A few years ago, in a moment of white-hot inspiration, I wrote the climactic scene of a book I had only half finished. The novel is a love story, and at that point, one of the few things I knew about how it would end was that one of the characters would reveal a deep and embarrassing secret he’d been holding back since the beginning.
So I wrote a scene in which the two characters, a man and a woman, are in bed. It’s early morning and the guy is awakened by the crying of one of the woman’s children by her first husband. Her kids do not want this guy in their mother’s bed, but now in the middle of the night, he handles her child’s distress surprisingly well, and when he returns to her bed, one of the big questions of the book—Can this man enter this woman’s life without destroying it?—seems to have been answered. The affair they’re having, which at first seems so self-destructive, might just work. She’s turned on by his domesticity, he’s turned on by the fact that he might not be so wrong for her after all. Things are getting steamy—and then the secret comes tumbling out.
I loved the scene’s intimacy, its rawness. I also loved the fact that it existed. The rest of the book was barely crawling along, and much of what I was writing on any given day kind of sucked, but I had this great scene in the bank, just waiting for me to catch up to it.
Then this summer, after I turned in my final grades, I had an unexpected burst of productivity—30 new pages in 30 days, which is light speed for me—and all of a sudden, I’d caught up with my climactic bedroom scene. With a silent internal drumroll, I scrolled down to the pages I’d written so long ago, and almost immediately I caught the strong odor of bullshit wafting up from my laptop screen.
God, it was bad. Indescribably bad. The kind of bad where—if I hadn’t written it myself—its badness would have cracked me up. The sex stuff was unreadable, all throbbing organs and clotted moans, but what really what got the flop sweat rolling was the scene’s soul-deadening literalness. My characters were lying there in bed, horny as rabbits, and for two or three pages they explained the meaning of the book to each other. And then, oh, the guy let slip the big bad secret for no very good reason and everything went to hell.
If you’re a writer not spoiled by genius, you’ve had a few of these moments: You’re cruising along, seeing your book through the eyes of your characters, and then one day, the lens shifts so you can view your work through a potential reader’s eyes—and what you see is what total shit you’ve written.
Anne Lamott touches on this in her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from her writer’s guide Bird by Bird. Amateurs, Lamott writes, imagine that great writers sit down each morning, flip some magic inner switch, and start cranking out deathless prose. Real writers recognize this as a fantasy and plow through their miserably bad first drafts by convincing themselves no one will ever see them:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. … If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
For Lamott, the enemy of good writing is perfectionism, and the trick to overcoming perfectionism is giving yourself permission to write badly. She’s right, of course. She’s right, too, that you can dial down performance anxiety by breaking an overwhelming task, such as writing a novel, into a series of smaller, discrete tasks—short assignments, she calls them. She says that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind herself that she doesn’t have to write a whole book today, just one solid paragraph, one good physical description—enough to fill a one-inch picture frame, not a wall-size canvas.
Like Lamott, I’m a recovering alcoholic, so when I first read Bird by Bird years ago I recognized much of her writing advice as reconstituted 12-step wisdom. What is “shitty first drafts” but another way of saying “Fake it till you make it”? What is Lamott’s one-inch picture frame but a handy reminder to take it one day at a time?
Which might make you think I’d heed her advice. But I didn’t. For decades, when I read a story of mine that didn’t work, I didn’t break out my one-inch picture frame and focus on just getting one paragraph right that day. No, in those painful moments of clarity when I saw my own work not as I wanted it to be but as it was, I panicked. The failure wasn’t a few bad sentences or a story twist that rang false. The failure was me. I had no business trying to be a writer, and the fact that I kept writing in the face of incontrovertible evidence that I could not, in fact, write was not merely stupid, but a species of moral failure. I wasn’t just guilty of writing badly. I was a fraud, a man living a lie.
[CW: Brief description of suicidal ideation]
I’ll spare you the description of all the dark places this kind of thinking took me. Suffice to say that for many years I soothed myself to sleep at night by imagining my own death. Sometimes I pictured putting a shotgun to my chest and pulling the trigger. Other nights I mapped out, in exquisite detail: the route to the nearest high bridge. This was, I want to make clear, purely an act of imagination. I’ve never owned a firearm, and I never once stood on a bridge deciding whether to jump. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I wanted, for one blessed moment, not to be me. And since being some other person wasn’t physically possible, the next most soothing option was to imagine that I had ceased to exist.
But that isn’t the really weird part. The really weird part is that it worked. After a few lonely minutes feeling the bullet going into my chest, or picturing the long walk out to the center of a very high bridge, I could imagine myself as no longer existing. And then I could sleep.
As you might imagine, this played havoc with my writing life. I wrote defensively. The goal was less to write well than it was to avoid writing so badly that it would make me want to jump off a high bridge. I have a whole shelf full of stories, some of which have appeared in literary magazines, whose chief virtue is that they aren’t bad. They aren’t good, either, mind you. They’re lifeless and safe. A number of them are plainly autobiographical, yet there’s virtually nothing of me in them. That guy soothing himself to sleep by imagining a shotgun shell entering his chest? Nowhere to be found. The central character in those stories shares a family resemblance to me, with my fears and desires and vanities, but he’s never in real danger. He’s safe. The prose is safe. The whole thing is a sealed system cleansed of the impurities of real life, the sole purpose of which is to prove to the world that I’m not a bad writer.
I spent years doing this, alternating between writing airless works of fiction whose purpose was to not embarrass me and shards of more daring things that embarrassed me so much I never finished them. And then the worst possible thing happened: I finished a novel. This novel found an agent and this agent sent it to 20 editors at reputable publishing houses, who responded with 20 variations on “no.”
Let me pause here to state the obvious: Failing to sell a novel is pretty much the dictionary definition of a First World problem. When it was all over, I still had a job. My marriage was intact. I had a roof over my head and a fridge full of food. My kid still loved me. But as it was happening to me, failing to sell a book didn’t feel like a First World problem. It felt like a kind of death. The drama I’d enacted night after night as I aimed an imaginary shotgun at my heart was, for about six months, enacted each morning as I checked my phone and found yet another email from my agent forwarding yet another politely worded rejection from yet another New York editor.
Good morning. Boom. Dead. Repeat times 20.
But that’s not the really weird part. Of course those rejections felt like a kind of death. I worked for five years on that book. Before that, I spent another 10 years writing bad stories and parts of failed novels. I had presented my life’s work to the world, and the world took a good hard look and passed. It hurt like hell. The really weird part is how eerily that experience mirrored my imaginary suicides. I felt like I had died, over and over, but I wasn’t actually dead. I checked my phone and felt the shotgun shell strike bone, but then I put down my phone and five minutes later I was pouring my son some cereal. And when it was all over, I felt oddly free.
I don’t want to oversell this. After my novel failed to sell, it sent me down a dark spiral of obsessively revising an obviously failed novel and toying with the idea of publishing it myself so that my mother and seven of her closest friends might download it off Amazon. This went on for years. But then about a year ago, around the time I stopped trying to fix my broken novel, it hit me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d soothed myself to sleep by imagining my own death. I didn’t need the act of imagination any more. The deed had been done by 20 editors in New York. Failing to sell my book killed the part of me that still believed, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that someday I was going to be a famous writer. And to my astonishment, this realization set me free.
This has not, interestingly, made me a better writer. That’s one of the great lessons of sobriety, too, as it happens. Getting sober doesn’t make you a better person. Sober people like to pretend otherwise, but sit in a meeting sometime—it’s just as full of assholes and morons as any other room you could wander into. All getting sober does is stop you from drinking and using drugs. The rest of your problems are still there, same as they ever were.
So when my novel didn’t sell, I was not magically reborn as a better writer. It’s true that I write less defensively now, and I’m much better at punching holes in those sealed narrative ecosystems to let the air in. But I’m still painfully slow, and I still write sex scenes full of throbbing organs and clotted moans in which the characters spend the better part of two pages explaining the themes of the book to each other. What’s different is that I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve failed. Not metaphorically. Not in some complex psychological way. I spent five years writing a book, poured my heart and soul into the thing, and no one wanted to buy it. What can they do to me now? Turn down this book? Take a number, dudes. If my new book doesn’t sell, I’ll feel bad for a while, because a failed novel is a kind of death, but then I’ll start working on another one. Because this is what I do. I’m a writer. I write books not because it’s going to make me famous but because writing books makes me feel alive.
So a few weeks ago, when I read over that horrible climactic bedroom scene and smelled the ripe fragrance of trite, overwritten bullshit rising from my laptop, a wave of panic still coursed through me. My pulse quickened, prickles of sweat broke out across my scalp, and for just a moment, I thought about finding a nice high bridge and taking a swan dive into oblivion. But then I logged onto Facebook to post a self-deprecating remark about how embarrassing it is to read over a scene you wrote years ago and realize it’s trite, overwritten bullshit. Then I backed up about 30 pages in the manuscript, where the prose was bad, but manageably so, and got back to work.
Image: Flickr/Christopher Drexel
Putting together our semi-annual Previews is a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be able to look six months into the future and see the avalanche of vital creative work coming our way; a curse because no one list can hope to be comprehensive, and no one person can hope to read all these damn books. We tried valiantly to keep it under 100, and this year, we just…couldn’t. But it’s a privilege to fail with such a good list: We’ve got new novels by Kate Atkinson, Dale Peck, Pat Barker, Haruki Murakami, Bernice McFadden, and Barbara Kingsolver. We’ve got a stunning array of debut novels, including one by our very own editor, Lydia Kiesling—not to mention R.O. Kwon, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Crystal Hana Kim, Lucy Tan, Vanessa Hua, Wayétu Moore, and Olivia Laing. We’ve got long-awaited memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Nicole Chung. Works of nonfiction by Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The year has been bad, but the books will be good. (And if you don’t see a title here, look out for our monthly Previews.)
As always, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. (As a thank you for their generosity, our members now get a monthly email newsletter brimming with book recommendations from our illustrious staffers.) The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon: In her debut novel, Kwon investigates faith and identity as well as love and loss. Celeste Ng writes, “The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.” The Incendiaries is an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce pick, and The New York Times recently profiled Kwon as a summer writer to watch. (Zoë)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Booker finalist Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book is (as fans of hers can probably guess) both funny and deeply tender, a testament to the author’s keen eye for the sad and the weird. In it, a young woman starts a regiment of “narcotic hibernation,” prescribed to her by a psychiatrist as demented as psychiatrists come. Eventually, her drug use leads to a spate of bad side effects, which kick off a spiral of increasingly dysfunctional behavior. (Thom)
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Against the backdrop of political disarray and vicious violence driven by Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, sisters Chula and Cassandra live safely in a gated Bogotá community. But when a woman from the city’s working-class slums named Petrona becomes their live-in maid, the city’s chaos penetrates the family’s comfort. Soon, Chula and Petrona’s lives are hopelessly entangled amidst devastating violence. Bay Area author Ingrid Rojas Contreras brings us this excellent and timely debut novel about the particular pressures that war exerts on the women caught up in its wake. (Ismail)
A Carnival of Losses by Donald Hall: Hall, a former United States poet laureate, earnestly began writing prose while teaching at the University of Michigan during the 1950s. Failed stories and novels during his teenage years had soured him on the genre, but then he longed to write “reminiscent, descriptive” nonfiction “by trying and failing and trying again.” Hall’s been prolific ever since, and Carnival of Losses will publish a month after his passing. Gems here include an elegy written nearly 22 years after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.” For a skilled essayist, the past is always present. This book is a fitting final gift. (Nick R.)
