Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)

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A Year in Reading: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn't and couldn't go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence. In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn't seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother's absence. One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander's book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith's Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson's The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte's The Undertaker's Daughter. Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn't think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set. I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I'd get frustrated because I couldn't remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I'd go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I'd be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions. While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty's On Writing. I'd also carried around Lucille Clifton's Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women's bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness. This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves's King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer's Cane and Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston's grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden. While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky's Revolver I'd stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs's Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O'Keeffe country. I'm still working through O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz's letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year. I've opened up Vladimir Nabokov's Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera's biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America's Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden's astonishing exhibition "Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life." Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites! A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I've been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We're great company for each other. Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I'd been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too.  Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka's SOS: 1961 - 2013, and somehow eventually I'm holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams. When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly. Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh. As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I'm a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I've read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We're all better for it! So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage: Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus Jack Gilbert, Collected Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance Nicholas Wong, Crevasse Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine Nick Flynn, My Feelings Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold Margo Jefferson, Negroland Chris Abani, Song for Night Rick Barot, Chord Major Jackson, Roll Deep Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box Randall Horton, Hook Parneshia Jones, Vessel Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin Patti Smith, M Train Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud Paul Beatty, The Sellout Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? 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Game Six: On the Sport of Writing

A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons. Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history. It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer. Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough. And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition. More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning -- that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?” Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog. What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through. Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought -- and footnotes -- that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms: It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other. Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness. Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?” When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting. While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams -- and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land? There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste. In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing...These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers. But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous. Image Credit: Flickr/slgckgc.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 4 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 4 months 3. 3. The Bone Clocks 5 months 4. 5. My Brilliant Friend 2 months 5. 6. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 4 months 6. - The David Foster Wallace Reader 1 month 7. 7. The Strange Library 2 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 3 months 9. 10. Dept. of Speculation 2 months 10. - Loitering: New and Collected Essays 1 month   Happy New Year and glad tidings to you and yours. It's 2015 now; the year we've been promised hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. We have half of these things (so far), and we also have two new entrants to our hallowed Hall of Fame: Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Overall, though, there is little change beyond the calendar. Our top-ranking book, The Novel: A Biography, remains the same for a second consecutive month, a second consecutive year. It's followed by our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which concerns itself with, among other things, a contagious disease that brings about the disintegration of civilization. (Et tu, California*?) And yet, the dawn of the new year does come with some new additions as well. Cracking our list in the tenth position is two-time Year in Reading alumnus (one, two) Charles D'Ambrosio's widely acclaimed essay collection, Loitering. In her review for our site, staffer Hannah Gersen identified the qualities of the work that make it so impressive: What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day. Higher up on the list, in the sixth spot, we find Little, Brown's nearly 1,000-page long omnibus, The David Foster Wallace Reader. It's a collection composed of excerpts and full-length pieces from David Foster Wallace's oeuvre, as selected by a dozen writers and critics, such as Hari Kunzru and Anne Fadiman. These pieces and their afterwords, wrote Jonathan Russell Clark, appeal equally to new readers and longtime devotees alike: For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. ... For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. Next month, we'll watch closely to see if David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks will come one month closer to the Hall of Fame. As I noted last September, doing so would make Mitchell the only author to have reached The Millions's Hall of Fame for three separate works. *Was that a measles reference, or a pun related to another Millions staffer's recent novel? Why not both? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageAn Untamed State, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 4. The Novel: A Biography 3 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 3 months 3. 1. The Bone Clocks 4 months 4. 6. Reading Like a Writer 6 months 5. - My Brilliant Friend 1 month 6. 7. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 3 months 7. - The Strange Library 1 month 8. 10. All the Light We Cannot See 2 months 9. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 6 months 10. - Dept. of Speculation 1 month   Ohio State over Alabama wasn't the only New Year's upset: in the first Top Ten of 2015, Millions readers propelled a mammoth, scholarly 1,200-page history of the novel ahead of David Mitchell's latest. That's right. The Novel: A Biography is our new number one. Let us all join hands as we usher in a new age dominated not by the Crimson Tide and kaleidoscopic fiction but instead by the Buckeyes and literary history. (Or you could read the review that started it all.) And that's not the only surprise this month, either. Two fixtures in our most recent Top Ten lists — Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard — saw their latest works — Colorless Tsukuru and My Struggle — drop out of our standings altogether. (Have no fear, Murakami fans: your darling remains on this month's list with the debut of The Strange Library, which Buzz Poole recently described as a heavily illustrated 96-page paperback that "like ... so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters.") Moving along, it seems apparent that our recent Year in Reading series motivated a good number of Millions readers to purchase works by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill. In the case of Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend debuts this month in our list's fifth spot, we probably have Charles Finch to thank. He's the one who wrote, "I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing." For her part, Offill's Dept. of Speculation earned heaps of praise in the series entries from Rachel Fershleiser, Scott Cheshire, and Dinaw Mengestu. (And Sam Lipsyte, way back in '13.) Meanwhile our own Emily St. John Mandel maintains a strong presence on the list with Station Eleven, and next month we'll likely see the graduation of two works— Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — to our Hall of Fame. Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, and An Untamed State. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Bone Clocks 3 months 2. 6. Station Eleven 2 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 5 months 4. 4. The Novel: A Biography 2 months 5. 5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 4 months 6. 7. Reading Like a Writer 5 months 7. 10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 2 months 8. 9. My Struggle: Book 1 5 months 9. 8. Cosmicomics 4 months 10. - All the Light We Cannot See 1 month   Let it be known that Millions readers are nothing if not prescient: right as Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See enters our Top Ten, he submits a Year in Reading post to our annual series. Not only that, but the series also received an entry from Karen Joy Fowler, whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been a fixture on the Top Ten for five months now. Y'all were on to something, weren't you? Meanwhile, two books graduated out of the Top Ten this month. After appearing on last year's Most Anticipated round-up, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World sustained its dominance of the Top Ten for six straight months. It now joins Samantha Hahn's Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines — back on the list after a month-long absence — as the 85th and 86th entries to our Hall of Fame. As an update to past lists, on the other hand, it should be pointed out that we recently ran a review of Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which now enters its second month on our Top Ten. "There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure," Anna Heyward wrote. "Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity." Further down, Karl Ove Knausgaard holds fast in the Top Ten with My Struggle, which advances from the ninth position to eighth on the list. If you haven't yet seen it, we ran a nice little "Quick Hit" by the Norwegian author a few weeks ago. "I love repetition," he wrote. "I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out." When it comes to being listed on our Top Ten, who wouldn't? Near Misses: The Round House, The Laughing Monsters, The Children Act, 10:04, and Not That Kind of a Girl. See Also: Last month's list.

