: Life for novelists—or for any kind of artist—in New York these days is bitter. I had the great good luck to have been tipped off to something affordable almost 18 years ago, an apartment with low maintenance the down payment of which I could afford with my very first advance, and to have been pushed into taking that terrifying leap by someone who had a clearer sense of what the future held. It was dumb luck, basically. So it’s given me real pleasure, possibly the greatest satisfaction of my adult life, to be able to open up the place I now live in to people doing good work. What the fuck is this city going to be without its artists? The prospect makes me sick.
TM: Your books operate within sets of constraints, as if each was a challenge you’d set yourself (apart from the natural challenges of writing novels). What does your cutting room floor look like? Are there half-completed projects? Abandoned epics set in the German countryside?
JW: I actually cut very little from my manuscripts. That fact surprises me as much as anybody. I’m a firm believer in the dangers of regarding one’s own writing, especially at the early stages, as some kind of precious and finite commodity; so I’m very willing, and even excited, to trim the fat whenever I can—but writing is also like pulling teeth to me, so I tend not to over-write. I’m not as loose as some—I’d like to be, but I’m not. I guess you might say I value economy. I don’t like to waste stuff.
TM: Reviews have noted Godsend’s straightforward, nuanced treatment of religious belief (another third rail in contemporary fiction). I wonder if you could speak to how you approached it, and your thoughts on religious belief in novels in general.
JW: I’d say that some kind of passionate belief is crucial to the central character of any novel—without a degree of fanaticism, or at the very least fiercely held and defended points of view, it’s hard to generate enough conflict for a book, or even a conversation, to be genuinely suspenseful. I’m not a religious person myself, in any conventional sense, so diving head-first into the intricacies of fundamentalist Islam was pretty daunting. But Aden, my protagonist, arrives in Afghanistan knowing next to nothing about the life she’s chosen. Her ignorance helped me to feel more at peace with mine.
TM: Last question! Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but it should be noted how unique this novel is in the current landscape, at least with respect to a gigantic leap of empathy and artistic imagination across gender, faith, geography, etc. What’s your impression of books being published these days? Do you wish more writers would take leaps like this? I swear I’m not trying to set you up for a clickbait response—I’m curious about your read of the scene and if you had advice for emerging writers…
JW: There are always worthwhile novels being published, if you search hard enough. I’m looking forward to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive at the moment, and to Marlon James’s experiment in speculative fiction, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The appeal of fiction—both for the writer and for the reader, it seems to me—lies in escaping one’s socially-dictated point of view. Fiction is about looking out at the world through someone else’s eyeballs. It’s about getting strange, in every available sense of that word. That’s how a novel should feel: It should make you, however fleetingly, a stranger to yourself. Everything else is just memoir with fictional frosting. I’ve had quite enough of that.
1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.
I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.
Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the ’30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — and Ernest Hemingway.
To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti.
Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.”
The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway — and for Havana — because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life.
In the ’30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story — but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms — as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one.
All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years.
Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for.
In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base.
Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía.
He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring.
But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission.
Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) — unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously — contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction.
When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier’s offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence.
Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944).
In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career.
Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men — taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen — with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door.
The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years.
The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway — the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía — but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said. “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.”
He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t…talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.”
At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream:
The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind.
One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War.
It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Five minutes ago, I was in my car on my long drive home from work in Geneva, Switzerland, to the French side of Lake Geneva, and reflecting on my year in reading while listening to a literary podcast. In an interview between two of the best writers of the last 20 years, I heard the older writer, the interviewer, ask the novelist who had just published a new novel the question dreaded by most authors: What are you going to do now? Take a break? Or are you like Anthony Trollope who, legend has it, upon finishing writing a novel, would relax for an hour, and then write the first sentence of his next novel?
Then it hit me: I am so not Trollope. In 2015, I had the best year in my literary life. Actually, no need to front: It was the best year of my life. A novel I’d written lustily and fairly quickly, and then bitterly struggled to find a publisher for, was published to nice reviews from my favorite writers and media. And then the book took a life of its own and found new audiences and fans in communities of readers around the world. During the 11 months of touring 12 cities in six countries in two continents on a budget so small a shoe-string budget would find it insulting, I had lived out a dozen novelist fantasies and experienced some surprises that were so cool and weird they deserve novels of their own, or, prudently, should be taken to the grave.
I could die now, I said one night in bed, saturated with bliss.