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: Set in China’s metropolis Shanghai, the story is about a new rich Chinese family returning to their native land after fulfilling the American Dream. Their previous city and country have transformed as much as themselves, as have their counterparts in China. For those who want to take a look at the many contrasts and complexities in contemporary China, Tan’s work provides a valuable perspective. (Jianan)
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim: In Lim’s debut novel, the world has been devastated by a flu pandemic and time travel is possible. Frank and Polly, a young couple, are learning to live in their new world—until Frank gets sick. In order to save his life, Polly travels to the future for TimeRaiser—a company set on rebuilding the world—with a plan to meet Frank there. When something in their plan goes wrong, the two try to find each other across decades. From a starred Publishers Weekly review: “Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative.” (Carolyn)
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs: Last year, Alexia Arthurs won the Plimpton Prize for her story “Bad Behavior,” which appeared in The Paris Review’s summer issue in 2016. How to Love a Jamaican, her first book, includes that story along with several others, two of which were published originally in Vice and Granta. Readers looking for a recommendation can take one from Zadie Smith, who praised the collection as “sharp and kind, bitter and sweet.” (Thom)
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott is blowing up. EW just asked if she was Hollywood’s next big novelist, due to the number of adaptations of her work currently in production, but she’s been steadily writing award-winning books for a decade. Her genre might be described as the female friendship thriller, and her latest is about two high school friends who later become rivals in the scientific academic community. Rivalries never end well in Abbott’s world. (Janet)
The Seas by Samantha Hunt: Sailors, seas, love, hauntings—in The Seas, soon to be reissued by Tin House, Samantha Hunt’s fiction sees the world through a scrim of wonder and curiosity, whether it’s investigating mothering (as in “A Love Story”), reimagining the late days of doddering Nikolai Tesla at the New Yorker Hotel (“The Invention of Everything Else”), or in an ill-fated love story between a young girl and a 30-something Iraq War Veteran. Dave Eggers has called The Seas “One of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices I’ve read in years. The book will linger…in your head for a good long time.” (Anne)
The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh: Novelist and playwright Hanan al-Shaykh’s latest novel concerns two 30-something friends, Huda and Yvonne, who grew up together in Lebanon (the former Muslim, the latter Christian) and who now, according to the jacket copy, “find themselves torn between the traditional worlds they were born into and the successful professional identities they’ve created.” Alberto Manguel calls it “A modern Jane Austen comedy, wise, witty and unexpectedly profound.” I’m seduced by the title alone. (Edan)
The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas: In this massively creative work of musical magical realism, Bob Marley has been reincarnated as Fall-down and haunts a clocktower built on the site of a hanging tree in Kingston. Recognized only by a former lover, he visits with King Edward VII, Marcus Garvey, and Haile Selassie. Time isn’t quite what it usually is, either—years fly by every time Fall-down returns to his tower, and his story follows 300 years of violence and myth. But the true innovation here is in the musicality of the prose: Subtitled “A Novel in Bass Riddim,” Marvellous Equations of the Dread draws from—and continues—a long Caribbean musical tradition. (Kaulie)
The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani: Kakutani is best-known as the long-reigning—and frequently eviscerating—chief book critic at The New York Times, a job she left last year in order to write this book. In The Death of Truth, she considers our troubling era of alternative facts and traces the trends that have brought us to this horrific moment where the very concept of “objective reality” provokes a certain nostalgia. “Trump did not spring out of nowhere,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, “and I was struck by how prescient writers like Alexis de Tocqueville and George Orwell and Hannah Arendt were about how those in power get to define what the truth is.” (Emily)
Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar: Kumar, author of multiple works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, returns with a novel about Kailash, a young immigrant from India, coming of age and searching for love in the United States. Publishers Weekly notes (in a starred review) that “this coming-of-age-in-the-city story is bolstered by the author’s captivating prose, which keeps it consistently surprising and hilarious.” (Emily)
Brother by David Chariandy: A tightly constructed and powerful novel that tells the story of two brothers in a housing complex in a Toronto suburb during the simmering summer of 1991. Michael and Francis balance hope against the danger of having it as they struggle against prejudice and low expectations. This is set against the tense events of a fateful night. When the novel came out in Canada last year, it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was declared one of the best of the year by many. Marlon James calls Brother “a brilliant, powerful elegy from a living brother to a lost one.” (Claire)
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen: Familial devotion, academic glory, and the need for some space to think have combined to send Andrei back to Moscow some 20 years after his family had emigrated to America. The trip should stir up some academic fodder for his ailing career, and besides, his aging baba Seva could really use the help. For her part, baba Seva never wavers in her assessment of Andrei’s attempt to make a go of it in 200-aughtish Russia: “This is a terrible country,” she tells him. Repeatedly. Perhaps he should have listened. This faux memoir is journalist and historian Keith Gessen’s second novel and an essential addition to the “Before You Go to Russia, Read…” list. (Il’ja)
The Lost Country by William Gay: After Little Sister Death, Gay’s 2015 novel that slipped just over the border from Southern gothic into horror, longtime fans of his dark realism (where the real is ever imbued with the fantastic) will be grateful to indie publisher Dzanc Books for one more posthumous novel from the author. Protagonist Billy Edgewater returns to eastern Tennessee after two years in the Navy to see his dying father. Per Kirkus, the picaresque journey takes us through “italicized flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness interludes, infidelities, prison breaks, murderous revenge, biblical language, and a deep kinship between the land and its inhabitants,” and of course, there’s also a one-armed con man named Roosterfish, who brings humor into Gay’s bleak (drunken, violent) and yet still mystical world of mid-1950s rural Tennessee. (Sonya)
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (translated by Heather Cleary): A fin de siècle Beunos Aires doctor probes a little too closely when examining the threshold between life and death. A 21st-century artist discovers the ultimate in transcendence and turns himself into an objet d’art. In this dark, dense, surprisingly short debut novel by the Argentinian author, we’re confronted with enough grotesqueries to fill a couple Terry Gilliam films and, more importantly, with the idea that the only real monsters are those that are formed out of our own ambition. (Il’ja)
Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June: “It was my mother I thought of as I looked down at my new daughter,” writes Laura June in her debut memoir about how motherhood has forced her to face, reconcile, and even reassess her relationship with her late mother, who was an alcoholic. Roxane Gay calls it “warm and moving,” and Alana Massey writes, “Laura June triumphs by resisting the inertia of inherited suffering and surrendering to the possibility of a boundless, unbreakable love.” Fans of Laura June’s parenting essays on The Cut will definitely want to check this one out. (Edan)
OK, Mr. Field by Katherine Kilalea: In this debut novel, a concert pianist (the eponymous Mr. Field) spends his payout from a train accident on a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. And then his wife vanishes. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “a striking, singular debut” and “a disorienting and enthralling descent into one man’s peculiar malaise.” You can whet your appetite with this excerpt in The Paris Review. Kilalea, who is from South Africa and now lives in London, is also the author of the poetry collection One Eye’d Leigh. (Edan)
Nevada Days by Bernardo Atxaga (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): Though it’s difficult to write a truly new European travelogue, the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga seems to have found a way. After spurning Harvard—who tried to recruit him to be an author in residence—Atxaga took an offer to spend nine months at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, which led to this book about his tenure in the Silver State during the run-up to Obama’s election. Though it’s largely a fictionalized account, the book contains passages and stories the author overheard. (Thom)
Interior by Thomas Clerc (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Give it to Thomas Clerc: The French writer isn’t misleading his readers with the title of this book. At heart, Interior is a tour of the author’s apartment, animated with a comic level of detail and consideration. Every object and appliance gets a history, and the author gives opinions on things like bathroom reading material. Like Samuel Beckett’s fiction, Interior comes alive through its narrator, whose quirkiness helps shepherd the reader through a landscape of tedium. (Thom)
Eden by Andrea Kleine: Hope and her sister, Eden, were abducted as children, lured into a van by a man they thought was their father’s friend; 20 years later, Hope’s life as a New York playwright is crumbling when she hears their abductor is up for parole. Eden’s story could keep him locked away, but nobody knows where she is, so Hope takes off to look for her, charting a cross-country path in a run-down RV. The author of Calf, Kleine is no stranger to violence, and Eden is a hard, sometimes frightening look at the way trauma follows us. (Kaulie)
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting: The latest collection from one of America’s most audaciously interesting writers follows her last two novels, in which she inverted the Lolita story and satirized Silicon Valley, respectively. Somewhere in between, she also wrote about her love of hot dogs. Oh, and this collection’s title is clearly a nod to Lucia Berlin. Let’s be real for a minute: If you need more than that to buy this book, you’re not my friend, you’ve got bad taste, and you should keep scrolling. (Nick M.)
Suicide Club by Rachel Heng: What if we could live forever? Or: When is life no longer, you know, life? Heng’s debut novel, set in a futuristic New York where the healthy have a shot at immortality, probes those questions artfully but directly. Lea Kirino trades organs on the New York Stock Exchange and might never die, but when she runs into her long-disappeared father and meets the other members of his Suicide Club, she begins to wonder what life will cost her. Part critique of the American cult of wellness, part glittering future with a nightmare undercurrent, Suicide Club is nothing if not deeply imaginative and timely. (Kaulie)
The Samurai by Shusaku Endo (translated by Van C. Gessel): In early 17th-century Japan, four low-ranking samurai and a Jesuit priest set off for la Nueva España (Mexico) on a trade mission. What could go wrong? The question of whether there can ever be substantive interplay between the core traditions of the West and the Far East—or whether the dynamic is somehow doomed, organically, to the superficial—is a recurring motif in Endo’s work much as it was in his life. Endo’s Catholic faith lent a peculiar depth to his writing that’s neither parochial nor proselytizing but typically, as in this New Directions reprint, thick with adventure. (Il’ja)
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel: The characters in these 11 stories, nearly all of whom are first-generation Indian immigrants, are gay and straight, highly successful and totally lost, meekly traditional and boldly transgressive, but as they navigate a familiar contemporary landscape of suburban malls and social media stalking, they come off as deeply—and compellingly—American. (Michael)
Homeplace by John Lingan: Maybe it’s true that a dive bar shouldn’t have a website, but probably that notion gets thrown out the window when the bar’s longtime owner gave Patsy Cline her first break. In the same way, throw out your notions of what a hyper-localized examination of a small-town bar can be. In Lingan’s hands, the Troubadour explodes like a shattered glass, shards shot beyond Virginia, revealing something about ourselves—all of us—if we can catch the right glints in the pieces. (Nick M.)