Beyond Bookmarks: 10 Gifts For Readers

For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It's hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they've already read. So, for this year's list, we've tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that's a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated. 1. An Excellent Reading Chair. Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure. 2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw. You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift. 3. Snacks. When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You're Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: "There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don't want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie -- for others it's a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting." Of course, it's hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you're mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity. For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there's always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books. 4. Curated Book Subscription. I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112. 5. Small Press Book Subscription. Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world. 6. Books About Reading. For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago. 7. A Wearable Book. It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read. 8. Special Editions of Treasured Books. At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions. 9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore. Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them. 10. Time to Read. How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours -- with dinner. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Millions Top Ten: October 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Bone Clocks 2 months 2. 2. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 6 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 4 months 4. - The Novel: A Biography 1 month 5. 4. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 3 months 6. - Station Eleven 1 month 7. 9. Reading Like a Writer 4 months 8. 5. Cosmicomics 3 months 9. 8. My Struggle: Book 1 4 months 10. - The Narrow Road to the Deep North 1 month   Oh, hello there, Emily St. John Mandel! How nice it is to see you on our latest Top Ten, and on the heels of your appearance on an even loftier list, at that! Since 2010, Emily's thoughtful reviews and essays have highlighted dozens of novels for Millions readers, and made them aware of both un(der)heralded classics and new releases alike. So in a karmic sense, it's about time we turn our attention toward Emily's own fiction. In the words of fellow Millions staffer Bill Morris, "her fourth novel, Station Eleven, [is] a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization." (It's a premise that by Emily's own admission was made possible at least in part by the success of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) Looking at it more generally, though, Morris notes that Station Eleven's near-future setting affords Emily with some luxuries not typically available to writers focused on the past, or even present, state of the world: The near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed. Sounds pretty enticing, if I do say so myself. But, decide on your own. You can whet your appetite by reading the book's first chapter over here. Moving along, I turn my attention toward the debut of another newcomer on the Top Ten: The Novel: A Biography. If I'm being honest, I must admit that I feel a distinct sense of pride for being affiliated with a book site whose readers are purchasing enough copies of a 1,200-page history of "the novel" that the tome ranks among our bestsellers. Be proud of yourselves, fellow nerds. The hefty book was tackled by Jonathan Russell Clark in an engaging review in September. Rounding out this month's list, we welcome Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North to the party (we reviewed the book here), and we bid adieu — probably only for a short time — to Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines, which has fallen out of the rankings after a strong six-month showing, and as a result has missed our Hall of Fame by the skin of its teeth. Near Misses: The Round House, Well-Read Women, The Children Act, 10:04, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month's list.

The Art of Dialogue: A Symposium

(The following is an imaginary symposium. The dialogue (except for the goofy shit) is adapted directly from these books: On Writing (2000) by Stephen King, On Directing Film (1991) by David Mamet, This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) by Walter Moseley, Reading Like a Writer (2006) by Francine Prose, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) by Jane Smiley, and How Fiction Works (2008) by James Wood. Apologies to all. Enjoy.) MODERATOR Everybody, shut up. Just be quiet. Now, I realize that a group of writers like yourselves would jump all over the chance to point out the irony of me beginning a symposium on dialogue by telling everyone to shut up, but I don't want to hear it, okay? Spare me. Let's just get this over with. Jane Smiley, let's begin with you. JANE SMILEY Thank you, Moderator. To dare to write about many different characters, and to keep them straight without the help of actors, is in many ways a bold endeavor. It imposes several duties upon the author. MODERATOR Like what, for instance? JANE SMILEY Well, each time a character speaks, he is likely to speak in a way that differs from every other character and also from the narrator because distinctiveness is one of the main methods an author has to organize his characters so the reader can keep them straight. MODERATOR Interesting. A very practical observation. Dialogue helps differentiate characters. Good. JANE SMILEY I have mentioned order, in the sense that the readers don't want to get the characters mixed up, but there is also the progress of the plot. Characters in dialogue are required to more or less move the story along. If they are just sitting around chatting meaninglessly, then the novel comes to be about the meaninglessness the characters are demonstrating. DAVID MAMET Excuse me, I completely object. JANE SMILEY Jesus. Of course. MODERATOR To what do you object, Mr. Mamet?  DAVID MAMET You don't have to narrate with dialogue. The only reason people speak is to get what they want. JANE SMILEY I wasn't finished, Mr. Mamet. First of all, I said "more or less move the story along." I understand that dialogue isn't how you tell a story. But certainly dialogue must in some way pertain to the narrative, even if they aren't speaking of the literal plot. Depending on his role in the novel, though, a character is also required to have something interesting to say that simultaneously deepens the reader's knowledge of him, deepens the reader's knowledge of other characters, deepens the reader's understanding of the story, and best of all, deepens the reader's knowledge in general. DAVID MAMET No, no, no. The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the "character." In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago. It just doesn't exist. WALTER MOSLEY Wait one minute! Why are we letting David Mamet in here? Are we all aware that he's talking about films, not novels? DAVID MAMET Yes, but I've written novels. WALTER MOSLEY Yeah, like two. The Village and The Old Religion. DAVID MAMET And Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources. WALTER MOSLEY Okay. Whatever, we'll call it three. But either way, I think your view of dialogue is greatly skewed by playwriting and filmmaking. So let me please interject a bit. We're talking about the use of dialogue. That alright? MODERATOR Sure, do whatever you want. See if I care. WALTER MOSLEY First, I