A (very) incomplete list of the books that have stayed with me this year: Louise Gluck’s brilliant and heartbreaking new collection of poems, Faithful and Virtuous Night. Kai Bird’s The Good Spy, a fascinating biography of Middle East CIA operative Robert Ames. Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant, for its intricate, ingenious melding of fact and fiction, and a structure that struck me as so perfect that I read the book a second time to figure out how he pulled it off. Greg Kot’s incredible biography of Mavis Staples, I’ll Take You There, which I read in one sitting. Two 2013 story collections I read this year that I found staggeringly smart and moving with endings I couldn’t stop thinking about: Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth and Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories. Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Other Stories — I can think of few writers who pack as much humor, psychological precision, and insanely exciting language into a single paragraph, let alone an entire story, as McCracken does again and again. I must have underlined half the sentences in this collection. This year I also taught one of my favorite books, All Aunt Hagar’s Children — and reading it again, I was struck by how Edward P. Jones manages to give every one of these stories the heft, heart, and scope of a novel while still keeping the prose tight and compressed.
And three books I’m in the middle of right now — Antonya Nelson’s Funny Once, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings and Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine — are so good I don’t want them to end. Next up are Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable and Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering — their writing has been so important to me over the years that I’m waiting until the holidays to sit down with these collections. I plan to shut off my phone and email for a couple days to hole up and read.
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Recently there’s been a ruckus regarding the blatant pursuit of literary fame, especially where the n+1 editors are concerned. In the current issue of Poetry, Adam Kirsch plumbs the depths of literary ambition and the desire for personal recognition, and classifies Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as “a chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer.” Kirsch uses Gessen’s blatant ambition, both the theme and the generating force behind his novel, as the springboard to consider the writer’s desire for acknowledgement. While Kirsch criticizes Gessen’s “naive directness,” it becomes obvious that if Gessen’s work is a vehicle for recognition and status, he has done well for himself. Not only was Gessen lauded at the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 soiree recently and a co-host of the New New York Intellectual series at the New School, but he continues to write for esteemed periodicals like the New York and London Review of Books and receive acknowledgement, if not praise, from established critics, Kirsch included. Gessen is certainly not the first writer to wear his ambitions on his sleeve. He follows in a long line of writers, including Laurence Sterne. Sterne claimed he wrote Tristram Shandy, “not to be fed, but to be famous.” And become famous he did. Not only did he have a race horse and a country dance named after his novel, but he became a celebrity. His popularity did not wane with the less favorable reviews of the later portions of his serialized work, because, according to the Columbia History of the British Novel, his fans “wanted not just the book but the man behind the book (one reader said ‘I’d ride fifty miles just to smoke a pipe with him’).” Perhaps if Gessen were more honest about his ambitions, we could find something humorous, or at least endearing, in it all. Perhaps then his readers would write in that they’d want to have a smoke with him too.And yet, despite all odds, there are the writers who seem indifferent to fame. Edward P. Jones is one of those. In his essay, “We Tell Stories,” he divides writers into two groups: those who aspire to “be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties” and those who write because of some “bizarre compulsion.” If Gessen falls into the first group, Jones (by his own admission) falls into the second. This was apparent on Thursday evening, when Jones read from an enclave on Tenth Street known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, in what by appearances was once a living room, replete with a fireplace and mantel, a multi-paned front window, and a crowd of attentive readers sitting on folding chairs. From his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones read about temptation (in the form of the Devil himself, appearing at a Safeway off Good Hope Road) and transformation (going blind, literally, in the blink of an eye).In person, Jones is humble and unassuming, and he sounds calm and wise, if not quite comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. His voice came alive when reading the scene from the bus in “Blindsided,” where Roxanne first goes blind, a scene that deftly combines compassion, humor and desperation. One senses that Jones’s imaginative generosity would be constrained if he paid more mind to increasing his literary status than developing his characters and telling their stories. While speaking about writing The Known World, he posits that if he’d read forty books to research his novel as he’d initially planned, “the characters may have taken a back seat.” And this, to Jones as well as to his readers, would have been detrimental, because “the research doesn’t matter if the characters aren’t there.”Jones’s humility and lack of ambition were enough to make the man sitting next to me comment in disbelief. Perhaps it is precisely this long gestation – Jones’s long periods spent growing and developing his characters – his willingness to stand back, and his lack of desire to conquer literary heights that has made his work so remarkable and the lives of his characters, even in his short stories, stretch far beyond, one feels, the pages they’re written on. While Jones hinted at currently searching for new characters, the only thing he admitted to working on was “getting back to Washington in one piece.” He spoke a few times of a woman in the desert, as if he’s tilling and planting the seeds for his next crop. We can wait.Jones tramples the idea of literary celebrity. If Gessen worships at the altar of literature, and through writing hopes to elevate himself, Jones hopes to deflate such notions of becoming a literary chosen one. To Jones, writing is an act of compassion and communication, and his process not so different from any other task: “And we are not noble, just human. We get up to our day, however wonderful, however horrible, as they have been doing since there were white blank pages, before the blank computer screen, when there were only grunts and hand gestures, and we tell stories.”Besides, good writing is timeless, and literary celebrity is often short-lived. There is backlash, capricious fashion, and the the vicissitudes of time. The quest for literary renown isn’t new, nor is praise from the literary world consistent. A little article entitled “Literary Fame,” appearing in the Buffalo Courier and reprinted in the November 12, 1890, New York Times, speaks of fleeting fame, specifically Herman Melville’s, and how easily one can slip from favor. A year before Melville’s death, so little was said of him that most people already thought him dead:Forty-four years ago, when [Herman Melville’s] most famous tale, “Typee,” appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day! Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in the country laughed recently at me statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two blocks. “Nonsense!” said he. “Why, Melville’s dead these many years!” Talk about literary fame! There’s a sample of it.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.