“Is the reason to have a home, as the narrator in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, asserts, ‘to keep certain people in and everyone else out’? Or does home, as the narrator in William Maxwell’s autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow suggests, work primarily as a scaffolding of known things — as a place to read, a place to stash the damp umbrella, a place to listen to the porch swing creak?” Beth Kephart on the literary significance of home.
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side.
The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Neither of these is especially appealing to my eye. The U.S. version uses a travel poster-type image, but at least the bold font and title placement are intriguing. The U.K. goes for realism and the result is pretty dull.
Another pair that I don’t love, though the U.S. version has an appealing painterly quality to it. The U.K. version feels a bit slapped together.
I like both of these a lot. The U.S version is bold and somehow feels both vintage and very current. The LP label motif in the U.K. version is clever, yet subtle enough to avoid being gimmicky.
The U.S. version does a great job of setting a mood, but my nod goes to the U.K. version. The black dog is eerie and sculptural and the receding landscape is haunting.
These covers are very different and I have loved them both since I first saw them. The tents on the U.S. cover are both magical and, in the context of the subject matter, unnerving. But I love the bold, poster-art aesthetic of the U.K. cover too.
Sometimes simpler is better. I like the mesmerizing quality of the U.S. cover, with the tantalizing golden apple peeking from its center. The U.K. version is clearly trying to capture the mad tumult of the book’s plot but it is somehow too literal.
The U.S. cover is clever and intriguing, with those circular windows on repeated words, but I love the U.K. cover and the subtle suggestion of madness in its Jenga/Tetris puzzle. Update: I had initially posted the paperback U.S. cover, but looking now at the hardcover design, I agree with our commenter Bernie below that it is very striking.
The cropping of the sculpture gives the U.S. cover a compelling look. I like the U.K. cover but it doesn’t feel quite fully realized.
1. The Gift Economy of Creative Writing
McSweeney’s, one of my favorite magazines, is currently holding a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner receives $500. Submitters must pay a $55 entry fee. Critic Ron Charles says the hefty fee “passes the smell test because everyone who enters gets a year-long subscription to McSweeney’s, which normally costs $60.” He’s correct about the subscription cost, but assumes students who submit work to literary magazines also subscribe to those magazines. I hope that working writers financially support literary magazines, but don’t expect the same of students.
I feel guilty telling students to subscribe to literary magazines, particularly if that money is coming from their own pockets. Literary magazines typically request that submitters become familiar with their publications. They suggest writers purchase an issue, or better yet, subscribe. This mantra is repeated by writers, including myself. But such mantras, like supposed writing rules, need to be occasionally reconsidered. Of course a writer should be familiar with a magazine before submitting. But the economy of literary magazines is weak, and needs some interrogation. First of all, is it unreasonable to hope that a major American literary magazine could offer a larger monetary prize for such a high entry fee?
My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity?
These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms–and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing.
Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.
Let me be clear that I do not think there is a vast creative writing conspiracy, filled with professors who don’t care about their students. I have only encountered compassionate, knowledgeable professors in this discipline. But I do think some self-reflection is in order. Few other academic programs are marketed or discussed in such spiritual terms. Writing students are given “time” to write, to find themselves. While feeling almost new age in its promises, creative writing speak retains working-class metaphors. Writers must be agrarian when they “cut the chaff.” They are to be craftsmen and craftswomen, carpenters of words. If writers are spoken to as skilled artisans, it should follow that they not only produce beautiful and useful creations, but that they also know how to sell those creations. This does not happen. It is reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline.
An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.
Could writers learn from carpenters? I think so, but in ways less metaphorical than literal. Charles Blackstone, the managing editor of Bookslut and author of the novel Vintage Attraction, thinks writers need to know more about the business of their art. He says during the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read “an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.” Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce “absurd results.”
Becoming a realist takes time. When Blackstone “was teaching, not that far from being a student myself, I believed that it was all about the art, and that beautiful sentences made work publishable, marketplace be damned, and so on. My years of publishing my own books and editing Bookslut has only reinforced the folly of this kind of romantic thinking. I now know that platform is king.” Often writers–and teachers of writing–forget “everyone still has profit and loss to consider. There’s no getting around that. Without grants and donors, the literary altruists would be out of business too. There has to be a reasonable expectation that something’s going to make some kind of return on investment in order to justify the risk.” When Blackstone received unsolicited submissions of book galleys from publishers, he “could fill a fairly long and wide dining table in about two weeks.” And I didn’t even give my address out to a lot of publicists.” Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover.
Blackstone thinks “the Internet has made publicists careless and inefficient, just as it has aspiring writers.” So what can be done? Blackstone thinks writers need to learn independently. As a writer, he “paid attention to rejections and tried to free myself from the delusion that my work was brilliant and misunderstood as quickly as possible. I worked to find my own answers.”