agree with Dave over there that dialogue shouldn't be used for exposition. Many new writers use dialogue to communicate information such as "My name is Frank. I come from California." This is the simplest use of dialogue. It's okay for a job interview or a chance meeting in a bar, but in a novel, dialogue is meant to be working overtime. But I also agree with Jane about the many uses of dialogue. Every time characters in your novel speak, they should be: (1) telling us something about themselves; (2) conveying information that may well advance the story line and/or plot; (3) adding to the music or the mood of the scene, story, or novel; (4) giving us a scene from a different POV (especially if the character who is speaking is not connected directly to the narrative voice); and/or (5) giving the novel a pedestrian feel. MODERATOR Pedestrian? Why pedestrian? WALTER MOSLEY Thought you didn't care, Moderator? MODERATOR Don't push your luck. WALTER MOSLEY To answer your question: Absolutely. Making the dialogue seem pedestrian might seem counterproductive to the passionate writer. Here you are, telling us a story of profound feeling in which the main characters are going to experience deeply felt transitions, and I'm asking you for ordinary and prosaic dialogue. If you can get the reader to identify with the everydayness of the lives of the characters and then bring them -- both reader and character -- to these rapturous moments, you will have fulfilled the promise of fiction. The reader is always looking for two things in the novel: themselves and transcendence. Dialogue is an essential tool to bring them there. MODERATOR Okay, okay. Let's get another voice in here. Francine Prose, you've been sitting over there quietly. What about you? Do you think dialogue should be pedestrian? FRANCINE PROSE Thank you, Moderator. In one sense, yes, I do think that. Among the things I remember hearing when I was beginning to write was the following rule: you shouldn't, and actually can't, make fiction dialogue sound like actual speech. The repetitions, meaningless expressions, stammers, and nonsensical monosyllables with which we express hesitation, along with the clichés and banalities that constitute so much of everyday conversation, cannot and should not be used when our characters are talking. Rather, they should speak more fluently than we do, with greater economy and certitude. Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, avoid circumlocution and digression. The idea, presumable, is that fictional dialogue should be an "improved," cleaned-up and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. Better than "real" dialogue. Then why is so much written dialogue less colorful and interesting than what we can overhear daily in the Internet café, the mall, and on the subway? Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak. MODERATOR And you also agree that dialogue shouldn't be used for exposition? FRANCISE PROSE Well, in extreme cases, yes I think I would warn against inventing those stiff, unlikely, artificial conversations in which facts are being transmitted from one character to another mainly for the benefit of the reader: "Hi, Joe." "Nice to see you again, Sally." "What have you been doing, Joe?" "Well, Sally, as you know, I'm an insurance investigator. I'm twenty-six years old. I've lived in Philadelphia for twelve years. I'm unmarried and very lonely. I come to this bar twice a week on average, but so far have failed to meet anyone I particularly like." And so forth. But even when novice writers avoid this sort of dialogue, what they do write often serves a single purpose -- that is, to advance the plot -- rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish. To see how much dialogue can achieve, it's instructive to look at the novels of Henry Green, in which many of the important plot developments are conveyed through conversation. MODERATOR Oh, wonderful! Finally, some examples! I've been waiting for over a thousand words for this. FRANCINE PROSE Throughout Green's work, dialogue provides both text and subtext, allowing us to observe the wide range of emotions that his characters feel and display, the ways in which they say and don't say what they mean, attempt to manipulate their spouses, lovers, friends, and children, stake emotional claims, demonstrate sexual interest or unavailability, confess and conceal their hopes and fears. And it all passes by us in such a bright, engaging splash of chatter that only slowly do we realize how widely Green has cast his net, how deeply he has penetrated. MODERATOR Example, please. FRANCINE PROSE Yes, okay. Here it is: "Did your father happen to mention that he'd taken me out the other afternoon?" she inquired. "No," the boy said in an uninterested voice. "Should he?" "We ran across each other in the street. I'm afraid I can't afford anything like the gorgeous meal he provided." "But curry's my favorite," Peter claimed. "I wish I had it every day. Decent of you to ask me." "No, because I do truly enjoy seeing you. It takes me out of myself. And you've little idea how few there are I could say that of. Though, d'you know, it could be true about your father. He's so terribly handsome, Peter." The boy broke into mocking laughter, with his mouth full. "Look out for the curry," she warned. "You'll blow it all over me and the table." When he had composed himself he said, "Well I once ate a green fig looked exactly like Dad's face." Then, after a brief pause to discuss a mutual friend: "Are your parents still in love?" she asked. "My mother and father? God, I suppose so. Are yours?" "Not a bit. No." Peter went on eating. "They don't even share a room." A little later: "How long have they been married?" "Lord, don't ask me. I wouldn't know." "All in all, I imagine they were still very much in love," she suggested. "I expect so," he said. "You won't tell them I mentioned this, will you?" In this passage from his final novel, Doting, nineteen-year-old Annabel Payton has invited Peter Middleton, a student two years younger than herself, to have lunch at an inexpensive Indian restaurant near her office. Annabel has a crush on Peter's father -- as the awkward, somewhat thick-headed Peter may or may not be aware -- and is attempting to extract information about Peter's parents from her lunch companion. Word by word, the dialogue captures the rhythm of someone trying to discover something without disclosing something else, of an interlocutor who cannot stop pushing until she finds what she is seeking. It's a model of social inquisition carried out by someone who doesn't much care about the person she is interrogating, except that she would like to keep him from forming a low opinion of her and from figuring out what she is doing. At the end of the scene, Annabel asks Peter if he thinks his mother is beautiful: "Yes," he said, rather gruff. "As a matter of fact." "Me too," she echoed, but in a wan little voice. "She has everything. Hair, teeth, skin, those wide-apart eyes. By any standard your father's a very lucky man." "Why?" "To have such a wife of course. Would you say she liked me, Peter?" "Fairly, yes. No reason not to, is there?" "Oh none," she agreed casually. MODERATOR Let's get technical for a second. Why is that scene so suggestive of things without spelling them out? What makes Green's use of dialogue so effective? JAMES WOOD Can I step in here for a moment? MODERATOR Oh, I didn't realize we had critics here, too. JAMES WOOD Well, I'm also a novelist. The Book Against God. Anyone? Anyone? MODERATOR We haven't read it. But go on. Maybe a critic's opinion will be useful here. JAMES WOOD Wonderful. In 1950, Henry Green gave a little talk on BBC radio about dialogue in fiction. Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters' thoughts, hardly ever explains a character's motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character's emotion to readers ("she said, grandiloquently"). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with readers, and that nothing kills "life" so much as "explanation." MODERATOR So you think the excerpt that Francine presented is effective because of the lack of "explanation"? JAMES WOOD Yes, information is communicated silently, slowly, through careful accumulation of a character's actions, their words. Here's a working example. Green imagined a husband and wife, long married, sitting at home one evening. At 9:30, the husband says he is going across the road to the pub. Green noted that the wife's first response, "Will you be long?," could be rendered in scores of different ways ("Back soon?" "When will you be back?" "Off for long?" "How long will it be before you are back?"), each one capable of a distinct resonance of meaning. The crucial thing, maintained Green, was not to hedge the dialogue with explanation, as in: "How soon d'you suppose they'll chuck you out?" Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from the teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars. Green felt strongly that such kind of authorial "assistance" was overbearing, because in life we don't really know what people are like. "We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?" MODERATOR Do you agree with all of that? It seems a bit strict, doesn't it? Almost overbearing? JAMES WOOD Yes, you're quite right. Green, counseling against being overbearing, is laying down a fair amount of prescription himself, and we do not need to take his doctrine scripturally. Notice that when Green does his parody of explanation, he also falls into a deliberately breathy, second-rate style ("wore the look of a wounded animal"), whereas we can imagine something more continent, less offensive: "Olga knew what time he would come home, and in what state, stinking of beer and tobacco. Ten years of this, ten years." Fulsome explainers like George Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and many others would all have to retire themselves in Green's universe. MODERATOR Okay, okay. Let's take a pause for a moment. What have we learned here so far? Anything? It seems that every rule you try to make about dialogue has many contingencies, many exceptions, ways around it. Characters shouldn't speak in blatant exposition but subtle forms of expository information are allowed. They should sound like "real" people but not exactly like real people, as normal conversation consists of ums and ers and likes and, truthfully, uninteresting filler. Writers should let the characters' speech say more about them than the narrator, though we have numerous successful examples of writers who break this rule. Finally, dialogue should always be performing multiple tasks at once. Is there anything else? Anything practical? Anything at all like a rule? STEPHEN KING Yes, I have something to add. MODERATOR Go on. STEPHEN KING Adverbs. I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that writers use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions…and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to maker sure we all know what we're talking about, examine these three sentences: "Put it down!" she shouted. "Give it back," he pleaded, "it's mine." "Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said. In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions: "Put it down!" she shouted menacingly. "Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "it's mine." "Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptuously. The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. Contemptuously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals: "Put the gun down, Utterson!" Jekyll grated. "Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped. "You damned tease!" Bill jerked out. Don't do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine. MODERATOR Okay, good. A rule of sorts. I like it. Yes, Mr. Mamet? DAVID MAMET To get what they want! That's why people talk! MODERATOR So what do you want, Mr. Mamet? Why are you talking right now? DAVID MAMET I want future generations to make great art! I'm trying to help. MODERATOR Help us now by being quiet. What was the point of this symposium? Have we really learned anything? Let's get the writer in here. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Yes? MODERATOR What was the point of this? What, could you not think of something to say yourself? JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Well, kind of. I realized that I didn't have anything new to add about dialogue. All the observations I could make I'd first heard articulated in these books. What could I add? MODERATOR That's laziness disguised as modesty, Mr. Clark. I'm not buying it. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Well, the other thing was that none of these writers had anything definitive to say. Everything they said had some qualification to it. Or, if they were more stringent, I could think of a great counter example. So I thought that if I put a bunch of voices together and showed how difficult dialogue is to even talk about, I'd maybe contribute something useful. MODERATOR Let me spoil it for you: you didn't. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Oh. Sorry. JAMES WOOD Can I go now? I've got a long flight. WALTER MOSELEY Me, too. Plus I'm hungry. The invite said there would be snacks. I don't see any snacks. JANE SMILEY Everyone up for a bite to eat? WALTER MOSELEY Sure. JAMES WOOD Alright. FRANCINE PROSE I could eat. DAVID MAMET Fuckin' a. JANE SMILEY Not you, David. (DAVID MAMET exits, pursued by a bear.) JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Ha ha! JANE SMILEY Or you, Jonathan. None of us even know who you are. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Oh. Sorry. WALTER MOSELEY Plus you only put us all together because ours were the books you happen to have on your shelf. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK But at least that means I bought all your books! WALTER MOSELEY Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man. (Everyone exits except for MODERATOR and JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK.) JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Looks like it's just you and me. MODERATOR We're the exact same person. So, basically, you're by yourself in your room. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Like always. MODERATOR And you're talking to yourself. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK Yeah. Funny. In a symposium about dialogue I end up alone, talking to myself. MODERATOR And what does that tell you? JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK That dialogue is a conversation a writer has with himself, a conversation he has with his characters and a conversation between characters. That it's all three. That, ultimately, the art of dialogue lies within the writer, determined by how he perceives people, human interaction, motivation. That dialogue, as much as it speaks to a character's identity, speaks to the writer's as well. That rules are almost impossible. That a writer has to engage with dialogue, be in conversation with it, so to speak. MODERATOR I was going to say that you need some real human friends. I mean, listen to yourself: you're talking to yourself about fake characters talking to each other. Pretty sad. JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK You know what's worse? To me, it isn't sad at all. If the only dialogue I have in my life is the dialogue of great writers, I don't have a whole lot to complain about. They're great conversationalists, at least. MODERATOR Yeah. At least you've got that. Come on. Save the document and be done with this.   END Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Millions Top Ten: September 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Bone Clocks 1 month 2. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 5 months 3. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 3 months 4. 2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 2 months 5. 7. Cosmicomics 2 months 6. 4. The Round House 3 months 7. 5. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 6 months 8. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 3 months 9. 8. Reading Like a Writer 3 months 10. 6. The Son 6 months   Welcome to the party, David Mitchell! Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, "Welcome back to the party." Mitchell's no stranger to our Top Ten, you see. Back in May, I observed that Mitchell is part of an elite group of eight authors who have reached our Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. Will this be number three? Every indication so far tells me that, yes, The Bone Clocks will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors — Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet — straight to the Millions record books. (No author has made it to our Hall of Fame for three separate books.) Why, exactly, is The Bone Clocks so individually appealing, though? Well, as Brian Ted Jones put it in his review for our site, the book serves as a pivot point in Mitchell's canon: The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity — the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other — has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters. In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme:  regret. And, aside from what's different, the book also displays some of Mitchell's best writing to date. As Jones explains: There is a moment in the very last pages — you will definitely know it when you get there — where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. I predict we'll be seeing Mitchell's name atop our Top Ten for many months to come. Meanwhile, with the addition of one work comes the graduation of another. At long last, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins has ascended to our Hall of Fame. Walter's novel represents the first addition to our Hall of Fame since last June. Near Misses: The Children Act, To Rise Again at a Decent HourAmericanah, 10:04, and The Secret Place. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 4 months 2. - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 1 month 3. 2. Beautiful Ruins 6 months 4. 3. The Round House 2 months 5. 4. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 5 months 6. 5. The Son 5 months 7. - Cosmicomics 1 month 8. 6. Reading Like a Writer 2 months 9. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 2 months 10. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 2 months   When it comes to literary fiction bestseller lists, is there a more reliable fixture than Haruki Murakami? Not only is the author prolific — having published thirteen novels (including a 1,000+ pager!) over his career — but he's also incredibly popular. It was reported last year that in his native Japan, copies of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, were flying off shelves to the tune of a million copies per week. And his reach is increasing, if you can believe it. A recent poll indicated that the author's popularity is growing in Korea, and his work has been adapted for the screen in Vietnam. (His 2011 doorstopper, 1Q84, was banned from China, but that could be viewed as a mark of success depending on who you ask.) So of course it should come as no surprise to see his latest novel break into our latest Top Ten, even despite Woody Brown's fairly tepid review of the work for our site. “All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style are present in Colorless Tsukuru,” Brown wrote back in August. “But for perhaps the first time ... they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work.” Ultimately, Brown notes, it's a novel that, like Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (which figures prominently in the book), is “aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.” Here's hoping his next effort — due before the end of the year — is stronger, although it seems like no matter what, it'll sell plenty of copies. Meanwhile, the Top Ten saw the emergence this month of Italo Calvino's classic work of "scientific" fiction, Cosmicomics. Undoubtedly Millions readers have Ted Gioia's tantalizing review ("Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece") to thank for putting the under-appreciated gem onto their radars: Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Rounding out this month's list, we see the continued dominance of Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Both Well-Read Women and The Son remain popular mainstays as well. The list is due for a major shake-up in two months, as all four will likely be gracing our Hall of Fame by October and November. Will Knausgaard hang on to the last spot of the list by then? Will it have moved up? Will Book 2 have cracked the rankings? Only time will tell. Near Misses: Americanah, Jesus' Son, Bark, and Just Kids. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 3 months 2. 1. Beautiful Ruins 5 months 3. - The Round House 1 month 4. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 4 months 5. 3. The Son 4 months 6. - Reading Like a Writer 1 month 7. 4. Bark: Stories 4 months 8. 8. Americanah 2 months 9. - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 1 month 10. - My Struggle: Book 1 1 month   July is the month of revolutions, writes Tom Nissley, and the theory is borne out in our July Top Ten. Not only do we have a new number one, but we also have four newcomers to our list — this in spite of the fact that not a single book from our June Top Ten graduated into our hallowed Hall of Fame. Are you intrigued? Then let's get right to it. Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario continues its months-long ascent up our list. When it debuted at #8 in May, I attributed its success to its placement on our Great 2014 Book Preview, but it looks like Millions readers have grown more and more intrigued ever since. Last month, Cantor's book rose all the way to #2, and now it's finally edged Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins out of the top spot. What will August hold in store for Cantor's novel about "competing giant fast food factions rul[ing] the world?" Only time will tell. Of the four newcomers to our list, the appearance of Karen Jay Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably the easiest to explain. The novel, which has been described by Khaled Hosseini as “a gripping, bighearted book,” won this year's PEN/Faulkner award, and was also recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Likewise, the debut of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book 1 is understandable — and, frankly, overdue — considering the immense hype it's been getting lately. When Jonathan Callahan reviewed the book's early installments for our site last year (which feels like ages ago...), he wrote of the autobiographical project: With astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale. At the time, it seemed an unlikely candidate for breakout success. But oh, how wrong we were. Since last year, Knausgaard's earned himself praise in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and more. He's packed standing-room-only bookstore readings and he's been talked about about just about every bar in New York. In fact there were rumors recently that the book was so popular in the author's native Norway that the country had to institute "Knausgaard-free days" in order to keep its economy humming. Also joining the list this month are books by Louise Erdrich and Francine Prose. The Round House has been knocking on the Top Ten's door since its publication in 2012, and Reading Like a Writer seems like it's perfectly suited for most of our readers. Near Misses: The Good Lord Bird, Jesus' Son, Just Kids, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Fault in Our Stars. See Also: Last month's list.

Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life

In spite of decades of ultra-totalitarian politics and extreme isolationism—or, perhaps, because of them—there is something fascinating about Albania, a fascination that Francine Prose, in her superb novel My New American Life, locates in the person of Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian woman living in America on an expired tourist visa. After flirting her way through Immigration and bailing on her supposed destination, Detroit, for New York and a gig waiting tables at a restaurant in the Financial District, Lula is hired by an economics professor-turned-sell-out Wall Street economist—a sad-faced man she insists on calling Mister Stanley—to look after his son, a sullen teenager named Zeke who doesn’t need her to do anything more than feed him microwave pizza and keep him company watching TV.  Mister Stanley wants someone around because his wife, Ginger, bailed on them on Christmas Eve, casting a pall over the house.  Lula leaves the closet-sized Alphabet City apartment she shares with her (crazy but fun) Albanian friend Dunia for Mister Stanley’s lugubrious home in the Jersey suburbs.  It is a stupefyingly dull job.  Because she can’t drive, she spends most of the day puttering around the house, occasionally writing stories on Zeke’s laptop. Then one day, out of the blue, three Albanian “brothers” in a black Lexus SUV show up with a gun, which they ask her to keep for them.  Although this is a flagrant violation of her pact with Mister Stanley—and the gun’s discovery may well jeopardize her U.S. citizenship—Lula agrees, mostly because she thinks the lead “brother,” Alvo, is cute.  The rest of the plot—essentially a metaphorical collision course with Lula’s Albanian past and her American future—stems from this imprudent if understandable decision.  If the book has a weakness, it’s that the conflict is too restrained, the stakes too low; even when the Chekhovian gun goes off, as it must, there is never a sense of danger, never a hint that something terrible might befall our heroine. But then, we don’t want anything bad to happen to Lula.  She’s a thoroughly delightful invention.  Like all great characters, she’s a collection of contradictions, an Albanian paradox: She’s street smart and experienced yet somehow innocent, unlike the corrupted Dunia; trapped like a nun in Mister Stanley’s chaste house—where neither of the other two occupants seem hip to her beguiling beauty—she’s nevertheless sexy, with a healthy if repressed libido (as her romancing of Alvo demonstrates); she’s a fantastic storyteller, so much so that Mister Stanley and his immigration-lawyer friend Don Settebello encourage her to write about her experiences—My New American Life is the working title of Lula’s memoir—but most of what she writes is either folklore masquerading as fact or straight-up plagiarism of the work of the Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare. The novel is presented in third person, from Lula’s point of view.  In Reading Like a Writer, Prose extols the virtues of elegant sentences, citing Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Phillip Roth as some of the masters of the craft.  In My New American Life, Prose is on top of her game in this respect, the fluidity of the prose surpassing, I think, her work in Blue Angel.  Here is a random sample from a book full of gorgeous sentences: No one saw the Range Rover pull up in front of Mister Stanley’s house, and though Dunia moved as if on stage, Lula and the driver were the only audience for Dunia’s theatrical scowling at each crumb of snow that menaced her beautiful boots. All Dunia’s painstaking olfactory research results were instantly corrupted by the unforeseen variable of Alvo’s strong cologne. Before leaning over to kiss her again, Alvo considerately pushed the buttons that heated the seats, and the warmth beneath Lula flowed into the warmth inside her. Through Lula’s eyes, Mister Stanley and Zeke—and, by extension, we readers—see the United States in a new way.  She becomes a de facto ambassador, hipping us to Albanian culture (even though much of it is Lula’s invention) and adding her own perspective on America in 2006.  Prose sets up a subtle compare and contrast between America and Albania (there's more in common than at first blush, especially during the Bush years, when the story takes place): Yesterday night, as always, she’d felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who’d told a lie that had set off a war, and then he’d let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into.  He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair. Throughout the book, Prose has fun with the idea that the two countries are not as different as they seem.  “‘If Hoxha and Milosevic had a baby,’” Lula jokes to her immigration lawyer, Don Settebello, “‘and the baby was a boy, it would look like Dick Cheney.’” My New American Life is an assimilation story, in which Lula merges (literally, as it turns out) with the American citizenry.  It’s a commentary on immigration; in addition to Lula’s own struggles, Don Settebello is actively doing pro bono work at Guantanamo.  It’s a nod to the absurdist comedy of Kadare and other Eastern European writers.  But above all, it’s a wickedly entertaining read.

The Great Gatsby Revisited

I admire people who reread books over and over again.   Some writers I know reread certain books annually; it works something like a “checkup,” a scheduled nourishing of that ineffable, particularized magic that is creative inspiration.  In his “Year in Reading” post, David Shields wrote that he rereads certain books “seemingly monthly.”  I recall from somewhere that Mary Gordon reads/rereads Proust every morning, like a devotional. For me, the habit of rereading has been mostly elusive (so-many-books-so-little-time, blah blah blah); with the exception of books and stories that I use for teaching. The necessity of rereading is in fact one of my personal favorite things about teaching. This summer I’ve reread a number of books that will be appearing on my fall syllabus; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of them. (A confession: there is a little bit of “acting as if” in teaching. For some time I’ve been preaching “close reading” and “reading with a pencil” and “read at least twice” to students.   I’ve started off semesters with Francine Prose’s “Close Reading” chapter from Reading Like a Writer.  And it’s not that I haven’t truly ascribed to these mantras or practiced them, but with Gatsby I’ve turned a corner;  there’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing something. It's like I'm a born-again rereader, experiencing anew how a first read can be as different from a second read or a third read as reading two completely different works.  And yes: with great literature, the experience is deeper and richer with each successive reading. Of course, the works stays the same; it’s we who change.) What could I possibly say about The Great Gatsby that has not already been said by Fitzgerald acolytes and Gatsby-ologists through the ages?  I read it once in high school, and then again in college.  This third read marks the first time I've read it since I've been writing my own fiction in earnest.  I suppose what struck me most is how The Great Gatsby as a “literary treasure,” as something we refer to as a classic, is so much less than what the novel actually is – which is something both gorgeously and impeccably wrought. A Shortlist of What Surprised Me Upon My Third Reading of The Great Gatsby 1. The Great Gatsby is not a story about the elite Northeast.  Well, it is to some degree.  But really, it’s a story about everything and everyone else.  “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all,” muses the narrator Nick Carraway at the end. Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, we were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life. Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old – even then it had always for me a quality of distortion… I see it as a night scene by El Greco. In other words, The Great Gatsby might indeed be peopled by the outlandishly wealthy, by mansion-dwelling, tennis-playing, alcoholic yacht-owners; and yet it’s not ultimately a story about them, it is in fact a story about us. (And it’s sobering to recognize how in the past I have sometimes read as if half-asleep: my first Gatsby read was two years into high school, an elite New England prep school where I’d landed as a semi-conscious 13 year-old, an “unadaptable” outsider in every way, from suburban Maryland.  Not “the West,” but bored and sprawling indeed.  None of this resonated at the time.) 2. Sentences, sentences, sentences.  We hear much about Fitzgerald ushering in “The Jazz Age,” and about the misfortunes of his personal life.  