We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.
While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)
Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)
The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)
And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)
Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)
The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)
Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)
The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)
Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)
The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)
The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)
The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)
Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)
Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)
Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)
Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)
99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)
Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)
Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)
High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)
Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)
Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)
Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)
Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)
Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)
The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)
LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)
Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)
They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)
The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)
July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)
I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)
Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)
Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)
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It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish — for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.”
In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro — whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child — find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs.
Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas:
I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl.
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits:
When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare — King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren’t there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn’t then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn’t overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was “the land of steady habits.” And that was that.
Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason.
I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I’ll leave that up to each reader to decide.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves:
I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact — and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best — when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences — the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well.
The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.
In 2007, I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a week-long writers’ conference that includes workshops every morning, and panels and readings every afternoon and evening. It’s inspiring and fun, and also totally exhausting, because there is so much to read and learn and do. I highly recommend this kind of fatigue.
At Squaw, Ramona Ausubel and I were assigned the same workshop. At that time, Ramona was a student at UC Irvine’s MFA program, and I befriended her that first morning because I liked her clothes (priorities, people!). I soon discovered that aside from being stylish and amiable, she was also an insightful and generous reader. And then, on the last day of workshop, it was her turn to submit, and she turned in a kind-hearted, dazzling, and odd story, the kind of story that makes you think, “Wow, what a voice!” Sharing my work with Ramona, and getting to read her work, was one of the highlights of my time at Squaw. Years later, I would still recall her story’s whimsical tone, and the world she created: like our own, but stranger, and more absurd, but not any less cruel or complicated or joyful. That story, “Catch and Release,” is in her beguiling and elegantly written collection of short stories called A Guide To Being Born, which is, simply put, a pleasure to read. It’s been so much fun to see my talented friend publish and receive acclaim for her work. She deserves it.
Ramona answered a few questions via email. I am sure she was wearing something fabulous as she did so.
The Millions: For some reason, I didn’t expect these stories to be so funny. There’s this wonderful, amused tone to much of your work, whether it be a bunch of grandmothers who, upon mysteriously finding themselves on a ship, call out, Does anyone have a compass? and then, I’m from the DC area!, or a teenage girl’s mother eating a “low-this high-that salad.” It made me wonder how you regard the comic in fiction, and how you balance it with more serious subject matter. Can you talk a little about this?
Ramona Ausubel: For me, humor is totally necessary, in the way that a certain organ is necessary, yet you have no idea how it works. I don’t think about humor logically, as in, I don’t see a dark place in a story and think, “I could use some comic relief here.” It’s much more instinctual than that, and actually I think that’s a feature of humor in general. We need it, even, or especially, in the hardest situations. Sometimes it’s an escape, but just as often it’s a way of actually feeling the sad or hard thing, which might be too big to wrap one’s brain around otherwise. Plus, when you get your reader to laugh, they become involved in the story in a new way, they are a participant, and I like that. I like it when everyone’s got their hands in the mud-pile together.
TM: This collection is separated into four parts, Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. How did you conceive (ha!) of this organization, and why did you decide to move backwards, from birth to love? Can you discuss the formation of these stories into a collection?
RA: It’s always amazing to me how long you can go along, not realizing your own obsessions. I first wrote these stories as individuals and not as a book, and then I looked back at the stack and the themes jumped right out at me. There was a moment where I actually felt deflated by this, worrying that my range seemed limited or something. Then someone said to me, “No, that’s what a book is.” After that, I decided to really push the question of what it is to be born again and again throughout one’s life, and that’s where the ordering and sections came in. I wanted to get at the idea that we are in one long cycle, and at the same time we are each in a constant state of transformation and mutation.
TM: There are some interesting echoes throughout the book. Grandmothers find themselves on a ship in “Safe Passage,” and then, later in the collection, in “Magniloquence,” professors wait for a Nobel Laureate lecture that never happens. Both stories are about death, and though they feature a main character, the narrative alights on many others who are also captive to their peculiar situation. Magical bodies abound: a man with drawers growing out of his chest; arms that sprout each time someone falls in love; a girl imagining she’s giving birth to a giraffe. And there are also a lot of family secrets, particularly surrounding a child’s absent parent. Did these echoes happen consciously, or did you step back later and see the return of certain themes and images?
