Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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Dear Writing Teacher,
I am a published fiction writer who is about to start writing a new novel. You would think, since I’ve already done this before, that I knew what I was doing. But I don’t. I am lost. Where do I start? What do I need to know about my story and my characters before I begin? What should I just figure out as I go? Suddenly, the idea of writing that first draft seems impossible, and I am terrified.
I’d greatly appreciate any guidance you could offer me!
Facing the Blank Page
Man oh man, I could’ve written this question to myself! I, too, am about to start a new novel, and I’m wondering how in the hell I did it before (two times, in fact), and how in the hell I’ll ever do it again. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone in your despair; thousands of writers face their white screens every day, uncertain of how to proceed. I’ve heard from many authors that each novel offers its own unique demands, its own unique joys, and that you must re-learn the process with each go. Let that inspire rather than scare you — would you really want a redundant experience?
In this essay, excerpted from the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Jennifer Egan talks about the process of writing Look At Me:
It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far.
At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling — a rarity as I was working on it.
I keep returning to this passage as I begin to think about my own new book. Why should I be afraid to be challenged? If the writing will be painful, then it will be painful. Just as often, it won’t be. I simply must sit down and see.
As for how one goes about writing a first draft, I like to practice the art of acceptance. In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett describes how she plans much of her novel in her head before she sets a word of it on paper. Her dear friend and reader, Elizabeth McCracken, is a very different kind of novelist. Patchett writes, “I get everything set in my head and then I go, whereas Elizabeth will write her way into her characters’ world, trying out scenes, writing backstories she’ll never use. We marvel at each other’s process, and for me it’s a constant reminder that there isn’t one way to do this work.” Amen to that! Novel writing can be fun, but it can also be daunting and challenging, more frustrating than untangling the necklaces at the bottom of your jewelry box. The last thing you need is to question your own process.
Still, when I’m writing a first draft, I, like you, long for some direction. Does it make sense to figure out the retrospective voice now, or can I deal with that later? Should I do the research now, or is it a second draft problem? How about chapter length — does that matter now? (Does it matter ever?) There are so many questions zipping across a lonely writer’s head as she sits at her desk working.
I decided to ask some writers I admire what they try to figure out with their first drafts. What, I asked them, do you need to know before you begin? And what do you try to solve as you’re working on that first draft?
Their answers were as brilliant and as varied as I expected:
My opinion is that you want to figure out character and plot in the first draft. I think it’s also a good idea to have the setting nailed down in the first draft, if possible; moving the narrative to another location can entail some pretty tedious rewrites. It’s also a good idea to figure out whether the book’s going to be in the first person or the third person as early on as possible, because changing pages and pages of text from one to the other is an insanely labor-intensive process.
My feeling is that you don’t need to waste your time obsessing over pacing in the first draft, because that’s the kind of thing that can change completely in revisions. In your first round of revisions you’ll inevitably end up cutting a lot of material, and that will change the pace of the book, so I think pacing is something best refined toward the end of the process.
-Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet
I think my answer might be a little bit controversial — I think almost nothing is worth sweating in the first draft. Does a character need to change genders? Do you want to shift the structure? Just do it, and keep moving forward. Finishing a draft of a novel is so hard, and so enormous, that one needs all the momentum possible. If you stop and go back to the beginning every time you want to change something, you will never finish. Just go go go! You will have the time to go back and fix all your mistakes, right your wrongs, etc. Just get to the end of the first draft. The feeling of accomplishment is sweet enough to spur you on to make even the most major changes in revision.
-Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures
In the first draft I’m just trying to figure out what the story is or might be. I’m trying to learn the story, and trying to stay open to the possibilities that the original idea might be capable of generating. The only way to learn the story is by writing it, but how do you write it when you have only the vaguest notion of what the story is, and who the characters might be? That’s a problem. The problem, eh? The only way I learn it is by writing it line by line, page by page.
My expectations for first drafts are pretty low. I don’t worry about polishing the language at all, or fine-tuning character or plot. I’m basically just trying to figure out what the story might be.
-Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
There’s a huge gap between what I need to know and what I do know when I begin a novel. If I waited until I knew at least thirty percent of what I should know before diving in, I think I’d be permanently stuck on the springboard. Normally (and I’m talking from the experience of a meager two books here) I know two things: a place and a person. The place is usually vivid. I could go on about it for pages. But the person is a cardboard cut out—two dimensional. Magician. Musician. Drunk. Shopkeeper. What I have to force myself to figure out is a single incident that sets the story in motion. It might be removed later on, but I need to pick one action which might cause this person to move about this place. Since I know so little about my character(s) when I first commit them to paper, I tend to overwrite them, cramming all sorts of overblown background detail into my first draft, which in turn drags down what little plot I initially have. My second draft is all about fixing that balance, pruning the obsessive background information and replacing it with more action in the novel’s present.