But what about his luminous sentences?  Writers know that an admirable career goal is to write a handful of truly beautiful sentences in one's lifetime.  Hunter S. Thompson was dead-on in making a writing exercise of retyping the entirety of Gatsby.   My pencil moved almost as furiously as my eyes while I read: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires. He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York.  It was the hour of a profound human change. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village – appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. Describing why a sentence is beautiful is a little like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like.  For me, Fitzgerald’s sentences are somehow both profoundly weighted and soaring, confident in their matter-of-factness and indulgent in their romanticism.  How?  How? 3. Daisy’s voice and "the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg." Do you remember these descriptions? (Perhaps your stellar high school English teacher made a point of highlighting these image-motifs for your consideration.)  Daisy’s voice is her most distinguishing feature in every scene in which she appears, and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is the faded image on the billboard that looms over George Wilson’s garage.  Both haunt me, they vibrate in my mind and ear well after reading; I hear Daisy and see those gigantic eyes much more vividly than I recall Gatsby himself.   With these iterative descriptions, Fitzgerald impresses upon us the complex quality of Gatsby’s allure/repulsion to Daisy… It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again […] there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour […] “She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked.  “It’s full of –“ I hesitated. “Her voice is full of money,” he [Gatsby] said suddenly. …and disturbs the reader with a sense of formless moral scrutiny, particularly as the story builds toward crisis: The eyes of Doctor T.H Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.  They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.  Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away […] Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg kept their vigil, but I perceived, after a moment, that the other eyes [Myrtle Wilson’s] were regarding us with peculiar intensity from less than twenty feet away. 4.  The novel is recognizable in form and craft, and yet still singularly affecting. Gatsby is both skillfully, and conventionally, plotted.  The yellow car/mistaken identify device, upon which the story’s climax and resolution hinge, feels almost Hitchcockian in its nod to the murder-mystery mixup.  Who’s driving which car and why convincingly fuels (literally) Gatsby’s inevitable demise, Tom and Daisy’s flight, and Nick’s final revulsion towards the excesses of Eastern privilege. Fitzgerald also makes deft use of setting descriptions to evoke complex emotions, imminent conflict, and juxtapositions throughout; and his physical descriptions of characters are concrete and evocative, frequently making excellent use of similes and metaphors.  In other words, it’s no wonder the book is on class reading lists; it conforms to/exemplifies so many of our writing-craft tricks of the trade. At the same time, Fitzgerald’s social intelligence, flawlessly on display in Gatsby, is unmatched.  Maybe because social class is both much more fluid today, and more effaced, Fitzgerald's needle-threading of the superfine points of class difference, always with the exact right detail, struck me this time around: I couldn't have talked to [Jordan] across a tea-table that day if I never talked to her again in this world. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald also gets the essential doubleness of human nature so terribly, perfectly right.   Every character is pulled in (at least) two directions; love and hate, admiration and disdain, are of a piece in almost every relationship.  And the reader ultimately feels an unresolved, and yet somehow perfectly coherent dividedness about each character. 5. Redford was a terrible casting choice for Gatsby in the 1974 film version. Redford is good at iron-clad, outwardly confident sons-of-bitches whose insecurities manifest in nastiness.   David Chappellet in Downhill Racer, Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were, Denys in Out of Africa, John Gage in Indecent Proposal.  But Gatsby is an uncertain shell of a character, as porous as he is determined: …he stretched out his arm toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling [...] An hour later the front door opened nervously, and Gatsby, in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie, hurried in.  He was pale, and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes. In a current-day production, I’d think more along the lines of the nervous energy of, say, Matt Damon; or perhaps this was the role that, tragically, we never got to see Heath Ledger play. *** Books we deem “classics” can get crusty in our collective minds.  We box them in, we confuse our direct experience of the book with someone else’s (a reviewer’s, a casting director’s, a teacher’s), we remember them as “this” or “that,” when in fact they are all of it and more.  Pull one off your shelf if you can spare the reading time; you’ll be amazed.

I Heart Chekhov; Better Than Booze or Smokes

Let us turn now to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness – not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism […] Mannered writing, then – like sentimentality and frigidity – arises out of flawed character.  In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore […] To help the writer […] the teacher must enable the writer to see – partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will) – that his personal character is wanting. -John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction 1. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a standard in writing classes for decades.  Along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers.  My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them,” she wrote), I think of The Art of Fiction as the masochist’s craft book. In Gardner’s text, you’ll find no warm fuzzies or self-helpy exhortations to discover your inner artist (as in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), or to keep at it, no matter how shitty your drafts (as in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird).  Gardner treats the writer’s vocation with strict gravity; the path is both narrow and demanding, poseurs be warned and beware. Thus, one reads Gardner for a trenchant kick in the ass; or, perhaps, when one has been working wretchedly at writing for some time and is ripe for someone to put him out of his misery: Not everyone is a writer, Gardner (and O’Connor, too) might say (to the horror of writing programs across the country who want your tuition dollars). Why not try your hand at water colors? As both a student and teacher of writing, the above passages from The Art of Fiction have stopped me in my tracks.  Faults of soul?  Show the writer that his personal character is wanting?  Imagine if book reviewers, as common practice, heeded Gardner’s entreaty.  We’d see reviews that looked something like this (italics represent text from The Art of Fiction): Jack Scribbler’s description of the protagonist Billy in his moment of crisis shows Scribbler’s essential frigidity; that is, clearly, Scribbler is less concerned about Billy than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be.  Scribbler’s essential indecency is the problem here; it is clear that he lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters.  In a word, Scribbler is cold-hearted and turns away from real feeling, he knows no more of love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card. Or, like this: It is clear that Jill Hack, in repeatedly intruding herself into the narrative with stylistic tics that do not serve the subject matter, is primarily focused on proving herself different from all other authors; apparently, she feels more strongly about her own personality and ideas than she feels about any of her characters or all the rest of humanity. In other words, reviews would be pointedly personal; what is wrong with the writing equated with what is wrong with the author.  What would it mean if we all began drawing such short, direct lines from the work to the person?  Likely we’d see an increase in reviewer-writer rows -- online a la Alice Hoffman, or at Graydon Carter's Waverly Inn – and many of us, helpless to survive such sharp knives to our souls, might give up the literary ghost earlier rather than later in our careers. 