January Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock [NF] I first learned about the life and work of seventeenth-century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish in Regan Penaluna's stellar study of women thinkers, and I've been dying to read a biography of Cavendish ever since. And I'm in luck (all of us are) thanks to biographer Peacock. A proto-feminist, science-fiction pioneer, and divisive public figure, Cavendish is endlessly fascinating, and Peacock's debut gives her the rigorous, in-depth treatment that she deserves. —Sophia M. Stewart Nonfiction by Julie Myerson [F] A blurb from Rachel Cusk is just about all it takes to get me excited about a book, so when I saw that Cusk called Myerson's latest novel "glitteringly painful," "steady and clear," and "the book [Myerson] was intended to write," I was sold. A tale of art, addiction, and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, Nonfiction promises to devastate. —SMS Immediacy by Anna Kornbluh [NF] Did the pandemic kill postmodernism? And what comes after the end of history? University of Illinois–Chicago professor Kornbluh dubs our contemporary style “immediacy,” characterized by same-day delivery, bingeable multimedia, and real-time news updates that spin the economic flywheel ever faster. Kornbluh names this state of emergence and emergency, and suggests potential off-ramps in the direction of calm reflection, measured art-making, and, just maybe, collective wisdom. —Nathalie op de Beeck Slow Down by Kōhei Saitō, tr. Brian Bergstrom [NF] In this internationally-bestselling treatise, Japanese philosopher Saitō argues against "sustainable growth" in favor of degrowth—the slowing of economic activity—which he sees at the only way to address the twinned crises of inequality and climate change. Saitō's proposal is simple, salient, and adapts Marx for the modern day. —SMS Relic by Ed Simon [NF] From Millions alum Simon comes a slim study of the objects we imbue with religious (or quasi-religious) meaning, from the bone of a Catholic martyr to Jimi Hendrix's guitar pick. Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series never misses, and Relic is one of the series' most unconventional—and compelling—entries yet. —SMS Filterworld by Kyle Chayka [NF] The outline of reality has become increasingly blurry as the real world melds with the digital one, becoming what Chayka, staff writer at the New Yorker, calls “Filterworld,” a society built on a foundation of ever-evolving algorithms. In his book of the same name, Chayka calls out the all-powerful algorithm, which he argues is the driving force behind current and accelerating trends in art, consumption, and ethics. —Daniella Fishman Portrait of a Body by Julie Delporte, tr. Helge Dascher and Karen Houle [NF] A gripping narrative of coming to terms with her queer identity, Canadian cartoonist Delporte's latest graphic memoir—praised by Eileen Myles and Fariha Róisín—sees Delporte learning to embrace herself in both physical and metaphysical ways. Dreamy colored pencil illustrations and gently flowing storytelling capture the beauty, trauma, and ultimate tranquility that comes with learning to exist on your own terms. —DF Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino [F] In Bertino’s latest novel, following 2020's Parakeet, the launch of Voyager 1 into space coincides with the birth of Adina Giorno, who, much like the solitary satellite, is in search of something she can't yet see. As a child, she senses that she is not of this world and struggles to make a life for herself amid the drudgery of human existence. Playing on Adina's alienness as both a metaphor and a reality, Bertino asks, “Are we really alone?” —DF The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin [NF] Martin returns ablaze in her latest memoir, pitched as "H Is for Hawk meets Joan Didion in the Pyrocene." Following an anguishing chronic pain diagnosis, Martin attempts to reconnect with her beloved Northern California wilderness in order to escape not only her deteriorating health but a deteriorating world, which has ignited around her in the worst fire season California has ever seen. Devastating and ambivalent, The Last Fire Season tries to sift through the ashes of climate change. —DF The Furies by Elizabeth Flock [NF] Violence by women—its role, its potential righteousness—is the focus of Flock's latest. Following the real-life cases of a young rape survivor in Alabama, a predator-punishing gang leader in India, and an anti-ISIS militia fighter in Syria, Flock considers how women have used lethal force as a means to power, safety, and freedom amid misogynistic threats and oppression. Is violence ever the answer? Flock looks to three parallel lives for guidance. —SMS Imagining the Method by Justin Owen Rawlins [NF] University of Tulsa professor Rawlins demystifies that most celebrated (and controversial) acting school, challenging our contemporary conceptions of screen performance. I was sold the moment I saw Rawlins received the ultimate stamp of approval from Isaac Butler, author of the definitive account of method acting: "If you care about the evolution of twentieth-century screen performance, you should read this book." —SMS We Are Free to Change the World by Lyndsey Stonebridge [NF] Famed twentieth-century philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote passionately about power, freedom, and inequality against the backdrop of fascism—a project as relevant today as it ever was. Stonebridge, a professor of humanities and human rights, revisits the lessons of Arendt's writings and applies them to the twenty-first century, creating a dialogue between past, present, and future. —DF Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea by C.D. Rose [F] In these 19 short stories, Rose meditates on philosophy, photography, and literature. Blending erudition and entertainment, Rose's fables follow writers, teachers, and artists through various situations—and in a standout story, imagines how St. Augustine would fare on Twitter. —DF Black Women Taught Us by Jenn M. Jackson [NF] Jackson's debut book foregrounds the work of Black feminist writers and leaders—from Ida B. Wells and Harriet Jacobs to Shirley Chisholm and bell hooks—throughout American history, revealing the centuries-long role that Black women have played in imagining and fighting for a more just society. Imani Perry calls Jackson "a beautiful writer and excellent scholar." —SMS The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James [F] Pitched as Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel García Márquez (yeesh!), The Bullet Swallower is the second novel (after Mona at Sea) from Elizabeth Gonzalez James, who also wrote the weird and wonderful essay/play Five Conversations About Peter Sellers. Infusing the spaghetti western with magical realism, the novel follows a Mexican bandito on a cosmic journey generations in the making. —SMS Last Acts by Alexander Sammartino [F] In Sammartino's debut novel, the owner of a gun store hatches a plan to resurrect his struggling business following his son's near-death experience. George Saunders, Mary Karr, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah have all heaped on praise, and Jenny Offill finds it "hard to believe Last Acts is a first novel." —SMS I Sing to Use the Waiting by Zachary Pace [NF] Pace fuses memoir and criticism (my favorite combination) to explore the emotional and cultural impacts of women singers across time, from Cat Power and Rihanna to Kim Gordon and Whitney Houston. A queer coming-of-age story that centers the power of music and the legacies of women artists. —SMS Dead in Long Beach, California by Venita Blackburn [F] Blackburn, the author of the stellar story collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How to Wrestle a Girl, delivers a debut novel about storytelling and unreality, centering on a successful novelist who gets hold of her dead brother's phone—and starts answering texts as him. Kristen Arnett calls this one "a bonafide knockout" that "rewired my brain." —SMS Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here by Jonathan Blitzer [N] New