-Ivy Pochoda, author of the forthcoming Visitation Street
For me, the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story’s heartbeat. I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc. I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it’s always possible to bring all the various elements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I’ve got something that matters to me. The second draft (and the 3rd through 20th, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter. But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic. Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable. Maybe someday I’ll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck.
–Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here is Except All of Us
The thing I try to resist in writing my first drafts is getting too caught up in the sentences. I am capable of revising “The cat sat on the mat,” a dozen times and then coming back to the original. At the same time I think that two of the most crucial decisions we make when writing a novel are about the music and the tone so I am always hoping to discover those as I work on my first draft.
I try in my first drafts to make as many decisions about character as I can stand. It’s tempting to leave things vague but I do think it’s very helpful to know a character’s name, age, class, occupation, manner of speech, and have some sense of physical appearance as early as possible. That said it will often take me much of a first draft to decide that Rosemary is thirty-two, a physiotherapist …. It is hard in revision to, for example, change a character’s name — it becomes part of the music of the prose — but I’ve often had to.
I try in my first draft to decide what kind of species my chapter or section will be, and how time will pass.
And I try in my first draft to make as many decisions about plot as I can. What journey are these characters on? What is their destination? Often I notice in revision that I have several scenes which all do the same thing in terms of characterization and plot and I will end up picking the best, or combining them.
I try to remind myself that the first person for whom I’m writing is myself; some of what I write in the first draft is scaffolding. It helps me to get the story under way but the reader doesn’t need to see it. And I can dismantle it later.
-Margot Livesey, author, most recently, of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
For the first draft I need to know only enough to keep going. No more, no less.
-Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City
I hope that’s a little helpful, my dear writer. Now, on with it: get to work.
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
My reading year was spent moving between old favorites — Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Kill — and then for new novels alone, it felt like it was a storm of almost impossible dimensions, like all I had to do was open a window in Hell’s Kitchen and a new book would fly in. I’ll be reading from 2012 well into 2013 and perhaps beyond, I think, and you will be too.
Still on my TBR, for example, are new books from Junot Diaz, A. M. Homes, Zadie Smith, Jami Attenberg, Benjamin Anastas, Antoine Wilson, Emily St. John Mandel, Victor LaValle and Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s delicious Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth.
But my memory of what I read last year collects mostly around the summer, when I had the most time to read, as I waited for edits on my novel. I began with a novel to blurb, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which I will never forget. Then came Don Lee’s The Collective, a strange mirror to another amazing book, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. August was spent with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, both of which I loved, and both of which are really brilliant, as well as getting caught up in my Emily Books book club reading — the profound and profane Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, a sly Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I loved so much, it led me to read her masterpiece, The Last Samurai.
And this last was the one that probably rules the year for me. Every now and then, you find a book that feels like it was keyed to your DNA. This was like that for me. I’d heard about it for a long time. As I am a member at the Center for Fiction, and they have generous summer checkout times, I went looking for it there and found it (sorry to the person who tried to call it back midsummer). For me, reading The Last Samurai felt like holding a slowly exploding bomb in my hands, but say, if a bomb could make something more than a hole after it exploded — something incredible, that you’d never seen before. Even writing about it now makes me feel the urge to go back in. It’s about a woman from a family of failed prodigies, who one day has a one night stand with a brilliant, hateful man that she cannot respect. This description of that night is when I knew I loved the book. Oh, yes, she gives him the codename ‘Liberace’:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow; swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley at last came to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
She sneaks away while he’s asleep, becomes pregnant from this episode, and soon is raising her child prodigy son on her own, who eventually wants to find his father, and she initially declines to reveal his identity; she has done everything she can to hide him from her son, at least until her son has the critical faculties to understand why his father is not intellectually respectable. To ensure this, she sets a challenge for him to meet as the condition of knowing who he is. The narration moves between them, and even incorporates the way a child interrupts a mother into the forward motion of the novel.
What I loved about it, aside from the hilarity, the language, the tone and the structure was that it felt so incredibly free. And reading it, so did I.
You won’t go wrong with any of these books. For best results, read them all.
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The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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As I write this, my old neighbors in Brooklyn are still digging out from yet another brutal storm while I sit in our new home in Vancouver, British Columbia, the sun shining prettily outside our windows, gulls cawing as they swoop between the masts of the sailboats bobbing in the harbor half a minute’s walk from our front door. For a few days, it looked like we might never make it here. We had been planning our move to Canada for months, but our load-out day was October 30, the day Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Needless to say, we had to reschedule, but the movers arrived in Brooklyn at 10 o’clock the next morning, and somehow we managed to thread the needle between the complete shutdown of the subway and region-wide gas shortages to sneak our way to the airport and out of town.