2. But what if we flip the supposition and consider the converse: if bad writing “arises out of flawed character,” it would follow then that the wellspring of good writing is good character (to be clear: good character – as in the cultivation/manifestation of the writer’s humanity – not good characters, which is, of course, another way of going at it).  For aspiring writers, there will always be matters of craft and style; but how many of us, writers and teachers alike, imagine focusing our development as writers on personal character?   And what, at any rate, would that look like? Well… it would look like Chekhov. 3. A new film adaptation of Chekhov’s 1891 novella The Duel, from award-winning director Dover Kosashvili, recently opened at Film Forum in New York City and has me thinking about all the ways in which Chekhov is studied, admired, referenced, emulated, and, yes, adapted.  Chekhov in fact rivals Shakespeare in the most-frequently-adapted-for-the-screen category. Given how readers typically respond to screen versions of their most beloved books, it may not be surprising that the film left me wanting – to reread Chekhov's exquisite novella, that is (which, subsequently, I did). It’s a fine film – well-acted, near-perfectly cast, shot beautifully to capture both the open landscape and confined domestic settings of a Caucasus seaside town (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the film as “very satisfying and tonally precise”) – but the project of condensing and dramatizing a Chekhov story may be a bit like trying to see figurative shapes in a Rothko painting: some things – works of art which approach perfection, in particular – simply are what they are. 4. Praising Chekhov, I realize, is a little like rooting for the Yankees (or Duke; or Roger Federer).  Writers across the aesthetic spectrum, from Nabokov (“Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features”) to Cornel West (“If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I’ll go with Chekhov”) to Flannery O’Connor (“Chekhov makes everything work – the air, the light, the cold, the dirt”) to Tennessee Williams (“Chekhov!  Chekhov!  Chekhov!”) laud the good doctor as unmatched in the short story form.  Writing teachers and books on fiction craft invariably herd students to the altar of Chekhov – “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through,” Francine Prose urges, in a chapter devoted to Chekhov in Reading Like a Writer. I am aware of just one literary giant who bucked the crowd: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories,” wrote Hemingway.  “But he was an amateur writer.” Yet it’s difficult, and arguably fatal, to teach Chekhov’s “style.” “Chekhovian” is in fact no compliment, it implies a near-replica, which, in the case of Chekhov, is worse than no replica at all.  As Annie Proulx notes, in a Chekhov story, “everything seems chaos and only a little is revealed or resolved. But enough is revealed and resolved to give shape and form to the story.  I do not like the pseudo-Chekhovian trailing away.”  Eudora Welty described Chekhov’s stories in this way: The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive.  By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure – one which embodied the principle of growth […] in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning.  It took form from within. But what to do with such abstract analysis? “Open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning” sounds right, and profound; trying to emulate (or adapt) something which takes “form from within” is another matter. 5. The quietude of Chekhov's talent contributes, perhaps, to the whiff of backlash one sometimes detects in the air; a dubiousness of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Somerset Maugham wrote: [Chekhov’s characters] are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in a mysterious grayness.  They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits.  It is their souls that you seem to see… You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld; and Virginia Woolf wrote We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes… The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is not cured. I understand both Maugham and Woolf to be enthusiasts of this mysteriousness, this strangeness; and yet, given their assessments, it is perhaps understandable if a contemporary reader of Chekhov finds his stories boring, shapeless, lacking in dramatic movement, unsatisfying -- even if, lacking Hemingway’s balls, said reader feels sheepish saying so in the company of the literary set. In “The Husband,” a man and his wife dislike and misunderstand each other; both are miserable, they grow only more impermeable, yet each seems to reach for something – empathy, intoxication, or something ultimately unnameable.  In “The Two Volodyas,” a young woman married to an older man has a fickle and restless heart and falls into adultery, only to find herself as restless as before, albeit more acutely intimate with her own “shabby,” fretful soul.  In “The Black Monk,” an overwrought young scholar retires to a country estate and begins to grapple with madness – or the light of genius, we don’t know which – the normalization of which, for the sake of his fiancée, results in a life of mediocrity, and death in isolation.   In “The Lady With a Pet Dog,” a vain married man flirts with an unhappily married woman; an affair ensues, grows tiresome, but then rekindles, and the two find themselves strangely, unexpectedly devoted to each other despite the hopelessness of their situation.  And in “The Kiss,” a shy, undistinguished army officer is the beneficiary of an aristocrat’s daughter’s mistake -- she kisses him in the dark, thinking he is the other half of her secret tryst -- and a euphoria fills his imagination as he fantasizes a continuation of the intrigue; only to realize bitterly that the incident was a non-sequitur and that no such consummation will ever come to pass. Why, then, do these stories of anti-climax, of unconsummated longing, of isolation and impenetrability, inspire me so?  And how might they make me both a better person and, following our line of argument here, a better writer? 6. I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it -- my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned.  I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed.  His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit -- maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living. What we learn best from Chekhov is, then, this writer’s character – in Gardner’s words, “nobility of spirit,” and "decency"; in Solotaroff's, "all eyes and heart" -- without which we cannot possibly tell the stories which must be told, in a way that, as Annie Dillard's writes, "seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered [...] press[ing] upon our minds the deepest mysteries."  In reading Chekhov we begin to develop a profound underground system of roots that feeds the life and growth above. His stories burst our bubbles, yes, by flouting the climax-and-resolution paradigm; but they also pull back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in, and how petty fears, vanity, and self-delusion breed (tragically and often unnecessarily) all manner of soul sickness – not to mention frigidity, sentimentalism, and mannerism in our writing. Perhaps most importantly -- most skillfully -- Chekhov does all this with gentleness and humor.  Reading his stories keeps us honest, and humble, but somehow also light-hearted.  (It was perhaps that tender touch of silliness – Laevsky’s rather hilarious, panicky ennui – and Chekhov’s loving characterization of Nadya as hungry for life, not merely vain – “all of it, together with the heat and the transparent, caressing waves, stirred her and whispered to her that she must live, live…” -- which I missed most in Kosashvili’s adaptation.) To my mind, nowhere is there a more direct line between man and work – in the positive sense, as opposed to Gardner’s negative sense -- than in the case of Chekhov.  In other words, to write like Chekhov, one must be like Chekhov -- see what Chekhov sees, feel as Chekhov feels, love as Chekhov loves – which is to say recognize and embrace life as it is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health -- which he helps us to do by writing stories that have, as Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it, "the impact of direct experience." “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said.  With his keen yet gentle gaze, Chekhov reminds us that to be a human being means the same.  And with perhaps a more compelling, living argument (i.e. his body of work) than the austere Gardner, Chekhov challenges us to consider which comes first, the artist or the man.
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