Carl H. Klaus, now 78, has dedicated his life to the reading, teaching and writing of personal essays. He taught at the University of Iowa from 1962 to 1997, where he was founding director of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is the author and co-author of several textbooks as well as five books of essays, including Weathering Winter, Taking Retirement: A Beginner's Diary, My Vegetable Love, and Letters to Kate: Life after Life. Klaus has just published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation In the Personal Essay, a deft, fascinating exploration of the ways essayists manufacture numerous selves in order to convey their experiences and the workings of their minds. It's the defining achievement of a long and distinguished career, essential reading for anyone who loves the personal essay. As Reality Hunger author David Shields says, the book is also "an extremely valuable correction to any misconception of 'nonfiction as truth.'" Klaus recently talked with The Millions by telephone from his home in Iowa City. The Millions: When I saw your new book, I've got to tell you, I thought it sounded pretty post-modern – a book of essays on the art of essay writing by an essayist who was also a teacher of essay writing. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was very much for a general reader, a layman, anybody who's interested in essay writing. Was that what you hoped to accomplish with the book? Carl Klaus: Well, I was overridingly concerned with my sense of how much impersonation is involved in a kind of writing that I had always taken to be about as close as one could get to the author herself or himself. This is an awareness that grew on me over years of reading essays and also writing them and reading what essayists themselves had to say. I should tell you that I was frankly astonished by my discoveries. But it is, in a very real sense, a post-modern book – it's at odds with a kind of fixed and simplistic notion of the self. I wanted readers to see how voice and persona are so multiple and mutable. TM: Let's talk about Montaigne. Andrew Sullivan has written in the Atlantic that Montaigne was "the quintessential blogger." And Sarah Bakewell, who has just come out with a new biography of Montaigne, recently wrote in the Paris Review that "bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago" by Montaigne. I think you get much closer to the truth in your essay on Montaigne when you write that he "openly espouses a policy not of naturalness but of studied casualness or, to be more exact, artful artlessness." Would you agree with me that it's wrong to equate most bloggers today with Montaigne's "artful artlessness?" CK: Well listen, the differences between Montaigne and bloggers are so manifold that I find it surprising that anyone would even think of comparing them – because they have different agendas and completely different ways of going about writing. For example, Montaigne's freewheeling style is grounded in an overriding concern with echoing the flow of his thought. Now the bloggers aren't concerned with that kind of interiority. Their writing is largely concerned with topical subjects of the moment, and they have no consciousness of consciousness. That's not what they're after. Even more importantly, bloggers' pieces are one-shot affairs, whereas Montaigne took his essays through three separate revisions. And the revisions were made by additions, by accretion. He never dropped anything. TM: It was an evolutionary process. CK: Exactly. And as they were evolving by accretion, they developed that freewheeling quality. The truth of the matter is that in the first book of essays, Montaigne is often very highly focused and not the freewheeling person he's perceived to be. His concern with consciousness is a concern with representing interiority – that was the overwhelming concern of Montaigne. "I am myself the subject of my book," he says. His writing about the consciousness of consciousness makes his essays like a nest of Russian dolls. You don't get that profound concern with thought in bloggers. TM: Montaigne's "artful artlessness" leads to one of the central points of your book – namely that for all its apparent transparency, the personal essay is built on a series of illusions. The illusion of spontaneity. The illusion that the essayist's voice is a match for the essayist's true self. The illusion that the essayist has just one voice. From reading your book I get the feeling that your discovery of this web of illusions was a gradual, almost life-long process. Tell me more about that process. CK: It's an interesting story because my discovery of those illusions began, believe it or not, in a graduate seminar on the 17th-century poet John Donne. We also read his prose. He wrote a number of different kinds of prose – sermons, very oratorical prose, philosophical disquisitions, and also in a more logical and analytical mode. So I discovered that there were at least three John Donnes, and possibly even more. In studying his styles in connection with 16th- and 17th-century prose, I came away feeling dazzled by how one's voice could change – a seeming personality change. It was there that my awareness of the shifting of writers' voices began. Then it gradually became the overriding concern of my teaching and writing. So this process has been going on for about fifty-three years, but I didn't start writing essays about the essay until the late 1980s, when a colleague asked me to do a piece on the essay for a book he was doing on literary non-fiction. So that's what really launched me into producing The Made-Up Self. The book itself evolved over about...what? TM: Twenty-five years, or even more? CK: Yes. TM: Do you view this book as the culmination of your life's writing and thinking? CK: It is indeed the culmination of my professional life. TM: Talking about voice brings to mind Virginia Woolf. In discussing this paradoxical relationship between essayists and their essayistic personae, she delivers what I think is one of your book's most unforgettable lines: "Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem." And she follows that up with another gem: "To write like oneself and call it not writing is a much harder exercise than to write like Addison and Steele and call it writing well." I love that! Now you dissect this notion at some length and you conclude: "How strange, I thought, to engage in such an activity, as if one's self could be embodied in writing only by a bizarre kind of imitation, not of someone else but of oneself." So do you agree with Virginia Woolf? CK: Well, I do think there's some double-edged quality in writing personal essays – because despite the fluid nature of the self, we do in the long run develop a conception of our selves that we aspire to be true to in our