Early Work by Andrew Martin: In this debut, a writer named Peter Cunningham slowly becomes aware that he’s not the novelist he wants to be. He walks his dog, writes every day, and teaches at a woman’s prison, but he still feels directionless, especially in comparison to his medical student girlfriend. When he meets a woman who’s separated from her fiance, he starts to learn that inspiration is always complex. (Thom)
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam)
Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya)
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard’s death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire)
Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam)
Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail)
Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail)
Ohio by Stephen Markley: Ohio is an ambitious novel composed of the stories of four residents of New Canaan, Ohio, narratively unified by the death of their mutual friend in Iraq. Markley writes movingly about his characters, about the wastelands of the industrial Midwest, about small towns with economic and cultural vacuums filled by opioids, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant hatred. This is the kind of book people rarely attempt to write any more, a Big American Novel that seeks to tell us where we live now. (Adam)
French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it’s her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue “dizzyingly good.” According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is “brilliant, addictive, funny and wise.” (Edan)
Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail)
The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: In the follow-up to his Costa Award-winning novel Reservoir 13, McGregor’s newest book focuses on the crime at the center of its predecessor: the disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw. After Becky goes missing, an interviewer comes to town to collect stories from the villagers. Over the course of the book, the community reveals what happened (or what may have happened) in the days and weeks before the incident. In its starred review, Kirkus called the novel a “noteworthy event” that, when put in conversation with Reservoir 13, is “nothing short of a remarkable experiment in storytelling.” (Carolyn)
Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a “word-for-word triumph.” (Claire)
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie)
Boom Town by Sam Anderson: The decorated journalist Sam Anderson, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, has set out to fill a yawning gap in the American popular imagination: our tendency to ignore the nation’s 27th-largest metropolis, Oklahoma City. Anderson’s rollicking narrative is woven from two threads—the vicissitudes of the city’s NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the city’s boom-and-bust history of colorful characters, vicious weather, boosterism, and bloodshed, including, of course, the 1995 terrorist bombing of the federal building that left 168 dead. Everything about Anderson’s OK City is outsize, including the self-delusions. Its Will Rogers World Airport, for instance, doesn’t have any international flights. Anderson runs wild with this material. (Bill)
Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes (translated by Emma Ramadan): French feminist author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory used her experience of rape, prostitution, and work in the porn industry to explode myths of sex, gender, and beauty, and it subsequently gained a cult following among English-language readers when first published in 2010. She’s since broken through to a wider audience with Volume 1 of her Vernon Subutex trilogy, just shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. While we’re waiting on the second volume of Subutex in the States, Feminist Press brings us Despentes’ Pretty Things, “a mean little book, wickedly funny, totally lascivious, often pornographic,” according to Kirkus, and just one of the many reasons Lauren Elkin has called Despentes “a feminist Zola for the twenty-first century.” (Anne)
Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen: Book of Numbers, Cohen’s tome about a tech titan leading us out of the pre-internet wilderness with his search engine, contains aphoristic observations on technology: “Our access is bewildering, not just beyond imagination but becoming imagination, and so bewildering twice over. We can only search the found, find the searched, and charge it to our room.” Now comes a nonfiction book about life in the digital age. The wide-ranging collection has political profiles, book reviews, and idiosyncratic journal entries: “Hat Lessons Gleaned from Attending a Film Noir Marathon with a Nonagenarian Ex-Milliner Who Never Stops Talking.” (Matt)
Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë)
Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja)
Transcription by Kate Atkinson: As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya)
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under “most most-anticipated” as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, stating, “Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations.” Kiesling herself has written that “great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne)
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie)
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam)
The Wildlands by Abby Geni: Geni’s last novel, The Lightkeepers, was a thriller set on an isolated island that was also somehow a meditation on appreciating nature, and it blew me away. Her new novel similarly combines the natural world with manmade terror. It follows four young siblings who are orphaned by an Oklahoma tornado and the ensuing national media attention that pushes their relationships to the edge. (Janet)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire)
Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers’ attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It’s a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing’s own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, “Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne)
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: Set during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Shteyngart’s novel begins with a bloodied, hungover, Fitzgerald-loving hedge fund manager—his company is called “This Side of Capital”—waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority. A disastrous dinner party the night before has pushed him over the edge, leading to his impulsive decision to flee the city, his business woes, and his wife and autistic toddler to track down an old girlfriend. Like Salman Rushdie in The Golden House, Shteyngart turns his satiric eye on a gilded family in disarray. (Matt)
The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja)
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie)
After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called “a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity…each new book is a revelation.” (Lydia)
Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie)
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily)
The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya)
The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard: Winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt doesn’t guarantee an English translation, but as Garth Risk Hallberg showed in a piece about international prize winners, it helps. Recent translated winners include Mathias Énard’s Compass and Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, and the latest is Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, a historical novel about the rise of Nazism, corporate complicity, and Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Discussing his fictionalized account, Vuillard, who also wrote a novel about Buffalo Bill Cody, told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as neutral history.” (Matt)
Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: This new collection is the famed short story writer’s first book since 2006, and advance word says it lives up to the best of her work. Over the course of six lengthy, morally complicated stories, the author showcases her trademark wit and sensitivity, exploring such matters as books that expose one’s own past and the trials of finding yourself infatuated with a human rights worker. (Thom)
Ponti by Sharlene Teo: Set in Singapore in the 1990s, Teo’s debut, which won the inaugural Deborah Rogers award in the U.K. and was subsequently the subject of a bidding war, describes a twisted friendship between two teenage girls. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it “relatable yet unsettling.” (Lydia)
Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman: Eden Malcom, a deeply wounded soldier coming back from the Iraq war, lies unconscious in a bed. The story is narrated by a ghost, Eden’s friend and fellow soldier whom he has lost in the foreign land. Through numerous shattering moments in the book, Ackerman pushes the readers to explore eternal human problems such as the meaning of life, marriage, love and betrayal. (Jianan)
Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill)
River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja)
The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë)
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small–from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people’s Twitter bios. (I’m allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly “scientific” instrument. (Lydia)
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen): Like many before me, I once fell into Murakami’s fictional world only to emerge six months later wondering what on earth happened. So any anticipation for his new books is tempered by caution. His new novel is about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called “Killing Commendatore.” Mysteries proliferate, and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell. (Hannah)
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This book—the first by the former editor of the much-missed site The Toast—is garnering high praise from lots of great people, among them Alexander Chee, who wrote, “I’ve been waiting for this writer, and this book—and everything else she’ll write.” Born prematurely to Korean parents who had immigrated to America, the author was adopted by a white couple who raised her in rural Oregon, where she encountered bigotry her family couldn’t see. Eventually, Chung grew curious about her past, which led her to seek out the truth of her origins and identity. (Thom)
Heavy by Kiese Laymon: Finally! This memoir has been mentioned as “forthcoming” at the end of every Kiese Laymon interview or magazine article for a few years, and I’ve been excited about it the entire time. Laymon has written one novel and one essay collection about America and race. This memoir focuses on Laymon’s own body—in the personal sense of how he treats it and lives in it, and in the larger sense of the heavy burden of a black body in America. (Janet)
Almost Everything by Anne Lamott: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author of Bird by Bird has some fascinating thoughts about hope and its role in our lives. In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott recounts her own struggles with despair, admitting that at her lowest she “stockpiled antibiotics for the Apocalypse.” From that point on, she discovered her own strength, and her journey forms the basis of this thoughtful and innovative work. (Thom)
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: The beloved novelist’s latest tells the story of Willa Knox, whose middle-class life has crumbled: The magazine she built her career around has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has shut down. All she has is a very old house in need of serious repair. Out of desperation, she begins looking into her house’s history, hoping that she might be able to get some funding from the historical society. Through her research, she finds a kindred spirit in Thatcher Greenwood, who occupied the premises in 1871 and was an advocate of the work of Charles Darwin. Though they are separated by more than a century, Knox and Greenwood both know what it’s like to live through cultural upheaval. (Hannah)
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: In his debut short story collection, Adjei-Brenyah writes about the injustice black people face every day in America. Tackling issues like criminal justice, consumerism, and racism, these timely stories are searching for humanity in a brutal world. The collection is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and George Saunders called it “an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny.” (Carolyn)
Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan: This debut collection of short fiction is the most recent collaboration between Coffee House Press and Emily Books. The 11 short stories argue that relationships between two people often contain a third presence, whether that means another person or a past or future self. Tan’s sensibility has been compared to that of Joy Williams, David Lynch, and Carmen Maria Machado. (Hannah)
Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III: Whether in his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) or his nonfiction (Townie), Dubus tells blistering stories about broken lives. In his new novel, Daniel Ahern “hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?” Susan, his daughter, has good reason to hate Daniel—his horrific act of violence ruined their family and poisoned her life. Dubus has the preternatural power to make every storyline feel mythic, and Gone So Long rides an inevitable charge of guilt, fear, and stubborn hope. “Even after we’re gone, what we’ve left behind lives on in some way,” Dubus writes—including who we’ve left behind. (Nick R.)
Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis: A memoir about growing up a mile from the Rio Grande, told in vignettes, or retablos, showing the small and large moments that take place along the U.S. border. Julia Alvarez says of the book, “Unpretentiously and with an unerring accuracy of tone and rhythm, Solis slowly builds what amounts to a storybook cathedral. We inhabit a border world rich in characters, lush with details, playful and poignant, a border that refutes the stereotypes and divisions smaller minds create. Solis reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are best told with crafted fictions—and he is a master at it.” (Lydia)
Family Trust by Kathy Wang: Acclaimed by Cristina Alger as “a brilliant mashup of The Nest and Crazy Rich Asians,” the book deals with many hidden family tensions ignited by the approaching of the death of Stanley Huang, the father of the family. Family Trust brings the readers to rethink the ambitions behind the bloom of Silicon Valley and what families really mean. (Jianan)
Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (translated by Damion Searls): At 1,800 pages, the two-volume set of Uwe Johnson’s 1968 classic—and first complete publication of the book in English—isn’t going to do your TBR pile any favors. The NYRB release follows, in detail, the New York lives of German emigres Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie as they come to terms with the heritage of the Germany they escaped and with an American existence that, in 1968, begins to resonate with challenges not dissimilar to those they left behind. A Searls translation portends a rewarding reading experience despite the volumes’ length. (Il’ja)
White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Drawing comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Sandra Cisneros, Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection pulls together stories of diverse women of color as they face violence, whether it be sexual, racial, or self-inflicted. The Buddha also makes an appearance, as do Hindu myths, incurable diseases, and an android. No wonder Jeff VanderMeer calls White Dancing Elephants “often provocative” as well as bold, honest, and fresh. (Kaulie)
Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips: You know meritocratic capitalism is a lie because everyone who wrote during Holly Anderson’s tenure as editor of MTV News is not presently wealthy beyond imagination, but that’s beside the point. Better yet, let’s pour one out for Grantland. Better still, let’s focus on one truth. Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection. (Nick M.)
The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang: For the title of his debut collection of essays on race, gender, and American society, Wesley Yang invokes W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic study of race in America. These 13 essays, some of which appeared previously in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and n+1, explore the ways in which the American dream shapes and distorts an assortment of people: chefs, strivers, pickup artists, and school shooters. Included here is “Paper Tigers,” Yang’s personal, National Magazine Award-winning look at Asian-American overachievers. As Yang’s avid followers already know, his laser scrutiny spares no one—not even Yang himself. (Bill)
The Witch Elm by Tana French: For six novels now, French has taken readers inside the squabbling, backstabbing world of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, with each successive book following a different detective working frantically to close a case. Now, in a twist, French has—temporarily, we hope—set aside the Murder Squad for a stand-alone book that follows the victim of a crime, a tall, handsome, faintly clueless public relations man named Toby who is nearly beaten to death when he surprises two burglars in his home. Early reviews online attest that French’s trademark immersive prose and incisive understanding of human psychology remain intact, but readers do seem to miss the Murder Squad. (Michael)
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald: Casey Gerald fulfilled the American dream and is here to call bullshit. He grew up in Dallas with a sometimes absent mother and was recruited to play football for Yale. As he came to inhabit the rarefied air of Yale, Harvard, and Wall Street, he recognized the false myths that hold up those institutions and how their perpetuation affects those striving to get in. (Janet)
Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker: Camille Acker spins her debut story collection around a pair of linked premises: that respectability does not equal freedom and that the acclaim of others is a tinny substitute for one’s own sense of self. Set mostly in Washington, D.C., these stories give us a millennial who fights gentrification—until she learns that she’s part of the problem; a schoolteacher who dreams of a better city and winds up taking out her frustrations on her students; and a young piano player who wins a competition—and discovers that the prize is worthless. A timely, welcome book. (Bill)
The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana): Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Juan Rulfo—comparisons to each have been made with regard to Cristina Rivera Garza’s novels, which are uncanny and unique, often exploring and crossing and investigating borders, including but not limited to “geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death.” Rivera Garza has spent her life crossing borders, too. Born in Mexico, she lived between San Diego and Tijuana for a long while, and she now directs the first bilingual creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston. The Taiga Syndrome is Rivera Garza’s second novel to be translated to English, a book which Daniel Borzutzky likens to “Apocalypse Now fused with the worlds of Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges.” Yowza. (Anne)
Well-Read Black Girl ed. Glory Edim: Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and an online space that highlights black literature and sisterhood, and last year she produced the inaugural Well-Read Black Girl Festival. Most recently, Edim curated the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, and contributors include Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Barbara Smith. The collection of essays celebrates the power of representation, visibility, and storytelling. (Zoë)
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker: Martin Riker has exquisite taste in books. He’s proven this again and again as publisher of Dorothy and former editor for Dalkey Archive, and as a critic and champion of literature in translation, innovative writing, and authors who take risks—which is why the debut of Riker’s first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, is so thrilling for us bookish types. The titular Samuel Johnson is not that Samuel Johnson but a Samuel Johnson who comes of age in mid-20th-century America who is killed and whose consciousness then migrates from body to body to inevitably inhabit many lives in what Joshua Cohen calls “a masterpiece of metempsychosis.” (Anne)
All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie)
Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.)