Yorker staff writer Blitzer traces the harrowing history of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, foregrounding the stories of Central American migrants whose lives have been threatened and upended by political tumult. A nuanced, layered, and rigorously reported portrait that Patrick Radden Keefe hails as "extraordinary." —SMS The Survivors of the Clotilda by Hannah Durkin [NF] Durkin, a British historian, explores the lives of 103 Africans who were kidnapped and transported on the last slave ship to dock in the U.S., shortly before the Civil War began in 1861. Many of these captives were children, and thus lived their lives against a dramatic backdrop, from the Civil War all the way up to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. What these people experienced and how they prevailed should intrigue anybody interested in learning more about our nation’s darkest chapter. —Claire Kirch Your Utopia by Bora Chung, tr. Anton Hur [F] Following her acclaimed sophomore novel The Cursed Bunny, Chung returns with more tales from the realm of the uncanny. Covering everything from unruly AI to the quest for immortality to the environmental destruction caused by capitalism, Chung’s story collection promises more of the mystifying, horror-filled goodness that has become her calling card. —DF The Rebel's Clinic by Adam Shatz [NF] Frantz Fanon—political philosopher, psychiatrist, and author of the trailblazing Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth—is one of the most important writers and thinkers of the postcolonial era, and his work continues to inform contemporary thinking on race, capitalism, and power. In this sprawling biography, Shatz affirms Fanon's place as a towering intellect and groundbreaking activist. —SMS You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer [F] Enrigue's latest novel, following Sudden Death, reimagines the fateful 1519 invasion of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. With exuberant style, and in a lively translation by Wimmer, Enrigue brings the Aztec capital and the emperor Moctezuma to vibrant life—and rewrites their destinies. —SMS February Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, tr. by Mima Simić [F] Croatian literature may lag behind its Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian counterparts—roughly in that order—as far as stateside recognition goes, but we all make mistakes. Just like couples do in love and under capitalism. “A war between kitchen and bedroom,” as the liner notes read, would have been enough to sell me, but that war’s combatants, “an unemployed Dante scholar” and “a passable actress,” really sealed the deal. —John H. Maher The Unforgivable by Cristina Campo, tr. Alex Andriesse [NF] This new NYRB edition, introduced by Kathryn Davis, brings together all of the essays Campo published in her lifetime, plus a selection of additional essays and autofiction. The result is a robust introduction to a stylish—but largely forgotten—Italian writer whose "creativity was a vocation in the truest sense," per Jhumpa Lahiri. —SMS Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti [NF] Last year, I was enraptured by Heti's limited-run New York Times newsletter in which she alphabetized sentences from 10 years' worth of her diary entries—and this year, we can finally enjoy the sublime results of that experiment in book form. This is my favorite work of Heti's, full stop. —SMS Dinner on Monster Island by Tania De Rozario [NF] Blending film criticism, social commentary, and personal narrative, De Rozario (most recently the author of the Lambda Literary Award–nominated And the Walls Came Crumbling Down) explores her experience growing up queer, brown, and fat in Singapore, from suffering through a "gay-exorcism" to finding solace in horror films like Carrie. —SMS Wrong Norma by Anne Carson [NF] Everyone shut up—Anne Carson is speaking! This glistening new collection of drawings and musings from Carson is her first original work since the 2016 poetry collection Float. In Carson's own words, the collection touches on such disparate topics (she stresses they are "not linked") as Joseph Conrad, Roget's Thesaurus, snow, Guantánamo, and "my Dad." —DF Self-Portraits: Stories by Osamu Dazai, tr. Ralph McCarthy [F] Japanese writer Dazai had quite the moment in 2023, and that moment looks likely to continue into the new year. Self-Portraits is a collection of short autofiction in the signature melancholic cadence which so many Anglophone readers have come to love. Meditating on themes of hypocrisy, irony, nihilism—all with a touch of self-deprecating humor—Dazai’s work will either pull you out of a deep depression or crack your rose-colored glasses; there is no in-between. —DF Imagination by Ruha Benjamin [NF] Visionary imagination is essential for justice and a sustainable future, argues Benjamin, a Princeton professor of African American studies and founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. In her treatise, she reminds readers of the human capacity for creativity, and she believes failures of imagination that lead to inequity can be remedied. In place of quasi-utopian gambles that widen wealth gaps and prop up the surveillance state, Benjamin recommends dreaming collective and anti-racist social arrangements into being—a message to galvanize readers of adrienne marie brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. —SMS Literary Theory for Robots by Dennis Yi Tenen [NF] Artificial intelligence and machine-generated writing are nothing new, and perhaps nothing to fear, argues Tenen, a Columbia English professor and former software engineer. Traveling through time and across the world, Tenen reveals the labor and collaboration behind AI, complicating the knee-jerk (and, frankly, well-founded!) reactions many of us have to programs like ChatGPT. —SMS A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh [F] Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, but what he considered his life's work was the education of deaf children—specifically, the harmful practice of oralism, or the suppression of sign language. Marsh's wonderful debut novel unearths this little-known history and follows a deaf pupil of Bell's as she questions his teachings and reclaims her voice. —SMS Get the Picture by Bianca Bosker [NF] Journalist Bosker, who took readers behind the scenes with oenophiles in her 2017 Cork Dork, turns to avid artists, collectors, and curators for this sensory deep dive. Bosker relies on experiential reporting, and her quest to understand the human passion for visual art finds her apprenticing with creators, schmoozing with galleristas, and minding canonical pieces as a museum guard. —NodB Columbo by Amelie Hastie [NF] Columbo experienced something of a renaissance during the pandemic, with a new generation falling for the rugged, irresistible charms of Peter Falk. Hastie revisits the series, a staple of 70s-era TV, with refreshing rigor and appreciation, tackling questions of stardom, authorship, and the role of television in the process. —SMS Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks [F] Cheeks's debut novel sounds amazing and so au courant. A woman is elected U.S. president and promises Black Americans that they will receive reparations if they can prove they are descended from slaves. You’d think people would jump on achieving some social justice in the form of cold cash, right? Not Willie Revel’s family, who’d rather she not delve into the family history. This promises to be a provocative read on how the past really isn’t past, no matter how much you run from it. —CK The Sentence by Matthew Baker [F] I minored in Spanish linguistics in college and, as a result, came to love that most useless and rewarding of syntactic exercises, diagramming sentences. So I'm very excited to read Baker's The Sentence, a graphic novel set in an alternate America and comprising single, 6,732-word sentence, diagrammed in full. Syntax wonks, assemble! —SMS Neighbors by Diane Oliver [F] Before her untimely death in 1966 at the age of 22, Oliver wrote stories of race and racism in Jim Crow America characterized by what Dawnie