I agree with Blackstone, and that’s a problem for me as a teacher. I know that my students have to fail to succeed. Although I was lucky to attend creative writing programs that familiarized students with the business of writing, I was never coddled. I come from a blue-collar Catholic aesthetic. There is a difference between “good works” and, well, work. You get paid money for work. That is why I cringe when I see writing “jobs” shared online, followed by the inevitable admission that “we are unable to pay.” I know young writers have to work their way up the ladder, but more often the business of writing looks like writers climbing those rungs to nowhere. It has been said that poetry, in particular, is a gift economy. Unfortunately, that gift benefits readers and writers less than it perpetuates the creative writing system, a system that makes promises it is unable to keep.
2. A Checklist for Teaching the Business of Creative Writing
How can we prepare students for the reality of this profession? I spoke with other teachers who engage the business element of the art in their courses. Mary Biddinger teaches a graduate course as part of the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio MFA) program titled “MFA Craft and Theory of Poetry: Revising, Editing, Publishing.” Biddinger finds that “revealing the working stages of a manuscript from draft to shelf” helps demystify publishing, and “shows students that revision skills, and active reading, are tools valued beyond the classroom.” She shares galley proofs of new books from the Akron Series in Poetry, as well as typeset pages from her own forthcoming books or journal publications. Writing students need to see their teachers as working writers, and to see publication as a meticulous, collaborative, and often slow process.
At James Madison University, Jay Varner includes the professional world of writing in his introductory creative non-fiction course. Students read “pieces about the actual business of writing,” including “No” and “Yes” by Brian Doyle, “Diary of a Mad Fact Checker” by James Pogue, and “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup” by Richard Morgan. Biddinger, Varner, and all the other teachers I spoke with stressed that a “fundamental understanding of both the form [across genres] and the process of creating [literature] comes first,” but discussion of the business elements of writing is necessary to debunk myths. Varner’s students are “routinely shocked that months of work on an essay would net them $50” and contributor copies. They are also surprised to learn that “slick magazines might pay them several thousand–but once the process and time spent on a project is explained, they are surprised for other reasons.”
Catherine Pierce, co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, avoids business talk in introductory courses, instead saving her “professionalization unit for the last few weeks of the semester” within an advanced poetry workshop. Students present research about a literary magazine they enjoy. Afterward, they submit a packet of poems to one of the markets researched by their peers. Pierce thinks “having this as a requirement of the class helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about sending out their work for the first time,” and it gives her the “opportunity to talk candidly about rejection.”
This sense of toughness might be lost on a generation of students raised on rubrics. Perhaps more than any other discipline, students must learn that there is a profound difference between being a successful student writer and a successful professional writer. Students receive grades, which are meant to be reflections of growth and mastery of material. The relationship between writer and teacher and writer and editor is not comparable. Magazine editors might begin as purists, but even purists need to eat. Editors want to sell magazines, gain advertising revenue, and attract the best writers. As students, all of us have moments where we did just enough to earn a grade. Students need to know that as writers, they must be excellent to even have a shot.
Kris Bigalk stresses this transition from student to independent writer in a course within Hamline University’s MFA program. Her students “develop short and long-term artist development plans, in which students identify their artistic strengths and weaknesses, ways they wish to grow as writers once they leave the program, and publication and career goals related to writing.” Many students “have a hard time leaving the role of ‘student’ and moving into the role of ‘artist,’ where they must manage their own development.” Students read biographies of writers to see how a writer’s career develops, and “how that development is often independent of the employment that sustains them.”
In a lecture given to students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman discuss this “slow and steady path” to magazine and book publication. Madden focuses on the magazine end, and advises that since so much is beyond the control of writers, they should focus on taking tangible steps. Students should read magazines for enjoyment, inspiration, but also as a form of reconnaissance. They can become part of the magazine publishing world by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, and joining the staff of a literary magazine (VCFA students work on Hunger Mountain).
It helps when teachers of the business of creative writing have worked as editors. Cara Blue Adams, former editor of The Southern Review and fiction editor of The Sonora Review, teaches at Coastal Carolina University. In one graduate course, “Forms of Fiction,” students consider “how to build a writing practice and write and publish a cohesive book–as opposed to crafting individual stories.” Students examine the “publication, marketing, and critical reception of the book side-by-side with the craft of writing.”
Adams notes “these questions are not directly addressed in graduate school. The assumption sometimes seems to be that simply reading books is enough to teach an apprentice writer how to write a book, and that each person must forge a writing practice and learn about the publication process for him- or herself. People sometimes say apprentice writers are not yet ready to think about publication. I disagree. Guided attention to these questions does much to help students to develop a plan to get to where they would like to be.”