RA: I would say I was semi-conscious of themes and recurring images. I don’t find I do very interesting work when I’m navigating with logic, so I try to let themes rise up if they rise up, rather than setting out to write a book about such-and-such. I know I’m going to write a story if I have a crush on the idea — the fluttery heartbeat, the staring off into space and thinking about it when other people are talking, etc. It’s driven by desire and instincts and all those animal-brain forces, which maybe explains why things get weird and also why I keep coming back to certain questions in different ways.
On the specifics: I like the tension between the unique experience of an individual and the pull of group-think. These won’t be the last stories about groups that you’ll see from me, I predict. And I’m totally fascinated with storytelling and with stories as actual things that affect the people who tell or hear them. A story is much longer-lived than the fleeting moment in reality that birthed it, and I love exploring the chemistry between fiction and reality. As for the fantastical elements — yes, I recognize that no one has ever grown another arm when they fell in love, but our real, actual bodies are very, very strange and amazing, even though we’re used to them, and love is very, very strange and amazing. So even though I was writing about an unreal variation, to me the magical elements are simply a magnification of what we’re all in the throws of all the time.
TM: I’m a pretty pure realist when I make up stories. Even when I’m playing pretend with my son, I’m far more likely to have us imagining we’re cowboys rather than, say, dragon-slayers. Or I have us pretend we’re at the post office. (Fun, right? Stamps! Envelopes!) This collection made me even more aware of my leanings — there is so much nutty stuff in your work, and I like it! Can you talk about these elements of fantasy and the magical in fiction?
RA: Thanks for sticking with the nuttiness! That’s definitely the way I’m wired. I love realism, too (I love anything that shows me the world again, whether it’s a world where crazy-crazy things happen or crazy-normal things happen). Some stories in the collection do not contain anything fantastical, yet I find I write most fruitfully when things are at least a little bit elevated or exaggerated. There are lots of conversations in the world about writing which focus on the benefit of the reader and what works for him or her, and of course all writers should care about that, but at the same time, the magic act of making something out of nothing is happening in the writer’s head, and it’s that brain that needs to be tended to first. I try to make sure I’m pushing stories in directions that make the brightest electric storms in my head, and hope that a reader on the other end is susceptible that same kind of lightning.
TM: I love the grace of your sentences. How do you approach prose when you’re writing a story? Does your sentence-making change when you’re writing a story versus a novel?
RA: Thank you! I often feel like I’m working when it comes to plot — I really have to put my back into it — yet when it comes to writing sentences and paragraphs, I’m the one getting paid. That part is (almost) pure pleasure, and it makes the whole job doable.
I don’t know if my approach is consciously different when writing a novel vs. writing stories, although I’m sure there are more workaday sentences in No One is Here Except All of Us and in the new novel I’m working on, simply because there is more story to tell. Now I’m curious about this too! I’ll pay attention and we can talk about this again later!
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last great book you read?
RA: I’m finally reading Pale Fire by Nabokov, which is, unsurprisingly, really good. It’s weird and puzzling and there are many great, bizarre moments. I also just read a great first novel: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which takes place in Chechnya and is about war and joy and survival and love. The writing is gorgeous, and though the subject matter is sometimes horrible and hard to read, the book is also funny and wise.
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].
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.
I just had twins. One of them is human—fingers and toes, eyes and ears. The other is a hardcover—346 pages long, eight years in the making—my first novel. The doctor gave me a November 2nd due date, the publisher a February 2nd publication date. These are very different creatures, yet they were both made somewhere inside me, gestating over months or years.