Walton calls "audacity, wit, and wisdom beyond her years." Only four of the 14 stories in Neighbors were published in Oliver's lifetime, and Jamel Brinkley calls the publication of her posthumous debut collection "an important event in African American and American letters." —SMS The Weird Sister Collection by Marisa Crawford [NF] Essayist, poet, and All Our Pretty Songs podcaster Crawford founded the Weird Sister blog in 2014, covering books and pop culture from contemporary young feminists’ and queer perspectives. The now-defunct blog offered literary reviews, Q&As with indie authors, and think pieces on film and music. For this collection, whose foreword comes from Michelle Tea, Crawford gathers favorite pieces from contributors, plus original work with a Weird Sister edge. —NodB Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh [NF] As research for his Ibis trilogy, Ghosh mapped the opium trade around the world and across centuries. This global and personal history revisits the British Empire’s dependence on Indian opium as a trade good, and how the cultivation of and profits from opium shaped today’s global economy. In his nonfiction The Great Derangement, Ghosh employs personal anecdotes to make sense of larger-scale developments, and Smoke and Ashes promises to connect his own family and identity to today’s corporate, institutional, and environmental realities. —NodB Private Equity by Carrie Sun [NF] In her debut memoir, Sun recounts her time on Wall Street, where she worked as an assistant to a billionaire hedge-fund founder and was forced to rethink everything she thought she knew about work, money, sacrifice, and living a meaningful life. This one sounds like a great read for fans of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley (e.g. me). —SMS I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both by Mariah Stovall [F] When Khaki Oliver receives a letter from her estranged former best friend, she isn’t ready for the onslaught of memories that soon cause her to unravel. A Black Bildungsroman about friendship, fandom, and sanity, I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both is an unflinching look at "what it means to be young in a hard, and nonetheless beautiful, world," per Vauhini Vara. —Liv Albright Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan [NF] I know from personal experience that anything published by Graywolf Press is going to open my eyes and make me look at the world in a completely different way, so I have high expectations for Sloan’s essays. In this clever collection, a Black creative reflects upon race, art, and pedagogy, and how they relate to one’s life in this crazy country of ours during the time period between the 2016 election and the onset of the pandemic. —CK Language City by Ross Perlin [NF] Perlin travels throughout the most linguistically diverse city on the planet—New York—to chronicle the sounds and speakers of six endangered languages before they die out. A linguist and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, Perlin argues for the importance of little-known languages and celebrates the panoply of languages that exists in New York City. —SMS Monkey Grip by Helen Garner [F] A tale as old as time and/or patriarchal sociocultural constructs: a debut novel by a woman is published and the critics don't appreciate it—until later, at least. This proto-autofictional 1977 novel is now considered a classic of Australian "grunge lit," but at the time, it divided critics, probably because it had depictions of drug addiction and sex in it. But Lauren Groff liked it enough to write a foreword, so perhaps the second time really is the charm. —JHM Ours by Phillip B. Williams [F] A conjuror wreaks magical havoc across plantations in antebellum Arkansas and sets up a Brigadoon for the enslaved people she frees before finding that even a mystic haven isn't truly safe from the horrors of the world. What a concept! And a flexible one to boot: if this isn't adapted as a TV series, it would work just as well as an RPG. —JHM Violent Faculties by Charlotte Elsby [F] A philosophy professor influenced by the Marquis de Sade designs a series of experiments to prove its relevance as a discipline, specifically with regard to life and death, a.k.a. Philip Zimbardo (Chopped and Screwed Remix): The Novel. If you ever trusted a philosophy professor with your inner self before—and you probably shouldn't have?—you probably won't after reading this. —JHM American Abductions by Mauro Javier Cárdenas [F] Plagued by data harvesting, constant surveillance, mass deportation, and incarceration, the society at the heart of Cárdenas's new novel is less speculative dystopia than realist reflection. Channeling Philp K. Dick and Samuel Delaney, Cárdenas imagines a society where Latin Americans are systematically expunged. Following the lives of two Columbian-American sisters, one who was deported and one who stayed in the U.S., American Abduction tells a new kind of immigrant story, suffused with mysticism and philosophical rigor. —DF Closures: Heterosexuality and the American Sitcom by Grace Lavery [NF] I took Lavery's class on heterosexuality and sitcoms as an undergrad, and I'm thrilled to see the course's teachings collected in book form. Lavery argues that since its inception the sitcom has depicted heterosexuality as constantly on the verge of collapse, only to be reconstituted at the end of each half-hour episode. A fascinating argument about the cultural project of straightness. —SMS Whiskey Tender by Deborah Taffa [NF] Almost a decade in the making, this memoir from Taffa details generations of Southwest Native history and the legacies of assimilationist efforts. Taffa—a citizen of the Quechan Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribe, and director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts—was born on the California Yuma reservation and grew up in Navajo territory in New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. She reflects on tribal identity and attitudes toward off-reservation education she learned from her parents’ and grandparents’ fraught formative experiences. —NodB Normal Women by Philippa Gregory [NF] This is exciting news for Anglophiles and history nerds like me: Philippa Gregory is moving from historical fiction (my guilty pleasure) about royal women and aristocrats in medieval and early modern England to focus on the lives of common women during that same time period, as gleaned from the scraps of information on them she has unearthed in various archives. I love history “from the bottom up” that puts women at the center, and Gregory is a compelling storyteller, so my expectations are high. —CK Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin, tr. Max Lawton [F] Upon its publication in 1999, Sorokin's sci-fi satire Blue Lard sparked protests across Russia. One aspect of it particularly rankled: the torrid, sexual affair it depicts between Stalin and Khruschev. All to say, the novel is bizarre, biting, and utterly irreverent. Translated into English for the first time by Lawton, Sorokin's masterwork is a must-read for anyone with an iconoclastic streak. —SMS Piglet by Lottie Hazell [F] Hazell's debut novel follows the eponymous Piglet, a successful cookbook editor identified only by her unfortunate childhood nickname, as she rethinks questions of ambition and appetite following her fiancé's betrayal. Per Marlowe Granados, Hazell writes the kind of "prose Nora Ephron would be proud of." —SMS Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley [NF] Crosley enlivens the grief memoir genre with the signature sense of humor that helped put her on the literary map. In Grief Is for People, she eulogizes the quirks and complexities of her friendship with Russell Perreault, former publicity director at Vintage Books, who died by suicide in 2019. Dani Shapiro hails Crosley’s memoir—her first full-length book of nonfiction—as “both a provocation and a balm to the soul.” —LA The Freaks Came Out to Write by Tricia Romano [NF] The freaks came out to write, and you better believe the freaks will come out in droves to read! In this history of the legendary