Her useful approach mediates between the creative and the realistic by helping “students to question how other writers have carved out time to write by reading interviews with practicing writers and studying their lives. This is often tied in interesting ways to those writers’ aesthetic choices: their chosen forms, their material, their themes. We also learn about the various economies at play in the writing world through reading and discussion. Writing doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum. Nor does publication. Studying the context in which writing is produced and [how it] finds readers allows students to productively think through the dialogue between their own lives and their writing practice.”
She recommends two books as case studies: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Victoria Chang’s The Boss, noting “both writers have jobs aside from writing–teaching at a number of institutions, working in business–and both have children. Both reinvented their forms in light of strictures on their time. Offill wrote her novel while teaching and parenting, dismantling a more traditional novel in favor of a novel written in fragments to more accurately examine the ‘collision of art and life.’ Chang wrote her poetry collection while waiting for her daughter to finish her Saturday Chinese lessons.” These doses of reality are meant to strengthen, not dissuade, students. How can we not be honest with them?
We can start by being honest with ourselves, as teachers of this discipline. Here is a checklist of 10 skills related to the business of creative writing that students should have when they graduate.
Graduates of creative writing programs should be able to do the following:
1. Identify the aesthetics of contemporary literary magazines, both print and online.
2. Contribute to the production of a literary magazine or blog, either as a submission reader, editor, designer, or by marketing on social media.
3. Prepare a manuscript for magazine submission, including industry standard formatting and a cover letter, as well as gain proficiency with an electronic submission system, such as Submittable.
4. Prepare a manuscript for book submission (arranging stories/essays/poems in a collection, or writing a query letter/synopsis for novel/memoir manuscript).
5. Pitch article/essay ideas as a freelance writer.
6. Apply close reading and editing skills learned during workshops toward copyediting.
7. Identify the language of contemporary publishing (from how genres are catalogued to the differences between independent and self-publishing).
8. Prepare a résumé/CV that highlights their writing skills and experiences.
9. Write a book review.
10. Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities.
3. Our Responsibilities to Students
There is no one path to success in creative writing, as there is no prototypical student of the discipline. Enormous demographic and pedagogical differences exist among undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. A single classroom will contain novices and veterans. Alexander Chee, currently a visiting writer at UT Austin, recalls that when he was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, many students published in magazines, but only one or two of his peers had sold or published novels. When he returned as an instructor, two of his students had the same agent as him. Iowa’s pedigree aside, Chee’s point is well-taken. Rising writers have access to more information, faster, but they still need guidance. Chee reflects on taking a course with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan in 1989. Dillard used the “Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing.” She told students to see where essays or stories in the anthologies were originally published, and if the work’s style neared their own, remember the magazine as a possible market.
Such legwork might seem antiquated in the days of resources like Poets & Writers and Duotrope, but I fear that ease of information has enabled laziness. In an essay on her site, “Last Lecture: Am I a writer?”, Cathy Day offers some tough love for students. Day believes a “writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long . . . [starting when students take] writing seriously–meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.” I can appreciate Day’s sentiment. Often students want to simply publish a book, and do so for the wrong reasons. There is a time and place to introduce the business of writing to students, and it should not happen before they are competent storytellers.
But if we don’t talk about the business of creative writing, we perpetuate the myth that money always stains art. Does it often? Of course. Yet pretensions toward artistic purity hurt students. Writing can become a perpetual unpaid internship. Doing something “for the love of it” has made countless people–not the least of whom are teachers–see their generosity and good nature be rewarded with mediocre pay and respect. I owe it to my students to get them ready for the professional world of writing. If they ignore my advice, that is their problem. We should talk about money with creative writing students because, even though we wish it were different, money equals value in our culture. If you doubt that, try buying your next dinner with a well-recited poem.
I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art. It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages. Many students will fold those pages and put them in drawers. They will be better readers and more careful thinkers, but will never publish their work. But we do owe those students who want to publish–the ones who are willing to fight–a little training for their real battles.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Out this week: Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash; The Last Enchantments by Millions contributor Charles Finch; My Life in Middlemarch by New Yorker staff writer (and Millions interviewee) Rebecca Mead; and Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2014 Book Preview.
Two works of fiction from Irish writers really struck me this year. One was Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island, a boisterous and beautiful collection of stories. Barry is a prose wizard whose stories pulse on the page with all the humor and viciousness of life itself. The other book was Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, a hypnotic piece of writing that reinvents all those so-called literary reinventions of the crime novel. It makes the familiar strange and the strange even stranger and breaks us free of the usual procedural procedures, clears room for real thought and feeling. As The Millions recently noted, I was a major admirer of John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz. Claire Messud beat me to the punch in these pages, but I also loved Victoria Redel’s new collection, Make Me Do Things. Portugal’s Jacinto Lucas Pires put in a great performance with The True Actor, a story of artistic confusion and generational despair in austerity-era Lisbon. I’m a few years late on these but Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers both floored me, or maybe the Cooper actually walled me (read the book). Jenny Offill’s about-to-be-published Dept. of Speculation is spectacular.
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