The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even the “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael)
Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia)
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt)
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey’s latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator’s hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book “speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real.” (Lydia)
The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten Words, Brothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan)
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer’s Daughter. (Don’t miss Apostol’s astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia)
Hardly Children by Laura Adamcyzk: Chicago-based author Laura Adamcyzk’s bold and observant debut story collection, Hardly Children, teems with wry wit as it explores memory and family and uncovers the unexpected in the everyday. Her stories often involve family, interrelations within, and their disintegration, such as in “Girls,” which won the Dzanc Books/Disquiet Prize. Other stories are pithy and razor sharp, such as “Gun Control,” which invents many permutations of Chekhov’s Gun (i.e., a gun in act one must go off by act three), and in doing so reflects the degree to which Adamcyzk considers the architecture of her stories, which often shift in striking ways. (Anne)
The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda): This is the English-language debut from a Japanese writer whose work has already been translated worldwide. The short stories in this collection are a mix of the fantastical and the painfully real. The title story is about a woman who makes radical changes to her appearance through bodybuilding, yet her husband doesn’t even notice. Other mysterious premises include a saleswoman whose client won’t come out of a dressing room, a newlywed couple who begin to resemble each other, and umbrellas that have magical properties. (Hannah)
The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms…Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.)
The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco: A gender-bending historical detective story involving the opium trade and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Pacific Northwest. (Lydia)
Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai’s collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases “a splendid gem of a story collection…Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,’ ‘summer days stretched taffy slow’….Chai’s work is a grand event.” (Lydia)
North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah: Farah has been writing about the world’s greatest catastrophes for years, and his novels, especially Hiding in Plain Sight, have been about the tragedy that accompanies the loss of one’s original country. That strong theme is the centrifugal force of this novel about a calm home engulfed when a son leaves quiet and peaceful Oslo to die back in Somalia. His widow and children return to Norway to live with his parents, and in bringing their devoted religiosity with them, threaten to explode the family once again. Farah is a master of shifts and turns, so this novel promises to be among the year’s most exciting publications. (Chigozie)
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra (translated by Achy Obejas): Translated for the first time into English, internationally bestselling novelist Guerra’s book follows a writer from Cuba to Spain, where her expat compatriots assume she is a spy for Castro. Back home in Cuba, she is treated with equal suspicion by her government. (Lydia)
We were living in Philadelphia with our twin 13-month-old daughters when one night I returned from the store to find my husband holding E, her face blue. Her arms and legs made a slow but steady jerk jerk jerk, only her eyes were closed and when we lifted her lids the pupils darted back and forth. I called 911 while my husband bent over, put his mouth over my daughter’s, and breathed.
But just like a story that I cannot forget, the moment that haunts me is E’s first seizure. I remember the sound of the approaching ambulance screaming down the street, the sight of my husband walking down the hall ramrod straight with our unconscious daughter in his arms.
I ran out in the hall, knocked on our neighbor’s door. Then another. Our other daughter was asleep in her crib. I waited for someone to answer their door, to ask, How can we help?
No one did.
Back in the apartment I walked from room to room balling my hands. There was a bank of walls along the east side of the apartment and I remember straining to see the ambulance as it traveled farther away with E inside. When it moved past Cherry Street, the wail faded, and I placed my hands on the window and cried.
After begging a dog sitter to stay with our other daughter, I rushed to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It was a Thursday night and the ER was quiet, the floors waxed a glossy sheen. They told me the room E was in and I moved quickly, the rooms clearly marked with numbers. There were seven or eight people surrounding a bed when I walked in. They were not talking. My husband stood at the side and in the middle of a hospital bed on a white starched sheet stretched our daughter. A clear ribbed tube extended from her mouth to a blue bag. Behind her a man in scrubs squeezed the bag every time she needed to take a breath. There were IVs in both arms, another thinner tube fixed beneath her nose, another tube that extended from her mouth hung on the wall behind her. It was magenta colored and later someone joked that when they pumped her stomach they tried to guess what it was she had eaten for dinner. Beets, I would tell them. They’d cut off her undershirt and it lay bunched around her like skin she’d shed.
It’s Mommy, Sweetpea, I said. Mommy’s here. Her blanket looked dingy under the harsh lights. Dirty. It covered the lower half of her body and nodes dotted her chest. What’s going on? I asked no one in particular. What happened? What is that thing in her mouth?
Everyone in the room was so quiet, deliberate, the space no larger than our galley kitchen. Still. Every movement hushed. That’s when my husband put his arm around me and led me out into the hall, a cold place neither here nor there, floors so shiny I could nearly see my reflection in them. I don’t understand, I said.
My daughter’s life—as well as my writing career—could have ended here. “You know we almost lost her,” my husband later said. Status epilepticus, the life-threatening seizure that E initially experienced, carries with it a high rate of mortality and neurologic deficits. If she hadn’t survived that life-threatening seizure, or if it had left her with neurological scars, my responsibilities as her mother might be vastly more complex. Still, her seizures have overshadowed every aspect of my early years as a parent and writer. Writing requires time and focus and as a parent to a child with health issues, I’m often challenged by conflicting needs. Yet dealing with these concerns has also expanded my worldview and transformed the way I approach my work. Writing—working toward a goal and identifying myself outside of my responsibilities as a parent—has become more important than ever.
My daughter has seized in the doctor’s office when they tried to measure her height and during a check-up when a doctor looked inside her ears with an otoscope. She has seized in the hospital, while at the neighborhood park next door, in our kitchen, her bedroom, in the bathroom, on the living room floor in the summer and in the winter while she was fighting a cold. One Mother’s Day, years ago, she went limp in my arms when I lifted her from her high chair.
She’s nine years old now and because her seizures are caused by breath-holding spells the doctors are hesitant to prescribe daily medication. I do however carry with me at all times a syringe pre-filled with medicine that can halt a seizure by relaxing her body. The major side effect of the Diastat is that it also suppresses respiration, making it difficult for E to breathe.
Every application of Diastat has resulted in a trip to the ER.
We have visited the ER many times.
Before my daughters arrived I squandered time. I read books from start to finish whether I felt drawn into the world of the story or not. I worked on short stories that were okay but could easily be put aside to check email or run an errand. I lacked dedication.
Parenthood changed that. So did the seizures.
As a preschooler, when I said goodbye to E she would cry and follow me to the door. No amount of back patting or hugging could calm her. As the red of her face deepened, and we crept closer to another breath-holding spell, the teacher would distract her and I would rush to my car. Once at the library, seated in a carrel, I would keep looking at my phone. Had E seized? Were they trying to reach me at that moment?
Morning was the only time free of such anxieties. I began to set my alarm hours before the rest of my family. I discovered that my ideas are clearest when I work before my day with my daughters (or anyone else) has begun. In the quiet dark of morning I was more focused and wrote only what appealed to me; every minute was precious. Seizures were always a possibility and life remained fragile. Though it had been years since I had published my first book, a collection of short stories, I vowed to keep writing.
The decisions I made at the start of each day were enough to urge me forward.
By taking note of what appeals to my imagination, I’ve learned to work on stories while waiting in line at the grocery store and snapping Legos together to make a ship. I can puzzle through a problem with my current project while folding socks and invoicing a freelance client. And when I get those ideas down, I let go of all expectations. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott says all writers write “Shitty First Drafts” and has a chapter in her book titled as such. She goes on to say, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.”
Throughout the writing of my novel I doubted my project and myself —some days more than others. Being a parent and an artist means embracing uncertainty and its sibling—fear. Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear helped me see fear as something that can actually illuminate a writing project. Gilbert envisions fear and creativity as conjoined twins and makes space for the two to coexist. She even has a welcome speech prepared for any time she embarks on a new project:
Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do… There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making decisions along the way.
I’ve taken a cue from Gilbert and turned it up a notch—on days when I am most hampered by life’s concerns, I write a list of all my fears and on the opposing side try and refute them. Usually this activity shifts my headspace and allows me to re-center and return to the work at hand.
Just as I cannot know the outcome of the novel I am currently drafting, my daughter’s health also remains uncertain. Her seizures have grown less frequent and when they do happen, they are shorter in duration. Still, I wonder what her future holds. Someday she will drive alone on the highway. Someday she will lean in to kiss a significant other, breath momentarily halted. And someday she will leave us to attempt her own dreams.
Parenting and writing are chock-full of doubts and frustrations, stress and delight, but these challenges can also fuel a writer’s work by reminding us that writing is a choice like any other, and that uncertainty remains part of the process. I could have put my own dream aside and stopped writing on countless occasions—when a printed rejection arrived with one word underlined: NO or when I caught our sitter on FaceTime with a friend while my toddlers were alone in another room. But every time I sit down I face these fears head-on and write through them.
My daughters have complicated my life in useful and important ways. And on the good days, when I think about them as adults, I hope that through my example my daughters are learning that their needs and goals matter and are worth pursuing.
It’s a conviction I can’t imagine any of us living without.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”
“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”
“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”
It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”
“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”
Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.
One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.
I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.
Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.
A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.
I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.
Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.
My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.
Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.
Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan — “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find.
What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career.
Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive.
All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace.
This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections.
Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author — the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was — undeniably — inferior to my own work.
But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation — that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.”
Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time.
The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known — if not read — by everyone.)
But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think — and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday.
Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true.
We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt — as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
At the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, I loop back around to the beginning of “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN,” an exhibition that “explores the creative process behind Mad Men.” I arrived later than I’d hoped, just as the crowds were beginning to bottleneck, and was nudged through the narrow display corridors more quickly than I would have liked. The exhibit is a well-conceived combination of captivating eye candy — Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” outfit and Pete’s plaid pants, Don’s office and the Ossining kitchen recreated in full, embossed business cards from each incarnation of the agency, every item from the Adam Whitman shoebox, a copy of Sterling’s Gold — along with the pen and ink and paper behind all that. I crane my neck behind rows of bodies now three-deep, trying to read an entry from creator Matthew Weiner’s 1992 journal, in which he describes a character for a screenplay he was writing: “He will be brave and cunning but he is ultimately scared because he runs from death and family; for him they are the same.”
A security guard hovers, scolding anyone who whips out an iPhone before any camera triggers can be tapped. I linger around a standalone display case containing that most romantic of artistic relics — scraps of paper on which Weiner scribbled character, plot, and theme notes whenever they came to him. I wait for the guard to drift to the other end of the exhibit, then hold my phone over the glass and tap-tap-tap, working my way around all four sides and drawing looks. Later I see that the glare and shadows and sometimes illegible handwriting have obscured many words, but I make out a few things, like,
Am I supposed to pretend that I can’t open a jar so you can prove you’re a man
All your lies hit @ once even though you do them one @ a time a
same story as the Chip n Dip
Don seeing a woman / inverse of the pilot
Peggy and Betty have lunch
Fear is contagious. Permeates its expectations.
I’d trekked out to Queens on a Sunday morning — the Sunday of the series finale — because I wanted to somehow mark the end, and begin my pre-mourning. It’s an absurdly dramatic word, I know — mourning — implying real loss. It’s just a TV show, the level-headed inner voice says. But lately I find myself leaning into the gap between rational assertions and a stirring in my gut: yes, of course, It’s just a TV show. So too, When God closes a door he opens a window and I have my health. Nevertheless, experience tells me there may be something interesting, there in the gap, in the dissonance.
As I moved through the exhibit the first time, I found myself surprisingly less interested in the fabulous clothes and mid-century-modern office furniture (although I did love the smudgy worn leather of Don’s Eames desk chair) and more so in these glass-encased scribbles, along with mounted script outlines, the recreated writers’ room whiteboard (a grid of color-coded index cards), and three-ring binders that contained things like “Notes from Tone Meeting.” In other words, the museum curators smartly anticipated what seems to me a real question we’re all left with after spending eight years with Mad Men and now reminding ourselves that It was just a TV show…
We know that we became absorbed, that we experienced great pleasure in watching, and that we couldn’t wait for each new season to begin. We know, or feel at least, that we have participated in something significant, a cultural moment. But what I want to know now, or try to know, is this: Is it art?
I can hear the chorus of responses, falling into three camps: 1.) of course it is, 2.) of course it isn’t, 3.) who cares? Yet for me the question is there, with no obvious answer. And it matters: I believe there may even be moral stakes here.
Our current golden age of TV demands a considerable intensity of involvement from its viewers: when it comes to compelling serial drama, you care a lot about your show and its characters, or not at all. When the subject of Mad Men — or Breaking Bad or The Wire or House of Cards or any number of shows — comes up in a conversation, the parties are typically all in or all out. In the case of the former, the talk zooms zero to 60, whatever conversation you’d started is supplanted; in the latter, with the all-outs, the word “investment” almost always comes up — as in, “I’m not prepared/willing to make the investment.”