In early summer, I laid on my back on the papered vinyl chair while the doctor squirted warm goo on my belly and pressed the magic wand down. On the screen, the grey smudge of a baby appeared, looking like a faint and mysterious creature spotted through a rainy windshield. He turned away from the heat of the wand and covered a little cheek with a little hand. The doctor counted those fingers—one, two, three, four, and a thumb. He switched on the 3-D effect so we could see the face, although it looked more like a friendly monkey than a person. My husband fidgeted in his chair, later telling me that he had been uncomfortably transported to a National Geographic movie in which an archaeologist examines the ancient insides of a mummy. Monkey or mummy, there was a distinct face that might have even been smiling a little. It moved as we watched, fingers wiggling, and then legs. We saw the bottom of the feet, and the sweet knot of a determined fist. The four chambers of the heart opened and closed in black and white.
The next day, I received the jacket description for the novel from my publisher. Reading it felt like examining the ultrasound for that book—the x-ray vision that lets a reader see the black and white outline of the spine, the chambers of the story’s heart before she has cracked the cover.
To grow my novel took eight years. The first full draft was an unsmart creature that felt like it was crawling around, eating things off the floor. I could not leave it alone for a long time without worrying that it would go into a coma and never wake up again. Every day, I had to administer some kind of electric shock. I gave up on it dozens of times. Once, I spent half of a vacation on the Red Sea in Egypt sitting on the balcony of a cheap hotel room typing because I had had an epiphany about what to do with the book. It did grow, and get smarter. But it happened in jolts and bursts and sometimes it got worse instead of better. My brain, working as hard as it could, was not a fast machine.
My body, mostly, took care of the baby. I had no idea how to grow the first eyelashes, how to expand the mysterious accordion of the lungs, but my body did. The baby only took 41 weeks from speck to human. After the book, this seemed shockingly short. My body, which usually just goes quietly along keeping me alive with ten zillion processes a day, asking for no notice or acclaim, was finally enjoying a chance to show my brain up. “You’re really working hard aren’t you?” it seemed to say to my brain. “You wrote a whole page of words? In here, we formed synapses and fingernails.” My body cannot write a novel, and my brain cannot make a baby. These twins came from very different wombs.
I began writing this book because I wanted to know my ancestors, to meet them, but since I am alive and they are not, I had to find them in my imagination. In a way, I was ‘starting a family,’ only I was doing it in reverse: first I was bringing in the ghosts, and later I would add children. My great-grandmother became a character with whom I spent thousands of hours. She was part of my very real days. I have spent years living a fictional world of my own making; I remember being there, walking around, smelling the cold winter-earth. The publication of the book is incredibly exciting and gratifying, but the real imprint on my life was made by the time I spent writing it. Long after the thrill of having a book in the world has faded, the story, the place, the characters will remain with me, part of my immediate family.
A week after his due-date, my squirming son was born. In one breath, he went from an aquatic creature to a terrestrial one. I was surprised by how fully formed he seemed—he was not so much a baby as a tiny person, complete and present. I still don’t know how my body did that, by what miraculous means those long, feathers of eyelashes were constructed, those perfect fingers. The way different genes melded seamlessly into a brand-new, never-before-seen creature. He coughed and fell asleep on my chest, the cord connecting us still pulsing. A few moments later, it would be cut, and we would go on as separate beings, although I hardly felt that way—now that I had shared my body with this person, I would never be alone the way I once had. I had a physical companion in the world, no matter how far apart we were. That night, I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t stop staring at my baby—my baby!—lying there next to me. I felt ten trillion kinds of gratitude at once—that he was healthy, that I’d made it through labor, but mostly I just couldn’t believe that less than a year ago he did not exist and now he was so incredibly here.
Slowly, my twins are making their way out into the world. My son is bigger and more and more part of the world. He smiles and reaches for things, he recognizes my voice and brightens. I imagine us growing up together, the ways we will be in each other’s lives for the duration. In a few days, the books will reach bookshelves, and from there, they will enter other people’s heads. I don’t know how the release will impact me, whom I’ll meet because of it, what it will do to the chemistry of my life. It will be a privilege to share my twins, but I still haven’t gotten over the feeling that the true miracle, the real stroke of magnificent luck, was to be there when those tiny embryos came alive.
Image Credit: Flickr/abbybatchelder