No, you can’t, my wife, and mother of my two children, sharply reminded me.
Yet there was one thing I had no interest in doing: writing. At first the lack of interest was mild, the result of extreme exhaustion, a mere reminder that, yep, I wasn’t 22 anymore. That dysfunction quickly dissipated. I had energy, a story, and the usual vampiric schedule and sleeping patterns to go for it again. The problem was I didn’t know what “it” was. Or what the point of it should be. Second novels are less linear a progression in one’s life than getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school or getting a master’s degree after seeing how far a bachelor’s will get you, which is not very far at all.
So for the first time in 45 years, I checked out life outside of a life in letters. I taught myself how to swim. I let my New Yorker subscription lapse. I took a non-teaching job. I worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances. And I enjoyed my children. I mean, really enjoyed them. The stories of their days were not stories to be heard for problems to be anticipated or solved, but for each child’s humor and pleasures. Our routines of meals and tickle-fests and movie-watching and chaperoning to practices and parties and dates (Yeah, dates. They really do grow up too fast.) were no longer duties to be carried out during pauses in between writing the next chapter or paragraph or email to my agent. They were the jazz, the stuff, the boom and the bap, life itself. I became so at ease with the modest pleasures of non-writer life in our bucolic corner of the world that I left town, like, only twice.
And get this: I barely read any books. Oh, I bought them as frequently as usual, and I read them too. But I didn’t read them read them. I didn’t read them as a novelist mining source material or looking for that turn of phrase that blazes my literary id like those third down Eli Manning passes that won the Giants Super Bowls. The books I read weren’t foreplay before an evening of writing, the main reason I’d read thousands of comic books, novels, magazines, and newspapers since childhood. I’m not one of those writers who discovered I would be a writer gradually as teachers, girlfriends, editors, and readers’ praise trickled in. I was a writer since sentience. Or better yet: I was a insatiable reader who had to write because the end of Farewell to Arms and the Death of Phoenix saga and Pulp Fiction were so amazing that I felt duty-bound to have a go at giving a reader a variation of those thrills. The rest of life were the things I did to pass time, to please my elders and neighbors in between curling up with a good book and firing up a fresh page on MS Word. My writing was where I hollered, and howled, at my ancestors.
Curiously, my Year of Not Reading ended not after I read a fantastic feat of literature. (Nice try, Colson.) But after I took the kids up to Paris to see “Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” a retrospective of African-American political art at Quai Branly late in the fall. The show knocked me up with literary possibilities. Of the many disturbing and wondrous pictures, collages, and paintings in the small and pointed showcase of African-American artists’ responses to Trumpism’s historical antecedents since the “end” of slavery in the late-19th century, the painting that slayed me was a colorful canvas, “Rendezvous” by Wilmer A. Jennings. It show a guy casually lighting a cigarette with his back turned to a black preacher firing up the faithful while that preacher’s own back was turned to an advancing cavalry of Ku Klux Klansmen, carrying the flaming cross that signaled their promise of sadism.
My God, that painting, that moment, that wit, they deserve novels.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Who is the greatest American writer? In any such conversation, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner must be considered. And when discussing anything both great and American, Donald Trump — who has written more books than either aforementioned novelist and is perhaps the greatest American of all — obviously merits mention. But of the three, who is the greatest writer? The following comparison should move the discussion along:
Number of Books Written:
Hemingway: Gertrude Stein
Faulkner: James Joyce
Trump: Scriptwriters for The A-Team, Airwolf
Often Compared To:
Hemingway: Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness)
Faulkner: Henry James (Daisy Miller)
Trump: Benito Mussolini (The Doctrine of Fascism)
Hemingway: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” — A Farewell to Arms
Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” — Light in August
Trump: “If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws. This leads to lawlessness.” — Crippled America
Hemingway: “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” (A Moveable Feast)
Faulkner: “They say love dies between two people. That’s wrong. It doesn’t die. It just leaves you, goes away, if you aren’t good enough, worthy enough.” (“The Wild Palms”)
Trump: “There’s nothing more terrible than an ex-spouse with a ten-ton axe to grind, and no agreement on how your common property is to be divided.” (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)
Attitude Towards Women:
Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper
Faulkner: Tomorrow, starring Robert Duvall
Trump: Cameo in Home Alone 2, starring Macaulay Culkin
Hemingway: Life is a constant test of man’s will and fortitude.