alt-weekly the Village Voice, Romano (a former writer for the Voice) interviews some 200 members the paper’s most esteemed staff and subjects. A sweeping chronicle of the most exciting era in New York City journalism promises to galvanize burgeoning writers in the deflating age of digital media. —DF Burn Book by Kara Swisher [NF] Swisher has been reporting on the tech industry for 30 years, tracing its explosive growth from the dawn of the internet to the advent of AI. She's interviewed every tech titan alive and has chronicled their foibles and failures in excruciating detail. Her new book combines memoir and reportage to tell a comprehensive history of a troubled industry and its shortsighted leaders. —SMS Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange [F] Orange returns with a poignant multi-generational tale that follows the Bear Shield-Red Feather family as they struggle to combat racist violence. Picking up where Orange's hit debut novel, There There, left off, Wandering Stars explores memory, inheritance, and identity through the lens of Native American life and history. Per Louise Erdrich, “No one knows how to express tenderness and yearning like Tommy Orange." —LA March The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan [F] Callahan's debut novel follows a young artist as she faces sudden hearing loss, forcing to reevaluate her orientation to her senses, her art, and the world around her. Amina Cain, Moyra Davey, and Kate Zambreno are all fans (also a dream blunt rotation), with the latter recommending this one be "read alongside the novels of W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, and Maria Gainza." —SMS The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft [F] When a group of translators arrive at the home of renowned novelist Irena Rey, they expect to get to work translating her latest book—instead, they get caught up in an all-consuming mystery. Irena vanishes shortly after the translators arrive, and as they search for clues to the author's disappearance, the group is swept up by isolation-fueled psychosis and obsession. A “mischievous and intellectually provocative” debut novel, per Megha Majumdar. —LA Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, tr. Heather Cleary [F] This isn’t your typical meet-cute. When two women—one grieving, the other a vampire, both of them alienated and yearning for more—cross paths in a Buenos Aires cemetery, romance blooms. Channelling Carmen Maria Machado and Anne Rice, Yuszczuk reimagines the vampire novel, with a distinctly Latin American feminist Gothic twist. —LA The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez [F] I'm a sucker for meticulously researched and well-written historical fiction, and this one—a sweeping story about the interconnected lives of the unsung people who lived and labored at the site of the Panama Canal—fits the bill. I heard Henríquez speak about this novel and her writing processes at a booksellers conference, and, like the 300 booksellers present, was impressed by her presentation and fascinated at the idea of such a sweeping tale set against a backdrop so larger-than-life and dramatic as the construction of the Panama Canal. —CK Bite Your Friends by Fernanda Eberstadt [NF] Melding memoir and history, Eberstadt's Bite Your Friends looks at the lives of saints, philosophers, and artists—including the author and her mother—whose abberant bodies became sites of subversion and rebellion. From Diogenes to Pussy Riot, Eberstadt asks what it means to put our bodies on the line, and how our bodies can liberate us. —SMS Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez [F] When Raquel Toro, an art history student, stumbles on the story of Anita de Monte, a once prominent artist from the '80s whose mysterious death cut short her meteoric rise, her world is turned upside down. Gonzalez's sophomore novel (after her hit debut Olga Dies Dreaming) toggles between the perspectives of Raquel and Anita (who is based on the late Ana Mendieta) to explore questions of power, justice, race, beauty, and art. Robert Jones, Jr. calls this one "rollicking, melodic, tender, and true—and oh so very wise." —LA My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld, tr. Michele Hutchison [F] Rijneveld, author of the International Booker Prize-winning novel The Discomfort of Evening, returns with a new take on the Lolita story, transpiring between a veterinarian and a farmer's daughter on the verge of adolescence. "This book unsettled me even as it made me laugh and gasp," gushes Brandon Taylor. "I'm in awe." Radiant by Brad Gooch [NF] Lauded biographer Gooch propels us through Keith Haring’s early days as an anonymous sidewalk chalk artist to his ascent as a vigilante muralist, pop-art savant, AIDS activist, and pop-culture icon. Fans of Haring's will not want to miss this definitive account of the artist's life, which Pulitzer-winner biographer Stacy Schiff calls "a keen-eyed, beautifully written biography, atmospheric, exuberant, and as radiant as they come." —DF The Riddles of the Sphinx by Anna Shechtman [NF] Sometimes you encounter a book that seems to have been written specifically for you; this was the feeling I had when I first saw the deal announcement for Shechtman's debut book back in January 2022. A feminist history of the crossword puzzle? Are you kidding me? I'm as passionate a cruciverbalist as I am a feminist, so you can imagine how ravenously I read this book. The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the best books of 2024, hands down, and I can't wait for everyone else—puzzlers and laymen alike—to fall in love with it too. —SMS The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Drayluk [F] Kurkov is one of Ukraine's most celebrated novelists, and his latest book is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of WWI-era Kyiv. I'll admit what particularly excites me about The Silver Bone, though, is that it is translated by Dralyuk, who's one of the best literary translators working today (not to mention a superb writer, editor, and poet). In Drayluk's hands, Kurkov's signature humor and sparkling style come alive. —SMS Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls [NF] This multigenerational graphic memoir follows Hull, alongside her mother and grandmother, both of whom hail from China, across time and space as the delicate line between nature and nurture is strained by the forces of trauma, duty, and mental illness. Manjula Martin calls Feeding Ghosts “one of the best stories I’ve read about the tension between family, history, and self.” —DF It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over by Anne de Marcken [F] Haunting prose and a pithy crow guide readers through Marcken's novel of life after death. In a realm between reality and eternity, the undead traverse westward through their end-of-life highlight reel, dissecting memories, feelings, and devotions while slowly coming to terms with what it means to have lived once all that remains is love. Alexandra Kleeman admits that she "was absolute putty in this book's hands." —DF Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi [F] When I visited Prague, a year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech capital struck me as a magical place, where anything is possible, and Oyeyemi captures the essence of Prague in Parasol Against the Axe, the story of a woman who attends her estranged friend's bachelorette weekend in the city. A tale in which reality constantly shifts for the characters and there is a thin line between the factual and the imagined in their relationships, this is definitely my kind of a read. —CK Say Hello to My Little Friend by Jennine Capó Crucet [F] Crucet's latest novel centers on a failed Pitbull impersonator who embarks on a quest to turn himself into a modern-day Tony Montana—a quest that leads him to cross paths with Lolita, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquariam. Winking at both Scarface and Moby-Dick, Say Hello to My Little Friend is "a masterclass in pace and precision," per Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. —SMS But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu [F] Girl, a Malaysian-Australian who leaves home for the U.K. to study Sylvia Plath and write a postcolonial novel, finds herself unable to shake home—or to figure out what a "postcolonial novel" even is. Blurbs are untrustworthy, but anything blurbed by Brandon Taylor is almost certainly worth checking out. —JHM Wrong Is Not My Name by Erica N. Cardwell [NF] Cardwell blends memoir, criticism, and theory to place her own Künstlerroman in conversation with the work of Black visual artists like Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O'Grady, and Kara Walker. In interconnected essays, Cardwell celebrates the brilliant Black women who use art and storytelling to claim their place in the world. —SMS Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham [F] A theater critic at the New Yorker, Cunningham is one of my favorite writers working today, so I was thrilled to learn of his debut novel, which cheekily steals its title from the Dickens classic. Following a young Black man as he works on a historic presidential campaign, Great Expectations tackles questions of politics, race, religion, and family with Cunningham's characteristic poise and insight. —SMS The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh [NF] In this slim volume, Throwing Muses frontwoman and singer-songwriter Hersh considers the future of her craft. Talking to friends and colleagues, visiting museums and acupuncturists, Hersh threads together eclectic perspectives on how songs get made and how the music industry can (and should) change. —SMS You Get What You Pay For by Morgan Parker [NF] Parker, a brilliant poet and author of the stellar There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, debuts as an essayist with this candid, keen-eyed collection about life as a Black woman in America. Casting her gaze both inward and onto popular culture, Parker sees everything and holds back nothing. —SMS Mother Doll by Katya Apekina [F] Following up her debut novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish, Apekina's Mother Doll follows Zhenia, an expectant mother adrift in Los Angeles whose world is rocked by a strange call from a psychic medium with a message from Zhenia's Russian Revolutionary great-grandmother. Elif Batuman calls this one "a rare achivement." —SMS Solidarity by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix [NF] What does "solidarity" mean in a stratified society and fractured world? Organizers and activists Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor look at the history of the concept—from its origins in Ancient Rome to its invocation during the Black Live Matter movement—to envision a future in which calls for solidarity can produce tangible political change. —SMS The Manicurist's Daughter by Susan Lieu [NF] After her mother, a refugee of the Vietnam war and the owner of two nail salons, dies from a botched cosmetic surgery, Lieu goes looking for answers about her mother's mysterious life and untimely death. Springing from her hit one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, Lieu's debut memoir explores immigration, beauty, and the American Dream. —SMS Through the Night Like a Snake ed. Sarah Coolidge [F] There's no horror quite like Latin American horror, as any revering reader of Cristina Rivera Garza—is there any other kind?—could tell you. Two Lines Press consistently puts out some of the best literature in translation that one can come by in the U.S., and this story collection looks like another banger. —JHM Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel [F] Bullwinkel's debut collection, Belly Up, was a canful of the uncanny. Her debut novel, on the other hand, sounds gritty and grounded, following the stories of eight teenage girls boxing in a tournament in Reno. Boxing stories often manage to punch above their weight (sorry) in pretty much any medium, even if you're not versed enough in the sport to know how hackneyed and clichéd that previous clause's idiomatic usage was. —JHM Choose This Now by Nicole Haroutunian [F] Haroutunian's novel-in-stories, part of Noemi Press's Prose Series, follows a pair of inseparable friends over the years as they embark on careers, make art, fall in and out of love, and become mothers. Lydia Kiesling calls this one "a sparkling, intimate look at women's lives" that makes "for a lovely reading experience." —SMS Death by Laughter by Maggie Hennefeld [NF] Hennefeld's scholarly study explores the forgotten history and politics of women's "hysterical laughter," drawing on silent films, affect theory, feminist film theory, and more. Hennefeld, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature, offers a unique take on women's pleasure and repression—and how the advent of cinema allowed women to laugh as never before. —SMS James by Percival Everett [F] In James, the once-secondary character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn narrates his version of life on the Mississippi. Jim, who escapes enslavement only to end up in adventures with white runaway Huck, gives his account of well-known events from Mark Twain’s 1880s novel (and departs from the record to say what happened next). Everett makes readers hyperaware of code-switching—his 2001 novel Erasure was about a Black novelist whose career skyrockets when he doubles down on cynical stereotypes of Blackness—and Jim, in James, will have readers talking about written vernacular, self-awareness, and autonomy. —NodB A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen [NF] Chronicling 36 fateful encounters among 30 writers and artists—from Henry James to Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain to Zora Neal Hurston—Cohen paints a vast and sparkling portrait of a century's worth of American culture. First published in 2004, and reissued by NYRB, A Chance Meeting captures the spark of artistic serendipity, and the revived edition features a new afterword by the author. —SMS Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler [NF] Butler has had an outsized impact on how we think and talk about gender and sexuality ever since the 1990 publication of Gender Trouble, which theorized the way gender is performed and constructed. Butler's latest is a polemic that takes on the advent of "anti-gender ideology movements," arguing that "gender" has become a bogeyman for authoritarian regimes. —SMS Green Frog by Gina Chung [F] Chung, author of the acclaimed debut novel Sea Change, returns with a story collection about daughters and ghosts, divorcees and demons, praying mantises and the titular verdant amphibians. Morgan Talty calls these 15 stories "remarkable." —SMS No Judgment by Lauren Oyler [NF] Oyler is one of our sharpest and most fearless cultural critics, and No Judgement is her first essay collection, following up her debut novel Fake Accounts. Opining on gossip and anxiety, autofiction and vulnerability, and much, much more, Oyler's caustic wit and penetrating voice shine through every essay. —SMS Memory Piece by Lisa Ko [F] Following up her National Book Award–nominated debut novel The Leavers, Ko's latest follows three lifelong friends from the 1990s to the 2040s. A meditation on the meaning of a "meaningful life" and how to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable world, Memory Piece has earned praise from Jacqueline Woodson and C Pam Zhang, who calls the novel "bright with defiance, intelligence, and stubborn love." —SMS On Giving Up by Adam Phillips [NF] Psychoanalyst Phillips—whose previous subjects include getting better, wanting to change, and missing out—takes a swing at what feels like a particularly timely impulse: giving up. Questioning our notions of sacrifice and agency, Phillips asks when giving up might be beneficial to us, and which parts of our lives might actually be worth giving up. —SMS There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib [NF] Abdurraqib returns (how lucky are we!) with a reflection on his lifelong love of basketball and how it's shaped him. While reconsidering his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the meaning of "making it," Abdurraqib delivers what Shea Serrano calls "the sharpest, most insightful, most poignant writing of his career." —SMS The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones [F] The final installment of Jones's trilogy picks up four years after Don't Fear the Reaper. Jade Daniels is back from prison, and upon her release, she encounters serial killer-worshipping cults, the devastating effects of gentrification, and—worst of all—the curse of the Lake Witch. Horror maestro Brian Keene calls Jones's grand finale "an easy contender for Best of the Year." —LA Worry by Alexandra Tanner [F] This deadpan debut novel from Tanner follows two sisters on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. Heads butt, tempers flare, and existential dread creeps in as their paths diverge amid the backdrop of Brooklyn in 2019. Limning the absurdity of our internet-addled, dread-filled moment, Tanner establishes herself as a formidable novelist, with Kiley Reid calling Worry "the best thing I've read in a very long time." —DF [millions_email]