Indeed, watching these shows costs; a seven-season, 92-episode show like Mad Men is a significant expenditure — by my math, some 200+ hours (if you’re a re-watcher, as I am). There are myriad other things we could be, should be, want to be doing with our time and energy: how can we not ask, What’s it worth? And I do think about those hours — about the 15 to 20 books I could have read; about the four hours per week for a full year that I might have spent exercising, mentoring a young person, self-educating about global threats, growing food, helping a friend in need, freelancing for extra income, writing fiction, writing letters to my government representatives, calling my mother. Et cetera.
So since the credits rolled on the finale last week, I’ve been thinking less about “what happened” to Don and Peggy and Betty and Joan and Pete and Roger. Or even what happened to American culture, fashion, and gender politics between 1960 and 1970. What I’ve been wondering is what’s happened, over the last eight years, to us. What has the show done to us; what has it meant. Has it done or meant anything? For this is what I mean by that highfalutin word “art” — something that changes me, shows me something that matters, something that will last.
Behind a work of art, there is an artist; and the MoMI exhibition title says it all: “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN.” Yes, there is a team of writers, and sometimes they are given due credit. But also (from an interview in The Paris Review):
At the beginning of the season I dictate a lot of notes about the stories I’m interested in. Then for each episode, we start with a group-written story, an outline. When I read the outline, I rarely get a sense of what the story is. It has to be told to me. Then I go into a room with an assistant and I dictate the scenes, the entire script, page by page.
I am a controlling person. I’m at odds with the world, and like most people I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen — I only have wishes and dreams. But to be in this environment where you actually control how things are going to work out, and who’s going to win, and what they’re going to learn, and who kisses who…
And (from The Atlantic):
Much of Mad Men is driven by Weiner’s id, by his own dreams, by what he calls a “wordless instinct,” a conviction that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Some aspects of the show may seem “dreamlike or whatever” to others, but Weiner told me he often experiences things in a very different way than most other people do.
And (from Vulture):
Apparently, one of the actors on The Sopranos said, “My character wouldn’t say that,” and [David Chase] replied, “Who said it was your character?” [Laughs.]…The [actors] definitely thought I was picky and vague, I will say that. I was frustrating to work for because…I’m not always articulate about what I want.
There’s a lot of material on Weiner — he has not shied away from interviews — and I’ve combed only a fraction of it. What I gather is that, as Mad Men gained in acclaim, Weiner gained total freedom: what the characters say and do, the visual, psychological, and emotional tones of the scenes — in the end, it’s Weiner’s vision, and his call. In that sense, he is the Don Draper.
But is the landscape of a writer’s id necessarily artful? We are meant to believe that Don’s creativity works this way — successfully, unquestionably. Does Weiner’s?
In answer to a question about the poems he wrote in college, Weiner said,
[They were p]retty funny, a lot of them, in an ironic way. And very confessional. A lot like what I do on Mad Men, actually — I don’t think people always realize the show is super personal, even though it’s set in the past. It was as if the admission of uncomfortable thoughts had already become my business on some level. I love awkwardness.
That awkwardness, that instinct, truth that is stranger than fiction, that picky vagueness — one might say these are the marks of Weiner’s artistry. When I think back on seven seasons, it’s the weird stuff that floats to the surface: Peggy doing the twist in her awful green skirt toward a glowering, glossy-lipped Pete; Joan hoisting up her accordion and crooning in French; those horrible giggling aluminum-ad twins; Grandpa Gene grabbing Betty’s boob; Lane flaunting his “chocolate” playboy bunny in front of his father then getting beaten with a cane; Ken’s eye patch against his unsettling cheerfulness; Ginsburg’s nipple freak-out; the cringyness I still feel when rewatching Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance. These moments felt bizarre, distinctly off, and made me always aware of an authorial sensibility: someone put that accordion in the script, told those girls to giggle, and crafted that palpable awkwardness while Megan flung her hair and legs around.
Why were the characters doing these things? Because Matt Weiner’s dreams, wordless instincts, and experiences said so. “The important thing, for me,” Weiner said, about writing for The Sopranos, “was hearing the way David Chase indulged the subconscious. I learned not to question its communicative power.”
It was Nicholson Baker who once said that he writes best first thing in the morning, before even turning on lights, so he can write “in a dreamlike state.” I always liked the romantic purity of that; and yet, that’s the raw-material part of the process. What next? In undergraduate writing classes, I sometimes introduce the idea of “the moral point of view” — which I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s sometimes cloying but often useful Bird by Bird. Lamott invokes the term moral — with all its baggage — then both deconstructs and reclaims its significance. It’s not about judging characters, or readers; it’s not about black-and-white messages or lessons. It’s about the author having a stake, and exploring/expressing his worldview, lest the work risk being mere craft, bloodless and forgettable. That stake, that world view, could be a pressing, unanswerable question; a hope, or a shade of darkness; an incisive observation about human nature.
Is the strangeness of dreams a world view? Life as a series of unresolved and awkward non sequiturs? In Mad Men, people come and people go. They sort of change, but also not really. Many of them behave in disturbing or creepy or inconsistent ways. Ultimately we don’t know the fates of most of the people who come on screen, and neither do the principal characters.
If a young man runs into a beautiful woman at a party on Mad Men and she gives him her phone number and he writes it on a piece of paper and then he loses his coat, he will, on a normal TV show, end up figuring out how to find her. On Mad Men, he will never see her again. (from an interview with Esquire)
This approach unsettles the typical viewer and is likely a main reason — along with its decided racial homogeneity (but more on that later) — the series is not more numerically popular, by ratings standards. I myself have no trouble with narrative non-resolution per se; but it’s hard to know if what Weiner crafts in his episodic world is so much like life that it sometimes seems strange and unreal, or if he’s forcing the weirdness and illogic too hard — manneristically. The young man will never see the beautiful woman again; but will he think of her? Will he care? Does Weiner care? Does he have any stake in it? Should we?
Herein is evidence of a “moral point of view” that discomfits even me, a devoted viewer. Yes, people come and people go, that’s life; but in the world of Mad Men, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peggy’s abandoned baby, and the subsequent easy chumminess of her friendship with Pete (the father) is one example. The inconsequential in and out of so many characters with whom we spend significant time — Duck, Freddy, all of Don’s women (Megan included) with the possible exception of Rachel, Beth, Joyce, Ginsburg, Lane, Ted, Margaret, Hildy, (and what ever happened to Polly the Golden Retriever?!), et alia — is another. There is an uneasy tension between caring about the characters and not caring about them; between them mattering and not mattering. That tension seems to push and pull between the authorial side and the viewers’ side: why is it so easy to discard these broken people? Is it the show that discards them, the nature of episodic TV? Is it Weiner who dictates the emotional reality of the characters out of his own emotional instincts? Or is it, as Weiner would have us believe, real life itself? To be clear, the question isn’t should it matter; the question is does it?
“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” These words — Don to Peggy after she has given birth to the baby she didn’t know she was carrying — essentialize Don’s character journey. “You have to move forward. As soon as you can figure out what that is,” he says to Roger over drinks in Season 2. And in the series finale, the words come back yet again, Don to his pseudo-niece Stephanie (with regard to another abandoned baby), slightly softened: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Stephanie doesn’t buy it, but for the most part, the principal characters do: they move forward — they both forgive and seamlessly forget — and it’s we who may be shocked by it, not them.
Move forward. Mourning? “Mourning is an excuse to feel sorry for yourself,” as Don made clear to Betty in Season 1. Life is a sequence of episodes, nothing more and nothing less.
In this light, there is a coherence to Weiner’s landing and thriving in the hybrid creative ground of literature and television. He grew up around books — his father carried Marcel Proust on vacation — but he was a slow and “not…great reader,” and had “trouble with long books.” Since he wouldn’t thus be a novelist, he turned to more compressed forms — skits, improv, and then poetry in college. In film school, he found himself a minority among a cohort that “hated episodic structure,” films that were held together primarily by character (e.g. 8 1/2, The Godfather, Days of Heaven). “I liked episodic structure, and I thought it worked. I still think it works,” said Weiner. After film school he started reading more intentionally — biographies, which led to an interest in the “American picaresque character.” When asked about writers who’ve influenced him, he talks about what “holds his attention” — the compact density of poems; J.D. Salinger, Richard Yates, John Cheever.
All this may point to a temperament that foregrounds the present moment — layered, discrete, and impermanent — over the long arc or the enduring idea. As a writer in the entertainment industry, Weiner exploits the language and practice of aesthetic concepts, alongside a certain liberty to focus on the internal engine of this scene and these 47 minutes (which will immediately be rated and valuated). The big picture is whatever the aggregate ends up amounting to, not the other way around.
But in Mad Men, this hybridity may have ultimately manifest in a meta-ambiguity (i.e. an artistic ambivalence) that verges on cynical: again, while I am not at all bothered by open-ended ambiguity of plot or character fate — I don’t need to know if Stan+Peggy makes it for the long haul, or even if Don plays out his career at McCann, blue jeans banished forever — I am uneasy with Weiner’s playing both sides when it comes to the art/entertainment handshake. On the one hand, he talks character complexity and “Old Testament flaws” and existentialism, and, according to Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic, is “dismissive of what he calls the ‘Hollywood reaffirmation thing.’” He’s also said: “The term ‘showrunner’ is really foreign to me. It just feels like an agent term. I’m a writer-producer, and the ‘showrunner’ thing takes away the creative part of it.” On the other hand he sometimes ducks behind the “it’s entertainment” curtain, as in, don’t expect or read into this too much, It’s just a TV show. “We’re trying to entertain you,” he said, somewhat irritably, at an event at the 92nd Street Y, in response to a Big Issue question about “men” and “women.” “So, if it seems like it’s about that, you know, that may be what we ended up doing, but that’s not part of the plan.” Similarly, writers André and Maria Jacquemetton said in a 2012 interview, in reference to the show’s relationship to historical research, “we’re making entertainment, not a documentary.”
In other words, Mad Men has aimed primarily to RE-flect, not AF-fect. It’s not “about” anything; it’s just episodes, and they look beautiful and move forward and express awkwardness and sometimes they build toward something and sometimes they veer off, and dead-wood characters drop off as instinct dictates, and now…well…now it’s over. If you expected something more, dear viewer, something “that will last,” then that’s your own silly problem. After all, Weiner and company would say, we’re making TV here, not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” We’re just selling programming here, not meaning.
But c’mon; really? If advertising is metaphor, then the show is the meta-metaphor? Self-consciously shallow and deceptively complex? It feels like a fake gotcha, a feigned cleverness that may actually be a smokescreen for hedging. When Lili Loofbourow writes (at the Los Angeles Review of Books):
I do think it’s very much to the show’s credit that it ends with an ad — showing how monumentally frivolous its guiding vision has been all along. I appreciate that. I do. It’s even a certain kind of brilliant. It’s just not something I, personally, can love —
I’d like to agree about the brilliance — that it’s all been a masterful trick, and the joke’s on me. But that would mean that the writers genuinely cared very little about the characters, while doing their damndest to make sure that the viewers did. And that is contempt and cynicism of quite a high order. It seems more probable that in the particular way the show hedged art and entertainment, it copped out; it settled in the end for being the head-turning bombshell at the gala, relying on her cleavage instead of her Mensa IQ, tragically underachieving.
Because the characters did matter to us; but then — and now we come to the finale — they kind of didn’t. We believed in Peggy, in her unlikely ambition and talent, her quirky beauty and capricious taste in men, and her oddness; in the end, as she rises in the professional ranks, she really just wants a corner office at McCann and to work on Coke and to channel a Sally Albright she predates by 20 years. We felt for Joan through her ups and downs and admired her plucky, hip-swinging sensuality; what she loves, it turns out, in lieu of male bullshit and yet still uninterestingly, are making money and wielding power, like an extended middle-aged revenge fuck. We expected little from Roger and Pete, but we enjoyed them (except when we didn’t), so I’d say we’re at zero-sum seeing them keep on, more or less as they were. As for Betty, it seemed fated since the pilot that someone would kick it from too many Lucky Strikes, and she was the one at odds with her body all along; her clarity and muted emotion at the end were for me the most satisfying — character-logical — of anything that happened in the finale.