Faulkner: We must confront the darkness that lurks within ourselves.
Trump: Donald Trump is like Scrooge McDuck, but with pants. Also, he hates himself.
Titles that Reference Thinking “BIG” While Assaulting Acquaintances and Business Associates:
Trump: 1 (Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life)
Hemingway: Martha Gellhorn, fellow war correspondent
Faulkner: Meta Carpenter, Howard Hawks’s secretary
Trump: Donald Trump, clothed orangutan
Politically Notable For:
Hemingway: Siding with the Republicans while covering the Spanish Civil War
Faulkner: Keeping his affiliations to himself at a time of great social upheaval
Trump: Running for president to extend his brand, then at some point realizing, Oh fuck, it’s for real
Image Credit: LPW.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?
In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?
Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.
Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?
Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known — are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?
Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”
About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”
What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”
The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?
Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee. A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”
Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.
When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”
I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.
Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike are going Back 2 School. (They have 2 go Back 2 School because they think “to” is spelled “2.”) Each month, they’ll be reading books they never got around to reading in high school. This time, Janet picks up A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and Mike trudges through A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.
Discussed in this episode: Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow), Southern Gothic fiction, fatalism, gentility, poverty, Catholic literature, linking verbs, World War I, love, Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, fireworks.
Not discussed in this episode: That scene in Evil Dead 2 (dir. Sam Raimi) when Ash traps his possessed hand under a can and weighs it down with a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Man, that was sweet.
In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who — either by design or fate — have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor.
Achebe was, however, not merely speaking about the intention of his contemporaries alone, but also of writers who wrote generations before him. Among them would be, ironically, Joseph Conrad, whose prose he sometimes queried, but who embodied that intention to the extent that he was described by Virginia Woolf as one who “had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.” That “we” also includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov of whom John Updike opined: “Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written: ecstatically;” Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Wole Soyinka; and a host of other writers to whom English was not the only language. The encompassing “we” could also be expanded to include prose stylists whose first language was English like William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Virginia Woolf, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and all those writers who, in most of their works, float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids. But these writers, it seems, are the last of a dying breed.
The culture of enforced literary humility, encouraged in many writing workshops and promoted by a rising culture of unobjective literary criticism, is chiefly to blame. It is the melding voice of a crowd that shouts down those who aspire to belong to Achebe’s “we” from their ladder by seeking to enthrone a firm — even regulatory — rule of creative writing. The enthroned style is dished out in the schools under the strict dictum: “Less is more.” Literary critics, on the other hand, do the damage by leveling variations of the accusation of writing “self-conscious (self-important; self-aware…) prose” on writers who attempt to do “unheard-of” things with their prose. The result, by and large, is the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing, and the near rejection of other stylistic considerations. In truth, minimalism has its qualities and suits the works of certain writers like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and even, for the most part, Chinua Achebe himself. With it, great writings have been produced, including masterpieces like A Farewell to Arms. But it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy.
One of the insightful critics still around, Garth Risk Hallberg, describes this phenomenon in his 2012 New York Times Review of A.M Homes’s May We Be Forgiven with these apt observations:
The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since The Safety of Objects was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: ‘Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.’ Harry gets a visitor: ‘Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.’
Hallberg goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the faddist nature of the style:
Style may be, as Truman Capote said, ‘the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,’ but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?)
As a non-Western writer, knowing the origin of this fad is comforting. But as Hallberg pointed out, context, not tradition, is what should decide or generate the style of any work of fiction. Paul West noted in his essay, “In Praise of Purple Prose,” written around the heyday of minimalism in 1985, that the “minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy — the human bond with ordinariness.” This rationale, I dare say, misunderstands what art is and what art is meant to do. The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration. Thus, fiction must be different from reportage; painting from photography. And this difference should be reflected in the language of the work — in its deliberate constructiveness, its measured adornment of thought, and in the arrangement of representative images, so that the fiction about a known world becomes an elevated vision of that world. That is, the language acts to give the “ordinary” the kind of artistic clarity that is the equivalence of special effects in film. While the special effect can be achieved by manipulating various aspects of the novel such as the structure, voice, setting, and others, the language is the most malleable of all of them. All these can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence.