A couple days after I arrived, a family friend asked me, half-joking, if I felt “survivor’s guilt” about my hairs-breadth escape from New York. I don’t. What I feel instead is a deep sense of loss mixed with a still deeper appreciation of the dumb luck that offered me a front row seat onto one of those rare collisions of time and place that creates the kind of literary scene that has existed for the past decade in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn, with its swarms of goateed hipsterati making artisanal cheeses and tapping out novels at corner coffee shops, is easy to mock, and in truth, the place is a little precious. But for every stay-at-home mom writing imaginary novels between trips to the yoga studio and every coffee house poseur stroking his beard over his battered Penguin edition of Crime & Punishment, there are three or four young, talented writers and editors hard at work on actual pages of actual novels. Mock all you want, but for the moment, if you want to write literary fiction or poetry, Brooklyn is still the place to be.
Longtime New Yorkers tend to get misty-eyed about the seedy old Lower East Side and pre-Giuliani Times Square, but this is mostly nostalgia talking. Times Square may have had its roguish charm when Kerouac and the Beats were trawling for kicks in the early 1950s and the Lower East Side may have possessed a genuine revolutionary spirit in the Hippie Era, but by the time I got there in the mid-80s, when I first came to New York for college, most of the Lower East Side was a crack-ridden pit and Times Square was worse.
Everywhere you looked there were junkies fixing in open doorways and hookers giving blow jobs in parked cars. The subways were unrideable late at night and everybody had a mugging story. One friend of mine got held up by a nine-year-old with a pistol. It all sounds so cool and edgy when you read about it in books like Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, but the reality was ugly and depressing. And dangerous. In 1987, the year I graduated from NYU and left New York the first time, 2,016 people were murdered in the five boroughs; the year before, a gang of white kids from Howard Beach chased Michael Griffith, a Trinidadian immigrant, onto the Shore Parkway where he was run over by a speeding car, one of a series of racially motivated crimes that brought the city to the brink of full-scale riot.
You can argue, as many did back then, that the rigors of everyday life in New York tested the mettle of young writers, tossing out those either untalented or unserious enough to last. But this argument, I think, is based on a hopelessly romantic notion of what nurtures and grows good literary writing. Of course, no writer who has never known real suffering will ever create anything worth reading, but for the most part, books are survivors’ tales. Suffering and crisis are always central subjects of good books, but writers who themselves have descended into crisis, whether chased there by their own demons or by societal chaos, tend not to write good books. They’re too busy digging themselves out of their deep, dark hole.
This isn’t necessarily true of all art forms. For instance, popular music, whether it’s rock or hip-hop or the blues, is mostly the product of young kids finding new ways to use old instruments and is, almost by definition, an outsider art form. The Lower East Side of the 1970s, just like the South Bronx of the 1980s and working-class London and Liverpool in the early 1960s, produced some of the last century’s great popular music. Listen to the mad thunder of Keith Moon’s drumming on The Who’s early albums or the angry rhymes of early rappers like Public Enemy or Run-D.M.C., and you can hear, almost in real time, the rage of the streets outside the studio.
Good writing, on the other hand, requires distance, as well as a certain level of education and economic stability. Writers need time and space to work — that room of one’s own Virginia Woolf talked about — as well as a vibrant cultural scene to feed off of when they’re not writing. Like the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s and New York’s Greenwich Village a few years later, today’s Brooklyn has hit that cultural sweet spot that makes it ripe for an outpouring of great writing: It is near a major center of culture, but its rents are still low enough to let younger writers cobble together a living out of a bunch of odd jobs, while crime and chaos are kept just far away enough to allow for quiet reflection.
Everybody knows the boldface names who grace the borough. Jennifer Egan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead live in Fort Greene; transplanted Brit Martin Amis lives in Cobble Hill; and you could stock a fair-sized bookstore with the novels of writers now living Park Slope. But while it’s always nice to have a few famous people around to invite to book festivals and hobnob with at parties, what drives the Brooklyn Renaissance, if you want to give it a name, is the lively mix of young writers and upstart indie magazines and publishing houses, all within shouting distance of one another. Throw in several first-rate small bookstores and access to the mainstream publishing industry, and you have the makings of a burgeoning cultural mecca.