The Drawing Center in New York recently mounted a show called "Day Job" that neatly upended the timeless lament of every struggling writer, artist and musician – My day job is robbing me of the time to do my REAL work! In a clever, counter-intuitive twist, the curator of the show asked a dozen artists to produce a work that illustrated how their day jobs enrich their art. There were intriguing contributions from artists who pay the rent by working as a landscape architect, a medical illustrator, a set designer, an art installer, a museum guard. One work in particular jumped out at me. It was a collage called "Substantially Similar? (after Koons 2010)," [above] composed of 36 rectangular panels, each contributed by a different artist and then assembled by the artist who conceived the piece, Alfred Steiner. The result was an instantly recognizable riff on Jeff Koons's "Popeye" series – an appropriation from an appropriator who has made headlines in several highly publicized copyright cases. A note beside "Substantially Similar?" left no doubt about its creator's stance on the passionate arguments for and against copyright laws: "By engaging these issues, the project may also suggest how copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit." Alfred Steiner is a 37-year-old Ohio native who grew up believing he was going to be an artist, then wound up attending Harvard Law School. Today he paints, draws and produces conceptual pieces – when he isn't practicing copyright law for a large Manhattan law firm. We sat down together at a cafe near his home recently and talked about how copyright law – for better and for worse – affects the books, art, music and journalism of Jonathan Lethem, Jeff Koons, Jay-Z, the New York Times and the Pittsburgh mash-up D.J. Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk. The Millions: I was wondering how to describe you to our readers. Is this guy a copyright lawyer who happens to be an artist, or is he an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer? Or both? Or neither? Alfred Steiner: I spend the majority of my time on the art part. But the law is an important part of my life, and it's certainly how I make a living. But I view the art as what I'm most interested in doing. TM: So you're an artist who happens to be a copyright lawyer. AS: Yeah, if I had to choose. TM: Let's start with your piece at the Drawing Center. Where did the idea come from? AS: Well, there was a call from the Drawing Center for proposals about how your day job related to your work. It could be antagonistic, it could be complimentary. So I was thinking about how my artwork relates to my day job, and how I might raise certain issues related to intellectual-property law and copyright law. TM: So you commissioned other artists to do pieces of the work? Tell me about that. AS: Essentially, I wanted to select a work that fulfilled a number of criteria. One of which was, when it was broken into many pieces, few if any of the pieces would be recognizable. And I wanted to pick a work by somebody that would have some significance in terms of contemporary art and copyright, which is why I selected Jeff Koons. He's used all sorts of things – Odie from "Garfield," the Pink Panther – and in this case he was using Popeye. While I was working on this, I learned that Popeye is no longer under copyright in Europe, but he is the United States for a few more years. Which is another interesting twist that was serendipitous. TM: So you got different artists to contribute patches, which you patched together? AS: Right. I took an electronic version of the Koons original and divided it up into 36 pieces and sent each artist just one little piece, via e-mail, so they wouldn't recognize the whole thing. I gave them instructions on how to create an image based on the image that I'd e-mailed them. The only other instructions were a very close paraphrase of the 2nd Circuit's test for copyright infringement – which is, "would a reasonable person regard the two works' esthetic impact as the same?" TM: In other words, would a layman recognize these two works as being the same thing? AS: Right. TM: So the contributors didn't know what they were reproducing? AS: Right. TM: And the result was a piece that looked vaguely like Koons, but was different. AS: It had the essence of the original but was clearly a new work. TM: In your note at the show you mentioned that copyright antagonizes artistic freedom while providing artists no discernible benefit. Tell me what you mean by that. AS: Well, the point is that as an artist your livelihood, in general, depends on your sale of unique objects, or small editions of objects. So copyright is not as important to you as it is to a musical artist... TM: Or a writer. AS: Exactly. Because contemporary artists don't sell millions of copies. The fact is in the art world when one artist copies another artist, it only helps the artist being copied because the more people who imitate you or are influenced by you – the more that happens, the more it shows you're part of the ongoing story. TM: Let's talk about writers. In his essay in Harper's, "The Ecstasy of Influence," Jonathan Lethem wrote that copyright isn't a right but a "government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results." Would you agree with that? AS: Yes, I would agree with that. The Constitution allows Congress to protect the works of authors for limited periods of time in order to promote creative work. TM: But Lethem's point is that the Founders thought works should be protected a short amount of time, maybe 14 years or so. Now it's the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. He thinks that's a terrible idea for writers, and for writing, and for books. Do you agree? AS: My sense is that life plus 70 years is too long. It doesn't need to be that long to fulfill the purpose. You could argue that one interesting analog is fashion. There's no intellectual-property protection for fashion, but I don't think anyone would argue that fashion lacks for innovation. So, do we really need to protect the author for his entire lifetime plus 70 years to encourage innovation? I don't think so. TM: You know, William Gibson has this famous quote – "All information wants to be free." It's a good sound bite, but is it true? AS: Well, for me there are two strains to that. One is that information is inherently hard to contain, but people are curious, they want information, they historically have wanted to know the truth, not necessarily with a capital T. So when you try to control information, you're running an uphill battle. TM: Now we're talking about WikiLeaks. But getting back to books – information might want to be free, but if you flip that over, don't people who write books and create works of art have a certain right to be remunerated for their creative effort? AS: I think there's a scale. Let's say all 50 states had different copyright laws. You could imagine a state where it was extremely restrictive and you couldn't copy anything. What would the products of that state look like compared to a state that was laissez faire and you could do whatever you want? To me that's an interesting