As for Don — Don whom I have admired, despised, defended, quoted, and rooted for most of the time — it turns out he’s an ad man; that’s what he is. To boot, he’s not so special, really. He’s been cruel and honorable, weak and strong. He really needed a hug — and he finally gave it to himself, via lonely Leonard and hippie self-help — and now he can do as he’s told others to do, i.e. Put It All Behind Him. In the penultimate image, Don’s gleeful face is huge on the screen, outsizing his trail of wreckage times a million. And nothing much matters now, because the episode, and the series, and the characters, have come and gone. We thought there was some there there, and I think the writers did, too (see my end-of-season-7-part-one essay, in which the Burger Chef episode as possible series finale had me singing a very different tune); but then there wasn’t. Because if you hedge long enough, you’ll tip right over. It doesn’t take much, just a feather-like waft, or maybe just silly viewers and their need for meaning.
The writers would surely say that the characters’ endings came organically from “who they are.” But I’m not really buying that, because Weiner, as creative non-showrunner, has been imprinting who he is, his authorial dreams and awkwardness and moral point of view, all along. The notion that what Mad Men does is more like real life than what other TV shows do is perhaps the most self-unaware thing that Weiner asserts, and suggests, again, some hedging: is he the show’s creator, or is he simply managing life-like characters’ inevitable behavior? The characters’ stunning disconnection from their actions and interactions — the atomized non sequiturs that comprise their stories — is a highly particular version of real life.
I think, for example, of the Season 5 finale of The Wire — in which the dark fate of a promising young black male (Randy) resulting from the carelessness of a dull-witted white male (Herc) is not relegated to the dead-wood pile of episodes past, but revisited and shown to the viewer; surely David Simon would say, That’s real life, and fuck yes it matters. I think too of the very satisfying series finale of Friday Night Lights, in which the saintly and sacrificial Eric and Tami Taylor finally make a selfish choice, and what we feel in those heartbreaking final moments is how everything that is now off-screen — everyone from the past five years from whom they have disconnected and put behind them — matters so very much.
As is obvious by now, I did make the investment; I ponied up big and bought what Mad Men was selling. So invested was I that I may still have been convinced of Weiner’s all-in artistry, or Loofbourow’s theory of visionary brilliance — if it weren’t for Weiner’s final words with regard to the finale. Moved to speak out after the fact, in response to what he thought were disturbingly cynical readings of the ending, Weiner explained that the implication of the episode’s final images is that Don, “in an enlightened state…created something that’s very pure,” i.e. the most famous ad campaign in history, “Buy the world a Coke.” In other words, Weiner exults in Don’s transcendent talent, and his receptivity to artistic vision via emotional healing. In apparent earnestness, Weiner takes a final shot at resonance by celebrating the artist and the possibility of human wholeness.
But what to make of an earnestness so blind to — so disconnected from — what it means? As we now know — thanks especially to Ericka Blount Danois writing at Ebony — in real life, Billy Davis, an African-American man who’d had a career as a songwriter and A&R executive, was the music director at McCann Erickson in 1970; he helped to create the Coke campaign and co-wrote and produced “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The campaign, as the Coca-Cola Company tells it, was a team conception; but as Tim Carmody points out at The Medium, it was Davis — one of the few African Americans at the senior level in advertising at that time — who contributed what might be described as “pure” or “enlightened” — the part that involved harmony and healing. Davis said to Bill Backer, creative director for the Coca Cola account:
Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke…I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.
Does it matter that Weiner gave Don Draper credit for the ad? Does it mean anything? Carmody said it well:
We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans, of suggesting that the inventions of black men and women either came from nowhere, came from no one in particular, or were in fact the creations of white people. We do this in our history, in our oral traditions, and even in our fiction.
Mos Def had something to say about it, too:
Elvis Presley ain’t got no SOULLLL (hell naw)
Little Richard is rock and roll (damn right)
You may dig on The Rolling Stones
But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own (nah-ah)
I wonder if Loofbourow would say that it was all ironic meta-brilliance on Weiner’s part: in Mad Men’s final act of meta-metaphor, the white man gets full credit for a black man’s work — work of lasting greatness — so that we can be properly entertained. I think I prefer blinded earnestness; the joke grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Maybe Chris Rock could pull it off; Matthew Weiner can’t.
One of the last installations at the MoMI exhibit is a screen display of the various opening credit sequences submitted by the design firm Imaginary Forces. It’s impossible to imagine a different choice from the iconic falling silhouette we’ve come to know so well: the sequence is beautiful, haunting, racy; and like a great first paragraph of a novel, it contains the whole of the story to come. The mysterious ad man’s ephemeral surroundings crumble around him; he falls and falls, it’s terrifying but also exhilarating; then he lands. Reclined, unruffled, and still smoking.
You win, Don Draper. You always do. It would seem that I am ready to move forward, and to put Mad Men behind me like it never happened.
It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same.
In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver –– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture…”)
This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists.
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I first met Dani Shapiro in 2011, at One Story magazine’s annual debutante ball, where she was being honored with an award for her mentorship of younger writers. I interviewed her that night about her teaching career and in the course of our conversation she told me that she tries, above all, to teach patience. When I asked how one goes about teaching patience, she offered a piece of advice that has stuck with me since. She said, “Immersion in the work creates patience.” And then she paused and reconsidered: “Or maybe it’s that patience creates immersion in the work.”
Both formulations, I think, are wise; but it was the fact that she had the presence of mind to pause and rethink her answer in the midst of a crowded party that struck me as the real object lesson in patience. You can sense that same calm in Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, a writing guide that is partly advice gleaned from years of teaching, and partly a memoir of Shapiro’s own growth and struggles as a writer. It’s a book that focuses on process more than craft, and in particular, the importance of routine. Shapiro is candid about her own habits of procrastination, as well as the rituals that have helped her to overcome her worst impulses.
I interviewed Shapiro in late September, just before her book was due to hit the shelves. She spoke to me from her home office in Connecticut, which she describes in detail in Still Writing, including the antique chaise lounge where she often sits to read and write.
The Millions: So, I feel like I know exactly where you are because I’ve read all about your workspace in your book.
Dani Shapiro: Ha, yes, I’m not on the chaise lounge, but I’m looking at it.
TM: And were you writing this morning?
DS: The irony of Still Writing being about to come out is that I’m not getting any writing done at all. I’m doing the stuff that writers do when we are about to get a book into the world. It becomes over-stimulating at a certain point. I’m not remotely able to always practice what I preach. For me when I’m working on the book, I pretty much just work on the book. There’s the writing and then there’s the talking about the writing. And I feel like they occupy really different places in a writer’s life.
TM: When does this stage of nervous expectation come to an end in your experience? When will you be able to write again?
DS: You know, one of the things that I increasingly understand over the years — not that it makes the process easier, not that I understand it better — is that so much goes into a book — giving it everything we’ve got, holding nothing back — so that when a book goes out into the world, it’s like watching your toddler making its way across the highway during rush hour. It feels like a defenseless and vulnerable newborn and it requires a lot of support. And also, nothing is ever enough. I don’t know a writer who actually feels, “Oh, excellent, I got that great Times review.” I have a friend who got a beautiful Times review for his debut novel and I was so pleased for him. And he called me up and the feeling was more of relief than joy — of crossing that thing that you had been so worried about off the list. And, I’m just going to be really honest here, in the last five minutes before you called me, I saw on Twitter a really lovely review of Still Writing and in the same five minutes I also saw that an essay that I had written for Ploughshares, one that I hoped would make it onto the list of notable essays in Best American Essays, didn’t make it onto the list. And so there you have it. I would like to be the kind of person who appreciates kind words from a friend rather than looking for my name on some list. I mean, who even reads the list of notable essays except for people who are hoping to be on it?
I bring up that example because this is a noisy, noisy world we’re all in. That’s not going to change. And I think for writers and for anyone in a solitary profession, there’s always this Pavlovian response to want to know more and to want to know what’s going on. And there’s such a danger in that. And when I’m writing I really do shut it down. I actually wrote an essay about this called “#amwriting.” There’s this hashtag on Twitter, #amwriting, and I started looking at it and thinking “No, you’re not!” And so I wrote this essay about it on n+1, about trying to do the work. For writers, the Internet really is like crack. Almost every writer I know struggles with it or has found a way to really shut it down. We require all these tools and rituals, whether it’s a different computer or whether or it’s writing by hand, which is what I do when I’m starting something new. There’s such freedom in a notebook. And there’s this great program Freedom, which allows you to work on your computer without going online.
TM: Yes, I actually just reinstalled after reading your book. I had it on my old laptop and recently I’ve been really distracted. It has to do with trying to balance childcare with writing time. So I realized I had to start using Freedom again.
DS: For me new motherhood was a very conflicted time. The feeling of carving out the time to write and feeling like somehow it was a luxury or frivolous in some way. Like it was not something I needed to be doing. Which is ridiculous because I support my family with my writing. But somehow if I’d have to put on nice clothes and go to a law firm and have a boss it would be — well, women in that position are conflicted, too. But with writing you have to make it happen and you can’t just show up for it. And I think that’s where the Internet comes into play.
TM: Being on the Internet can feel very productive.
DS: Yes, it can be in the name of research, it can also be email. I feel it in my brain, I can feel when it’s been a few hours since I’ve gone into my inbox. When I go online my brain feels like it’s sizzling. It’s not a good way to think for someone who needs to make intuitive and imaginative and memory-based connections. Someone who is operating at a different frequency.
TM: What inspired you to write this kind of book, a writing guide for writers?
DS: Well, I first of all never thought I would write book-length nonfiction after Slow Motion. But in 2008, 2009, I was in that state of being in-between, which I talk about in Still Writing. It’s never comfortable, no matter how many books I write, it always feels like this time it’s going to be different, this time it’s going to be over and I won’t have an idea. But then Devotion presented itself as the next book. And it wasn’t the book I would have picked. It was another memoir — and a spiritual memoir, my god! And so I wrote Devotion and that really ended up being a life-altering journey. And I had to get past my own resistance about it because I had a job to do. And just as when I wrote Slow Motion I had a feeling that it was going to change my writing life. In my novels before Slow Motion my obsessions were leading me around, and in my subsequent novels I think I have been a bit more in charge. Writing Slow Motion gave me a new lens, a different way of entering my imagination because I had taken care of writing that memoir. And so I had the sense that when I was writing Devotion that it was changing my lens again. But when I was working on Devotion, I also started working on a novel. Which I never do. And I started talking about it, which I caution people not to do. I wrote myself right into a wall. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever done, it was fragmentary, a collage, a hybrid fiction that employs nonfiction within it. A gray area, blurred boundaries. It’s something I’m very interested in right now. But it’s very tricky territory. And for the first time in my writing life I put a big chunk of writing in the drawer.
And in the meantime, for the last number of years, I’ve had a blog. Initially I had a blog because everyone told me to have a blog. And when I started, I thought what can I regularly blog about that feels like a deep enough well? And the answer was: the process of writing. The creative process itself. What it takes to do the work, what are the pitfalls and the joys, the struggles and the privileges. We do what we do alone in a room. Yet we’re struggling with the blank pages. People call it different things. It’s a leap of faith or lunacy that makes you feel that what you are going to fill it with is something that’s going to connect with other people. And so I started this blog and over the years I got tons of notes and it was from such a range of writers. And they always said the same thing: “This is what I needed to hear today.” I never thought about turning it into a book — even when people wrote to me and asked if it was going to be a book. And finally, it was in that space of finally putting a big chunk of a novel into a drawer that I thought, well, maybe this is the book I’m supposed to be working on.
I sold Still Writing based on the fact that I had a blog. But I didn’t look at the blog when I wrote Still Writing. I really wanted to start from square one and find a way to structure a memoir hybrid that would hopefully be useful and so that it didn’t feel like assembled material.
TM: It’s interesting that the book springs from that experience of getting stuck. Did you feel as if you were writing it for yourself, in a way?
DS: One of the things that I felt was that the minute you really think you know something, you’re in trouble. I remember I was being interviewed for a literary magazine as I was working on the novel that I put in the drawer. And they asked if I had ever had to put a novel in a drawer. And I said no, I’d been lucky that it hadn’t happened to me. But I was thinking to myself, That would never happen to me. And meanwhile I was working on the very thing that I ended up putting in a drawer.