The sinuous texture of language, its snakelike meandering, and eloquent intensity is the only suitable way of telling the multi-dimensional and tragic double Bildungsroman of the “egg-twin” protagonists of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Roy’s narrator, invested with unquestionable powers of insight and deliberative lens, is able to maintain a concentrated force of focus on a very specific instance, scene, or place, or action. Hence, the writer — like a witness of such a scene — is able to move with the sweeping prose that will at once appear gorgeous and at the same time be significant and memorable. Since Nabokov’s slightly senile narrator in Lolita posits that “you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” we are able to understand why Humbert Humbert would describe his lasped sexual preference for Dolores while in bed with her mum in this way: “And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowths of dark decaying forests.” Even though the playfulness of Humbert’s elocution is apparent, one cannot deny aptness — and originality — of the description of Humbert’s response to the pleasure his victim is giving him is.
It is not, however, that the “less is more” nugget is wrong, it is that it makes a blanket pronouncement on any writing that tends to make its language artful as taboo. When sentences must be only a few words long, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute the kind of flowery prose that can establish a piece of writing as art. It also establishes a sandcastle logic, which, if prodded, should crash in the face of even the lightest scrutiny. For the truth remains that more can also be more, and that less is often inevitably less. What writers must be conscious of, then, is not long sentences, but the control of flowery prose. As with anything in this world, excess is excess, but inadequate is inadequate. A writer must know when the weight of the words used to describe a scene is bearing down on the scene itself. A writer should develop the measuring tape to know when to describe characters’ thoughts in long sentences and when not to. But a writer, above all, should aim to achieve artistry with language which, like the painter, is the only canvas we have. Writers should realize that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the side of audacious prose, that occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story — no matter how affecting — in inadequate prose.
In the same vein, describing a writer’s prose as “self-conscious” isn’t wrong, it is that it misallocates blames to an ailing part of a writer’s work. Self-consciousness is a term that mostly describes the metafictional qualities of a work; it cannot, in effect, describe the use of language. “The hand of the writer” can appear in the framing of a story, in its structure, in the characterization, in the form of experimental works and frame narratives, but it cannot appear in its language. “Self-consciousness” cannot be applied to the use of words on the page, just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot be accused of self-conscious tune or Yinka Shonibare of self-conscious art. Self-consciousness or pomposity cannot be reflected in a piece of writing, except in its tone, and in fiction, this is even harder to detect. What can be reflected in a piece of writing is excess and lack of control, which can stand in the way of anything at all in life. What critics should be calling out should be pretentious, unsuccessful gloss that lacks measure and control. They should call out images that might be inexact, ineffective, or superfluous. When critics plunge head-on against great writers (Don Delilo, Cormac McCarthy, etc.,) in the manner of B.R. Myers’s agitated fracking masquerading as “criticism,” they only end up scaring other writers from attempting to pen artistic prose. Fear might be what many writers writing today seem to be showing by indulging in the writing of seemingly artless prose. Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare — sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. Hence, it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between literary fiction and the mass market commercial genre pieces, which, more often than not, are couched in plain language.
The gravest danger in conforming to this prevailing norm is that contemporary fiction writers are unknowingly becoming complicit in the ongoing disempowering of language — a phenomenon that the Internet and social media are fueling. Words were once so powerful, so revered, that, as culture critic Sandy Kollick once observed, “to speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to feel its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. To identify your totem for a preliterate gatherer-hunters was to be identical with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.” But no more so. Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading — as Kollick further points out — to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience,” the very object fiction was meant to preserve in hardbacks and paperbacks.
It is therefore necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose. Our prose should be the Noah’s ark that preserves language in a world that is being apocalyptically flooded with trite and weightless words. “The truest writers,” Derek Walcott said, “are those who see language not as a linguistic process, but as a living element.” By undermining the strongest element of our art, we are becoming unconscious participants in the gradual choking of this “living element,” the life blood of which is language. This we must not do. Rather, we must take a stand in confirmation of the one incontestable truth: that great works of fiction should not only succeed on the strength of their plots or dialogue or character development, but also by the audacity of their prose.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.
It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.
Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.
And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.
More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”
Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.
What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.
Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.
Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”
When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.
While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?
There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.
In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.
But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.
Image Credit: Flickr/slgckgc.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
Last October marked the release of a new volume in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway. Spanning three years in the writer’s early twenties, the letters in the volume track events including his first bullfight, the birth of his son Jack and the publication of his first collection of stories and poems. In The New York Review of Books, Edward Mendelson reads through the new volume. This might also be a good time to read our own Michael Bourne on A Farewell to Arms.