question: where should the bar be set? I think you'd have enforcement problems in the very strict state. And if you had very powerful media players who controlled everything, you wouldn't have YouTube with the millions of things that are on there, many or most of which are probably infringing someone's copyright. You would have fewer viewpoints expressed, and I think that's detrimental. The more things that get created, the more viewpoints and opinions will be expressed, and that's better for a democracy. TM: You're talking not just about graphic art, but about writing, music. AS: I'm talking about all creative endeavors but I was thinking primarily about writing. TM: Where do you think copyright is going in America right now? Is it becoming more porous, more loose, more free? Or is it going in the opposite direction? I'm thinking about the $125 million Google settlement, paying authors for the right to digitize their books. AS: The Google settlement is an interesting case because they think if a project is interesting, they'll go ahead and do it even if there are intellectual-property problems – then deal with those later. But I think information is becoming much easier to distribute and, as a result of that, copyright laws are tightening in a sense, to try to deal with that ease of distribution and allow creators to recoup the investment they make in producing this stuff. This becomes even more important when you're creating, say, an encyclopedia, something that requires the collective effort of lots of people, and a lot of coordination, and a big budget to produce. Those things will never be produced if somebody can immediately make a million copies and not have to pay whoever produced it. That applies even more so in the context of film, where you have budgets routinely north of a hundred million dollars. Who's going to invest in that if everybody can download a copy with no fear of prosecution? TM: Did you happen to see that essay I wrote for The Millions about Jonathan Lethem's Harper's essay and David Shields's Reality Hunger and the Jay-Z book? AS: Yeah, "Jay-Z is not a Proudhon of Hip-Hop." (laughs) TM: In that essay, I mentioned the young German writer Helene Hegemann, who copied passages of her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, from other sources – websites, other novels – and a lot of people in Germany said, "That's okay. It's a novel about Berlin club kids, that's the culture it's about, and it's an expression of that culture." She was up for a big literary prize and they let her continue to compete for the prize even after the plagiarism became known. I thought that was a little bit shocking – for people to say that since it's a novel about people sampling in clubs in Berlin, then the writer has the right to sample from other writers and that's a legitimate form of artistic expression. I think that's stretching it. AS: I tend to agree with you. Just because you're writing about how people are sampling, or taking from other sources, that doesn't allow you to plagiarize or copy without providing either attribution or some sort of remuneration. It depends. If she's taking a sentence here or there from hundreds of different places, that's one thing. The other thing I would say – and this is the tougher question – if she's copying a couple of pages here or there, in the context of a 400-page novel, that's not that much. And if what she has created with this novel is startlingly new or interesting, I think it would be sad to say she can't distribute this thing that is great and that everybody would benefit from. One other thing I would mention in that context – have you ever heard of Girl Talk? TM: Sure, the D.J. from Pittsburgh. AS: He'll make songs that are totally based on samples. One song may have 200 samples, so many that there's no way you could pay each artist. He's very well received critically. The question is, should it be possible to make that kind of work or not? I kind of think, yes, it should be possible. TM: What Girl Talk is doing is very similar, to me, to what William S. Burroughs did – and that's very different from what Helene Hegemann did. Burroughs said, "I'm going to take a pair of scissors and cut up hundreds of books and newspapers and magazines, then scramble it around and put it back together to recreate a certain state of mind." That was his "cut-up" technique – and that's very much what Girl Talk is doing. They both say, "This is our intent and this is our method." And it's transparent. When someone takes a huge passage from someone else's book and then says, "That's what I was trying to do," I say that's bullshit. AS: I tend to agree with you. If you go to my website and look at my works, when I borrow something it's obvious, it's transparent. I have these drawings that are based on characters from The Simpsons. They're not merely copies, but anybody who's familiar with American pop culture will recognize where they're from. I'm not trying to hide it. Or if I'm basing something on a work by another artist, I'll say "after Koons." Going back to that novelist in Germany, if she's got footnotes and everything's attributed to whomever it came from, then I think it's a lot harder to criticize her for it. TM: I would go with that, but there were no footnotes. I'm not against people using other people's things; I'm against them not admitting that they're using them and then saying, as Hegemann said, that "there's no such thing as originality, there's only authenticity." AS: I agree. I think you and I are on the same page on this. If you challenge most people about their beliefs on this, I think you'll get them to agree that there needs to be some way for people to get paid and to have confidence that other people are not going to be out there using their work in a way that harms their financial interest. TM: To sum up, do you think that protection is going to be around forever? Let's face it, the way things are changing right now with the digitization of so much information – entire libraries – it's an unknown where we're going. Where do you think it's heading? AS: There's actually a book by a colleague of mine named Paul Goldstein, and its task is to make that prediction. I think copyright protection is likely to continue indefinitely, and I think it will become even more important in a world that becomes increasingly intangible, where people's lives are less about walking down the street getting hit by a rock and more about watching a screen or looking at their Twitter feed. That stuff is going to become more and more valuable and there's going to be more and more spent to protect it. And technology is going to be very important here. Most consumers are going to be at a point where it's cheap enough and it just makes life easier to pay the toll that media people put there. TM: Speaking of tolls, the New York Times just announced that it's going to start charging for its web content, but it'll be free for print subscribers. Do you think people will pay the toll? AS: In that case, maybe no. With news, people just want news, and the source doesn't tend to matter. People may just go to Google News and get it for free. With music and literature, the source is much more important. If you want to read a James Patterson novel, you're not going to download Moby-Dick just because it's free. And there are always going to be people who steal, who don't mind the possibility that they're going to get a virus from downloading some file. I think it's going to be a race between these pirates and the people trying to control it.
1. Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper's called "The Ecstasy of Influence," in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year's sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem's themes made up of a pastiche of Shields's own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields's words: "Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn't apologize." Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called "Throwback Throwdown," in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields's book "an authentic act of copying" that fits snugly into the "pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ." Roth added, "To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly 'nice' work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of 'copyleft,' Proudhonists of the ghetto." Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don't get any more perfect than this. Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors. 2. I just found a survivor. It's Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he's actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word "plagiarism" was uttered. "If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven't the first notion of what literature is," he fumed. "This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges... I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material." The novel wound up winning France's prestigious Prix Goncourt. Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to "thoughtlessness" and "narcissism," an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: "But for me personally, it doesn't matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform." The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: "Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism." In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He's not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: "Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn't apologize." Frey is toast. 3. Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck's central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let's face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say "I love you" or "It's over" or "You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat." While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word "sampling." Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper's pose. Jay-Z didn't need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation. The source of Decoded's fascination, for me, is not the author's projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book's fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources. First, it's beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z's creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he "felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star." That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde's contention: "Most artists are converted to art by art itself.") Decoded illustrates its author's creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It's a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here's how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: "There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder." There's a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric "They're all actors" is limned like this: "When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they're not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does." Street slang is dissected. "Spike Lees" are "the best seats in the house – in this case whether it's at the arena or in the jet." "Sprees" are "custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell... Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard." Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words "breakfast," "Lexus" and "necklace" cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents' vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers," he writes, "so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves... Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.” The book's elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there's no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of "copyleft" or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, "I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man." He's also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he's someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new. I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: "In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and 'the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope') by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener ('ruthless' and 'roofless,' 'tears' and 'tiers,' 'sense' and 'since')." 4. To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don't – or shouldn't – borrow from other sources. And it's not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn't borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there's no such thing as originality any more than it's a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he's making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He's too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it's all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it "authenticity." That trivializes art. And it's stupid and wrong. Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: "The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written." That's not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer's unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read. In "The Ecstasy of Influence" Lethem writes, "The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote." Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don't do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and "The Ecstasy of Influence." As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: "Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn't follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all 'ready-mades.'" Precisely. Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are "relentless scavengers." Then McTaggart added, "Writers don't own facts. Writers don't own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts... But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way." I think she's right. Shouldn't we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex? 5. The third and final source of Decoded's appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York's Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he's a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice. This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z's opinion of people who hijack his material and don't apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they're at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: "Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing." It's a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can't have it both ways. You can't say Pay me for what's rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you're at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn't buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.
When Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now? Decoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just "enormous language dorks." So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging. One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.” Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all. Adam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.” I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff." As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental. Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through. This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”. But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop. It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.
Michiko Kakutani's generous and oddly moving review of Jay-Z's Decoded - in which she seems to find a kindred spirit - almost makes me want to take back all the mean things I've said about her. I still don't trust her judgment, but the review's worth reading just for the mental image of her in big headphones, nodding along to "Streets Is Watching." Go 'head, shorty.
New releases this week include the much-hyped The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I. Also out in nonfiction is President Obama's picture book Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit), as reviewed by the New York Times, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, and, for hip-hop fans, Jay-Z's memoir Decoded.