In Still Writing, I was thinking more of, what do I need to remind myself of? I think that’s one of the reasons I love teaching. There are these moments when I teach when I say something and I realize it’s true and I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. And that’s when teaching is at its most alive. And I think this book came from my teaching self as much as from my writing self. I think it comes from the twenty years of teaching and especially the kind of teaching that I do, which really has a lot to do with trying to help people find courage.
Speaking of moments when I say something that I realize is true: years and years ago I was teaching an MFA course and I remember saying that I thought voice was practically synonymous with courage. And when I said it, I thought, that’s right — you can’t find your voice without having that sense of courage. It’s not confidence. It has nothing to do with confidence, it has to do with moving past fear, embarrassment, mortification, shame. It’s knowing where you’re writing from.
TM: How aware of the genre were you when you began? Did you read other writing books or look to any others as a guide?
DS: I went back and I looked at a lot of them. Because I had to ask myself the question of why do we need another book on writing? I went back to the ones that I found most illuminating, the one I could just dip into always. The one that was model for me and that I felt I could add to in some way is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It’s pure wisdom. It doesn’t instruct exactly. It goes very deeply into the head of a writer. And there’s nothing sugarcoated about it. It’s not saying everyone can do this. And I’ve come to this recently lately, this idea that there are two kinds of teaching now when it comes to teaching writing. There’s writers who are coming to the workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it right with every fiber of their being. And then there’s this other world of writers who will go to a workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it down. And getting it down and getting it right are two different things. For some writers getting it down is enough. And I think that has more to do with writing as a kind of therapy or catharsis. And getting it right has nothing to do with that. With Dillard, you see the absolute clarity and wisdom of her intention. She says a good book takes ten years. And I feel like reading that to my students who want to have a book deal by the time they graduate.
Stephen King’s On Writing I owe a debt to because the first half of that book he writes in bits and pieces — not in any kind of narrative way — about what formed him as a writer. A light bulb went off for me. I saw I could incorporate memoir, and it gave the book the chronology of beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a little scary to look at my process, because it’s a Pandora’s box, the question of what am I going to find? What did it mean to be an only child? What did some of the painful or difficult life lessons that I learned early in my life, what did they have to do with forming my subject matter?
Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott was also an influence. Another book, one that I actually didn’t know if it would still speak to me, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. Goldberg has a kind of spiritual cast to her writing and she’s someone who has a spiritual practice.
As I read them, I felt like what I wanted to do was different enough. It didn’t feel like that’s been said, that’s been done. And the reason I’m saying that is because in writing every other book I’ve had the feeling that I had to write it. Still Writing didn’t feel like I had to write it.
TM: I was wondering about that, because in Still Writing, you describe how your books announce themselves. And I wondered if this one had announced itself.
DS: Other people kept announcing it to me! It was one of those moments of realizing that there was something that I had apparently been doing for a few years without consciousness of it, something that was striking a chord. I can’t imagine approaching a piece of fiction that way.
TM: So, may I ask — knowing you do not like to talk about work in progress, and knowing that you are currently in a state of nervous expectation — if you are working on something new?
DS: I will give you a very reserved yes. But I have a piece of short fiction coming out in a couple weeks that Electric Literature is publishing. I’ve mostly been working on that short story, “Supernova.” Actually, it’s about two of the characters from the novel that is in the drawer. Because I really, really was and am attached to the characters and even though it was in the drawer, it had a heartbeat. It was alive. So I pulled them to see what would happen if I gave them a life of their own away from the larger work surrounding it. Aside from that short story there is the strangeness of…well, I taped an hour with Oprah!
TM: I was going to ask you about that — I saw a notice on your website. What show is it for?
DS: It’s called Super Soul Sunday and it’s on her network. It’s amazing in terms of the company. She interviews people like Elie Wiesel and Maya Angelou. And she actually has Annie Lamott coming on. And this great Buddhist teacher called Jack Kornfield. And Karen Armstrong who has written some of the best spiritual biographies. It’s about what she loves to do, which is to have a deep conversation about how to live a meaningful life. It’s what she’s interested in. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. It was very instructive to get that phone call because obviously I wasn’t expecting it. And around my house we’re pretty regularly waiting for phone calls. But it’s a law of nature that the phone never rings when you’re waiting for. The day I got the call from my agent about Super Soul Sunday I was shocked. I’ve been shocked before by bad news. I didn’t know good news could shock you in the same way. The next morning I said to my husband, “Did I dream that? I really think I may have dreamt that.” The good news can also emerge out of the ether, out of the blue. Anything that has ever happened to me hasn’t been when I was waiting for it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In The New York Times, Anne Lamott (of Bird by Bird fame) reveals the one book she’d recommend to President Obama. It might not surprise many readers of her memoir that her choice — Anti-California: Report from our First Parafascist State — is a nonfiction book by her father.
1. My mom: secret novelist
Last fall, when I was home visiting my parents in Marin County, California, I ducked downstairs to check my email on my mother’s computer. When I typed the address of my email server into her browser, the history bar popped up with a list of oddly familiar websites: www.tinhouse.com is one I remember; www.glimmertrain.com is another. I can recall my mother writing a few short stories when I was a kid back in the 1970s, and once more recently she’d mentioned to me that, “just for fun,” she was writing a series of fictional journal entries in the voice of 17th century American poet Anne Bradstreet, whom she was studying for a master’s degree she was pursuing late in life. But Tin House? Glimmer Train? What kind of secret life was my 72-year-old mother leading?
The mystery was resolved a few weeks ago when Mom revealed, with a touch of sheepish pride, that she had published her first short story, “Drawing Lily,” in the Nebraska-based online literary quarterly, Forge. The story, which went live earlier this month, turns out to be the tip of a submerged iceberg of a mostly secret, but also quietly serious and ambitious, literary life my mother has been leading since she retired as a partner in a San Francisco law firm in the early 2000s.
My mother has not only written an entire novel about Bradstreet, called The Poet and the Outcast, but worked on it with a writing teacher, and sent it out to agents and publishing houses. She has also built up a fair-sized stack of short stories, has been taking writing courses for years, and has applied to several writing conferences this summer. But aside from my father and a tiny handful of her closest friends, no one knows about any of this. “The minute you tell somebody you’re a writer,” she explained to me, “they immediately ask ‘Where have you published?’” Thus, until she had a story of hers published, she resolved to keep her literary ambitions a secret from the world.
2. Those scribblin’ Bournes
My mother, Nancy Bourne, is a kind of one-woman Women’s Movement. Born in 1939 in the blue-collar Southern cotton mill town of Danville, Virginia, she learned in Sunday School that girls could grow up to do one of two things: be a wife and mother, or become a Christian missionary. Thus began my mother’s short-lived dream to become a Christian missionary. Things didn’t work out that way, and after college, she taught high school English while my father finished medical school. Once I was born, she quit teaching to raise me and my brother Randy and sister Molly. In the early 1970s, when we were old enough to go to school, she took up ceramics and founded a pottery studio and school in our garage that continues to this day. A few years later, while still running the pottery studio, she began to cast about for a more fulfilling second career that might carry her through the years after the three of us kids left home. She taught school again for a year, which didn’t go well, and took a fiction-writing class in the U.C. Berkeley Extension program, nursing a closely held ambition to become a writer.
The literary landscape looked much different in the late 1970s than it does today. For one thing, there wasn’t an MFA program at virtually every university in the country. For another, the personal computer was still a hobbyist’s plaything, and you typed out your stories on typewriters and mailed them in big brown envelopes to literary magazines – there weren’t nearly as many of them then, either – one at a time. My mother estimates she spent three years laboriously sending out stories, getting rejection slips, slipping the copy of the story in another envelope, and sending it on to the next editor, before she quit writing to go to law school. “At the time I thought if I could get just one story published, I wouldn’t go to law school,” she told me, adding with a laugh: “Thank God I didn’t get anything published!”
She’s not kidding. She passed the bar the same year I finished high school, and her law career not only paid for the college educations of her three children, but also made it possible for all three of us to finish graduate school without going into debt. The law also offered her a high-powered career that ended with her dream job as a partner in a law firm, now known as Dannis Wolliver Kelly, that represents school boards across California. But as she entered her sixties, she cut back her hours at the law firm and decided to pursue a master’s degree in literature at San Francisco State University, which, in its roundabout way, led back to where she had begun with her secret life as an aspiring author.
This is less strange than it might at first appear. We Bournes are a writerly bunch. There’s me, of course, who has been writing seriously and steadily, albeit with only the most modest worldly success, since I learned to touch-type at age thirteen. My father, too, in the four years since his retirement as a molecular biologist at U.C. San Francisco, has written not one, but two books: the first a self-published memoir of his career in science called Ambition and Delight, the second an institutional history of UCSF called Paths to Innovation, published by the University of California Medical Humanities Consortium. My sister, Molly, a doctor, has written at least one collection of stories and a novel that I know of – never published, never seen by me, and never once so much as mentioned by her in my presence. (My brother Randy, also a physician and the family’s only non-writer, said to me when I told him Mom had published a story in a literary magazine: “Man, I better get cracking.”)
3. Anne Bradstreet, the gateway drug
My mother’s wayward path back to fiction began with her master’s thesis project on Anne Bradstreet, one of the original Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New England’s first published poet. As she researched Bradstreet’s life and career, my mother learned that while Bradstreet, whose husband and father both served as governors of the new colony, lived a life beyond reproach, her sister, Sarah Keanye, was excommunicated by the church for, among other things, “gross immorality.” Partly as a way to further her research and partly as a writing exercise, Mom began writing journal entries in the voice of her research subject. “I was imagining what it would have been like to have been a woman in the 17th century with eight children, and writing poetry,” she told me. “It was just a fun thing to do.”
But as the project grew, my mother added a competing fictional journal written by Bradstreet’s disgraced sister explaining her behavior, and even fictional letters between the two sisters. Before she knew it, she had a book, an epistolary novel of sorts, with the sisters’ dueling memoirs, along with letters and snatches of invented letters between the two, creating a portrait of life in 17th century Puritan New England. Mom gave the manuscript to Bay Area writer and teacher, Tom Parker, who found the book “profound and powerful and interesting” and gave my mother the name of a literary agent he thought might help her get it published. That didn’t pan out, but Parker remains high on both the book and my mother’s talent as a writer. “A lot of good, smart people come through these portals, and your mother is in the top ten percent of the people I work with,” he told me.
4. The activity that dare not speak its name
Looking back on it, I think what most surprised me when I saw those familiar literary magazine titles on my mother’s browser wasn’t that my mother was writing short stories, but that I didn’t know. After all, I talk about my own writing all the time. I’ve been writing fiction since I could type sentences, and in the decades since I left home, a fair portion of my biweekly phone call with the folks has been taken up with descriptions of my latest writing project and blow-by-blow accounts of my interactions with agents and editors. Sitting there looking at those web addresses on my mother’s desktop, I realized that at least for the last few years my mother had been sailing the same perilous waters as me, and not saying a word.
Part of the explanation for this lies in the dynamics of our family. As anyone who has ever sat at our dinner table can attest, we Bournes are anything but shy and retiring, but we don’t discuss money and we don’t brag, not openly. Nothing is tackier, or more hilarious, in our household than a Christmas card that trumpets the accomplishments of one’s self or one’s children. Growing up, I learned that the key in life wasn’t to be successful – that, it seemed, was all but a given – but to make it look easy. Effortless. “Just for fun.” My father worked his ass off for almost forty years at the cutting edge of the DNA revolution at one of the top medical research institutions in this country, and I had to read his books to figure out what the hell he’d done all day all those years.
But just because we don’t talk about our accomplishments doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They’re everything. But in the family narrative, success is supposed to appear out of nowhere as a fait accompli, a nifty little treasure found by happenstance by the roadside, preferably brought to the family’s attention by others. All of which encourages a certain amount of privacy about things that don’t turn out so well, and even about things that haven’t turned out well yet. For her thirteenth birthday my sister asked for a filing cabinet, with a key. God only knows what was in that locked filing cabinet, but I am going to guess that its present contents include at least a story collection and a novel.