I was blind to the literary ferment around me for the first three or four years I lived in Brooklyn after I moved back to New York with my wife in 2004. Twenty years earlier, when I was at NYU, Brooklyn was, to me, an industrial wasteland full of abandoned factories and grim housing projects. This was only partly true even then, but by 2004, even some of the borough’s roughest neighborhoods were on the mend and old factories in DUMBO and Williamsburg were filling up with indie presses and other arts organizations. But I didn’t see it. To me, Manhattan was where the culture was; Brooklyn was just a pleasant, less expensive place to live.
Then, in early 2008, I took a writing class at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. For me, the success of Sackett Street, which has grown from a handful of writers sitting around founder Julia Fierro’s kitchen table in 2002 to a program boasting 31 part-time instructors and hundreds of students, illustrates the true grassroots nature of Brooklyn’s literary culture. Unlike most other independent creative writing programs, which run the bulk of their classes online, Sackett Street is fully analog, the classes meeting in person, usually in small groups of seven or eight sitting around the workshop leader’s living room. As with any writing course, the quality of the writing in the workshop varies widely, but the discussion in the two classes I attended was always spirited and serious, and I ended up making a number of writer friends I keep up with to this day.
More importantly, though, the Sackett Street classes introduced me to the daily reality behind the cliché of literary Brooklyn. Fierro is a relentless Facebook poster, and I began to hear about readings by little-known writers I admire at Book Court and Greenlight Bookstore. After I attended a few of those, I began to run into indie publishers I only knew by reputation, like Hanna Tinti of One Story and Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. And faster than you can say “indie chic,” I felt a part of a genuine literary scene.
In an article I wrote earlier this year for Prospero, The Economist magazine’s arts and culture website, I called contemporary Brooklyn “a vertically integrated factory for literature.” I was promptly cyber-mocked by the good folks at The Awl, but I stand by my metaphor. Over and over in the past few years, I have watched a young writer come to Brooklyn and begin to climb the closest thing to a career ladder that exists in the literary world, first figuring out how to eke out a living in publishing or teaching, then testing the waters by publishing stories in local lit mags or reading at local reading series before breaking through with a first book. Some of these writers, like Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart, have already begun to make their mark in the public consciousness. Dozens of others, now finishing first books or just starting to write publishable stories, will break through in years to come.
To those who argue that a literary scene like Brooklyn’s breeds insularity, I would say: just wait a few years. Literary Brooklyn, like Greenwich Village and the Left Bank before it, won’t last much longer as an incubator of literary talent. Rents, already sky-high in Brownstone Brooklyn, are rising fast in newly gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick. For now, the economics works. Young, smart kids can still move to the outerborough neighborhoods, where if they’re willing to live in tight spaces and work long hours, they can serve their apprentice years among other young, smart readers and writers until they begin to have some success, by which time they can afford to trade up to fancier digs in Cobble Hill or Park Slope.
But other smart, young New Yorkers, especially those who work in media and finance, where money is more plentiful, have already begun to discover these one-time no-go neighborhoods, driving up rents and upsetting the delicate economic balance. If you ask me, the ideal moment for the Brooklyn Renaissance — the years just after the 2008 financial crisis — has already come and gone, and by the time Wall Street finds its footing again in a year or two, much of Brooklyn will be like the Lower East Side is now: too pricey for all but young bankers and trustafarians.
So maybe Hurricane Sandy was trying to tell me something and I got out just in time. Eric Obenauf, editor-in-chief at the indie press Two Dollar Radio, who fled Brooklyn’s high rents a few years ago, has written an essay, appearing on The Millions this morning, extolling the virtues of the literary life away from cultural hothouses like Brooklyn. Maybe he’s right, and in a few years I’ll be telling all my friends to ditch the 718 and join me north of the border. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Vancouver is one of the prettiest cities on earth, and from previous visits I know it has a healthy arts scene, bolstered by a growing movie industry, as well as great bookstores and local theater companies. But it’s not Brooklyn. Not for me. Not yet, anyway.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July’s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)
The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses is hosting their annual Spelling Bee Fundraiser on October 30th. New Yorker editor Ben Greenman will host the event, which will pit Jonathan Ames, Amor Towles and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures author Emma Straub against one another (and more) in a battle of lexicographic perspicacity. (Can you state the language of origin, please?) The event will be judged by none other than Jesse Sheidlower, editor of the inimitable Oxford English Dictionary.
A big week for books: Zadie Smith’s NW is out (read the first lines), as is Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality, a collection of essays penned while he fought cancer (our essay on Hitchens’ death) (his collection Arguably is out in paperback today). More new books: Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Umberto Eco’s essay collection Inventing the Enemy, Davy Rothbart’s essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot, Frederick Seidel’s poetry collection Nice Weather, documentarian Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, and the Navy Seal book about the bin Laden mission. Also, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is now out in paperback (read Eugenides on the book’s genesis), as is Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer winner The Swerve.