Still, I don’t think my family is really such an outlier. Anyone who has read the slush pile at a literary magazine or small publishing house knows there are thousands of people out there writing books and stories, most of them moms and lawyers and teachers and cubicle wretches writing at night and on weekends without telling anyone but their spouses. Some of these writers, no doubt, are hobbyists for whom writing stories is what bird-watching or fantasy football is to other folks. But many more, I suspect, are quite serious, enrolling in university extension classes, attending writing retreats and conferences, sending out story after story despite the steady drumbeat of failure.
It’s this last point that I think helps explain the secrecy of writing. Most people can’t carry a tune, and fewer still could paint a passable portrait in oil, but just about anybody can write a sentence and tell a story. It seems so easy. And yet as my mother, or I, or any practicing writer can tell you it’s devilishly hard. The problem isn’t merely that a magazine like Tin House receives thousands of stories a year and publishes perhaps twenty. The problem is that even among those twenty, half are crap. Half the stories I read in The New Yorker, the top forum for contemporary fiction in the country, bore me to tears. This isn’t because the editors of these magazines have no taste, or because something is horribly awry in our literary culture, but because it is unspeakably hard to write a piece of fiction that someone who isn’t related to you by blood or marriage will actually want to read.
And yet, here we all are, my mother, me, and probably you, too, writing on the subway, in stolen minutes at work, on sunny Saturday afternoons when anybody with any sense is watching a ballgame or going to the beach. My mother and I aren’t likely to create lasting literature. One of you might, but frankly, the odds are against you. But that’s not the point. The point is sitting down and doing it, taking it seriously, caring about excellence, being willing to risk constant failure and rejection. The cost of caring about something you know you will most likely fail at is that you will look a little ridiculous in the eyes of the people you love. So you dissemble. You tell people at a dinner party that you’re a teacher, a lawyer, a mom – anything but a writer. You hide the copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and the latest Writer’s Market. You tell yourself you’re doing it “just for fun.” But you do it. And that’s what counts.
If you have read this far you will not be surprised to hear that my mother resisted having attention called to her first publication. In her reply to my emails suggesting an interview, she said I’d “outed” her and wanted to talk to me about my “angle” on the piece. After we finished, she confessed that her biggest fear was that this essay would make her sound like a loser for having taken this long to get a story published. (I should have told her, but didn’t, that most people never get anything published.) She did talk to me, though. But as we were finishing up, she returned to the business of me seeing those literary magazine web pages on her browser, and I spent the last two minutes of our conversation walking her through the steps of how to erase the browsing history from her desktop.
That won’t happen again.
Photo courtesy the author
1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball
Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?
Reply hazy, try again.
Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.
All signs point to yes.
Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?
Concentrate and ask again.
Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt.
And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?
It is decidedly so.
2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance
Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”
So. This is me. Paying attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.
But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.
3. A Story is Not a Paper
Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”
I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”
The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.
4. Origin Story
I was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:
Cathy, here’s a story.
And here is a story.
Over there, that is a story, too.
Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.
I was lucky.
Typically, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.
But how to you do that?
5. This is Not How You Do It
I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
6. This is Not How You Do It Either
Syllabus: Fiction Workshop
This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”
This argument proved to be quite persuasive.
The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.
We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”
This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.
“They write critiques of each other’s work.”
Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…
“They write responses to the assigned stories.”
Papers? they asked excitedly.
“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”
“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”
Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?
And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.
7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon
In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.
There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.
Perhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”
Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”
8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House
You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!
This is how you write a story.
This is not how you write a big thing.
You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?
Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”
And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.
9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed
Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.
Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.
Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.
Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.
So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?
For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.
But these days, I’m not so sure.
10. Shame Management
In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.
Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.
The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.
I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.
Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.
(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)
Let us turn now to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness – not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism […]
Mannered writing, then – like sentimentality and frigidity – arises out of flawed character. In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore […] To help the writer […] the teacher must enable the writer to see – partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will) – that his personal character is wanting.
-John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a standard in writing classes for decades. Along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them,” she wrote), I think of The Art of Fiction as the masochist’s craft book. In Gardner’s text, you’ll find no warm fuzzies or self-helpy exhortations to discover your inner artist (as in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), or to keep at it, no matter how shitty your drafts (as in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). Gardner treats the writer’s vocation with strict gravity; the path is both narrow and demanding, poseurs be warned and beware.
Thus, one reads Gardner for a trenchant kick in the ass; or, perhaps, when one has been working wretchedly at writing for some time and is ripe for someone to put him out of his misery: Not everyone is a writer, Gardner (and O’Connor, too) might say (to the horror of writing programs across the country who want your tuition dollars). Why not try your hand at water colors?
As both a student and teacher of writing, the above passages from The Art of Fiction have stopped me in my tracks. Faults of soul? Show the writer that his personal character is wanting? Imagine if book reviewers, as common practice, heeded Gardner’s entreaty. We’d see reviews that looked something like this (italics represent text from The Art of Fiction):
Jack Scribbler’s description of the protagonist Billy in his moment of crisis shows Scribbler’s essential frigidity; that is, clearly, Scribbler is less concerned about Billy than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. Scribbler’s essential indecency is the problem here; it is clear that he lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters. In a word, Scribbler is cold-hearted and turns away from real feeling, he knows no more of love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card.
Or, like this:
It is clear that Jill Hack, in repeatedly intruding herself into the narrative with stylistic tics that do not serve the subject matter, is primarily focused on proving herself different from all other authors; apparently, she feels more strongly about her own personality and ideas than she feels about any of her characters or all the rest of humanity.
In other words, reviews would be pointedly personal; what is wrong with the writing equated with what is wrong with the author. What would it mean if we all began drawing such short, direct lines from the work to the person? Likely we’d see an increase in reviewer-writer rows — online a la Alice Hoffman, or at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn – and many of us, helpless to survive such sharp knives to our souls, might give up the literary ghost earlier rather than later in our careers.
But what if we flip the supposition and consider the converse: if bad writing “arises out of flawed character,” it would follow then that the wellspring of good writing is good character (to be clear: good character – as in the cultivation/manifestation of the writer’s humanity – not good characters, which is, of course, another way of going at it). For aspiring writers, there will always be matters of craft and style; but how many of us, writers and teachers alike, imagine focusing our development as writers on personal character? And what, at any rate, would that look like?
Well… it would look like Chekhov.
A new film adaptation of Chekhov’s 1891 novella The Duel, from award-winning director Dover Kosashvili, recently opened at Film Forum in New York City and has me thinking about all the ways in which Chekhov is studied, admired, referenced, emulated, and, yes, adapted. Chekhov in fact rivals Shakespeare in the most-frequently-adapted-for-the-screen category.
Given how readers typically respond to screen versions of their most beloved books, it may not be surprising that the film left me wanting – to reread Chekhov’s exquisite novella, that is (which, subsequently, I did). It’s a fine film – well-acted, near-perfectly cast, shot beautifully to capture both the open landscape and confined domestic settings of a Caucasus seaside town (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the film as “very satisfying and tonally precise”) – but the project of condensing and dramatizing a Chekhov story may be a bit like trying to see figurative shapes in a Rothko painting: some things – works of art which approach perfection, in particular – simply are what they are.
Praising Chekhov, I realize, is a little like rooting for the Yankees (or Duke; or Roger Federer). Writers across the aesthetic spectrum, from Nabokov (“Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features”) to Cornel West (“If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I’ll go with Chekhov”) to Flannery O’Connor (“Chekhov makes everything work – the air, the light, the cold, the dirt”) to Tennessee Williams (“Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!”) laud the good doctor as unmatched in the short story form. Writing teachers and books on fiction craft invariably herd students to the altar of Chekhov – “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through,” Francine Prose urges, in a chapter devoted to Chekhov in Reading Like a Writer. I am aware of just one literary giant who bucked the crowd: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories,” wrote Hemingway. “But he was an amateur writer.”
Yet it’s difficult, and arguably fatal, to teach Chekhov’s “style.” “Chekhovian” is in fact no compliment, it implies a near-replica, which, in the case of Chekhov, is worse than no replica at all. As Annie Proulx notes, in a Chekhov story, “everything seems chaos and only a little is revealed or resolved. But enough is revealed and resolved to give shape and form to the story. I do not like the pseudo-Chekhovian trailing away.” Eudora Welty described Chekhov’s stories in this way:
The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive. By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure – one which embodied the principle of growth […] in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning. It took form from within.
But what to do with such abstract analysis? “Open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning” sounds right, and profound; trying to emulate (or adapt) something which takes “form from within” is another matter.
The quietude of Chekhov’s talent contributes, perhaps, to the whiff of backlash one sometimes detects in the air; a dubiousness of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Somerset Maugham wrote:
[Chekhov’s characters] are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in a mysterious grayness. They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits. It is their souls that you seem to see… You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld;
and Virginia Woolf wrote
We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes… The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is not cured.
I understand both Maugham and Woolf to be enthusiasts of this mysteriousness, this strangeness; and yet, given their assessments, it is perhaps understandable if a contemporary reader of Chekhov finds his stories boring, shapeless, lacking in dramatic movement, unsatisfying — even if, lacking Hemingway’s balls, said reader feels sheepish saying so in the company of the literary set.
In “The Husband,” a man and his wife dislike and misunderstand each other; both are miserable, they grow only more impermeable, yet each seems to reach for something – empathy, intoxication, or something ultimately unnameable. In “The Two Volodyas,” a young woman married to an older man has a fickle and restless heart and falls into adultery, only to find herself as restless as before, albeit more acutely intimate with her own “shabby,” fretful soul. In “The Black Monk,” an overwrought young scholar retires to a country estate and begins to grapple with madness – or the light of genius, we don’t know which – the normalization of which, for the sake of his fiancée, results in a life of mediocrity, and death in isolation. In “The Lady With a Pet Dog,” a vain married man flirts with an unhappily married woman; an affair ensues, grows tiresome, but then rekindles, and the two find themselves strangely, unexpectedly devoted to each other despite the hopelessness of their situation. And in “The Kiss,” a shy, undistinguished army officer is the beneficiary of an aristocrat’s daughter’s mistake — she kisses him in the dark, thinking he is the other half of her secret tryst — and a euphoria fills his imagination as he fantasizes a continuation of the intrigue; only to realize bitterly that the incident was a non-sequitur and that no such consummation will ever come to pass.
Why, then, do these stories of anti-climax, of unconsummated longing, of isolation and impenetrability, inspire me so? And how might they make me both a better person and, following our line of argument here, a better writer?
I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it — my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned. I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed. His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit — maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living.
What we learn best from Chekhov is, then, this writer’s character – in Gardner’s words, “nobility of spirit,” and “decency”; in Solotaroff’s, “all eyes and heart” — without which we cannot possibly tell the stories which must be told, in a way that, as Annie Dillard’s writes, “seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered […] press[ing] upon our minds the deepest mysteries.” In reading Chekhov we begin to develop a profound underground system of roots that feeds the life and growth above. His stories burst our bubbles, yes, by flouting the climax-and-resolution paradigm; but they also pull back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in, and how petty fears, vanity, and self-delusion breed (tragically and often unnecessarily) all manner of soul sickness – not to mention frigidity, sentimentalism, and mannerism in our writing.
Perhaps most importantly — most skillfully — Chekhov does all this with gentleness and humor. Reading his stories keeps us honest, and humble, but somehow also light-hearted. (It was perhaps that tender touch of silliness – Laevsky’s rather hilarious, panicky ennui – and Chekhov’s loving characterization of Nadya as hungry for life, not merely vain – “all of it, together with the heat and the transparent, caressing waves, stirred her and whispered to her that she must live, live…” — which I missed most in Kosashvili’s adaptation.) To my mind, nowhere is there a more direct line between man and work – in the positive sense, as opposed to Gardner’s negative sense — than in the case of Chekhov. In other words, to write like Chekhov, one must be like Chekhov — see what Chekhov sees, feel as Chekhov feels, love as Chekhov loves – which is to say recognize and embrace life as it is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health — which he helps us to do by writing stories that have, as Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it, “the impact of direct experience.”
“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said. With his keen yet gentle gaze, Chekhov reminds us that to be a human being means the same. And with perhaps a more compelling, living argument (i.e. his body of work) than the austere Gardner, Chekhov challenges us to consider which comes first, the artist or the man.