own writing. And yet I know that such a thing is impossible. To think that I could in fact create a style that was an echo of such a multi-sided thing as the self – that's simply a cuckoo notion. So what can I say? We do, in fact, aspire to write like ourselves even though we know that in some sense this is an impossibility – much as it's a difficult notion to imagine never being yourself and yet always being yourself. It's a paradoxical thing. TM: That brings us to something I think a lot about, and that is the difference between a memoir and an essay. I think a lot of people confuse them. Aleksandar Hemon has called the current memoir craze "a crisis of the imagination," which is something I happen to agree with. Could you talk a little bit about the difference between the memoir and the essay? CK: To tell you the truth, I haven't ever written a memoir. None of my earlier books are memoirs, they're all journals. Each entry in the journal is a little essay. When I kept a journal called My Vegetable Love, I wired myself to write a 500-word piece every day. I was writing personal essays over time in what I would call the short form. I wanted to see if I could do personal essays that had a brevity that's in defiance of what we think of as an essay – something much lengthier... TM: Open-ended. CK: Yes, and freewheeling. Probably the question you want to ask me is: Is there a difference between writing essays in that short form and writings essays in the much longer form that make up The Made-Up Self? TM: Is there? CK: Absolutely. There's a really profound difference because when I was writing those short pieces for each one of the preceding books, I was writing on the day itself as soon as I had an incident or an episode or an image or an associated memory – so that I could get my thoughts down swiftly, in one sweep. I wanted to see if I could create literary non-fiction out of short-term memory. Whereas when I wrote the essays for The Made-Up Self, every one of them developed over time. Every one of them took me at least six months to a year. They may have been revised and revised over several years. So they're a much more calculated and crafted kind of piece. For that reason, the play of voice is much, much more complex – the shifting personalities. There's a preference for long-term memory among people who write non-fiction because it's so much more bound up with the imagination. Long-term memory involves all the kinds of distortions that the mind is capable of. And I discovered, for example, that even over the course of a day I might actually distort things because my memory was already beginning to work on the actual facts of the experience. I discovered this from my late wife Kate's readings of my drafts. She was a fabulous writer and she would read the pieces and she would often say, "That's not exactly what happened. It happened this way." Or: "That's not what I said. This is what I said and the way I said it." And every time she said that to me I instinctively and immediately knew that she was right and I was wrong! So distortion sets in so quickly. It's really surprising how imagination works. TM: Distortion is an essayist's best friend, isn't it? CK: Of course it is. I couldn't agree with you more. But I wanted to see if I could get things as accurately as possible and still produce a piece that had the qualities of literary non-fiction. TM: To go back to Aleksandar Hemon, do you agree with him that the memoirs that keep pouring out are a crisis of the imagination? Or do you think they're just a natural thing for our times? CK: Well, I find myself concerned with the way so many current memoirs have become confessional, very intensely oriented towards one kind of personal crisis or another, whether the crisis is medical, addictive, parental abuse or spousal abuse. I think what's happened is that memoir has turned into something that's obsessively crisis-oriented. Patricia Hampl and I collaborated on a series of non-fiction for the University of Iowa Press. Trisha's one of the leading memoirists of our time. But for her, memoir is never really separate from history and culture. For example, her first and most distinguished memoir, A Romantic Education, is about her Czech heritage – but that takes her into a whole story about Czechoslovakian history and culture. So for her, memoir is always more spacious and consequential than what you might call me-moir (laughs). TM: Yeah, I like that word too. CK: So I'm increasingly uncomfortable about what's become of memoir. But it's obvious that that's where the publishers find the sales and the readers because memoir in the past twenty or thirty years has turned sensationalist. So that's a concern for me. TM: You had mentioned to me earlier that you're undergoing chemotherapy. Are you planning on writing any essays about your experience with cancer? CK: No I'm not, for the very reason that I just told you. I don't want to contribute to a phenomenon that troubles me. And moreover, there have been so many pieces – and good ones – written about cancer that I don't think we need another one. Beyond that, I have more I want to do with the essay. TM: Are you working on a new book? CK: The next book of mine, which will be coming out about a year from now, is a collection that I'm co-editing with one of my former graduate students, Ned Stuckey-French. He's on the faculty at Florida State. The title of this collection is Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary. These are pieces about the essay by essayists themselves, from Montaigne to the present. They're not only by English and Americans, but by Latin Americans, Europeans and Australians. Many have never been translated into English before. But what's really fascinating is the unanimity of the thinking about the nature of the personal essay and of the essayist's persona. In a way the book is meant to lead to something like a poetics of the essay. And I have a long introductory essay on that subject. TM: Are you working on any other essays besides the introductory one for this book? CK: Well, I have about three or four essays that I wrote while working on The Made-Up Self, but they didn't get into the book because I didn't feel they quite belonged in it. One of the pieces is on the whole notion of show-and-tell. You know, the familiar maxim of writing teachers – TM: Show, don't tell. CK: Right, and this is a piece arguing against that. Because when you say "Show, don't tell," then you can't really bear witness to anything but the facts of an experience. You can't go into what I call the story of thought. I think that in every essay of consequence there are two stories – there's the story of experience, and there's the story of thought, what you might call the outer story and the inner story. The real masters of the essay are masters at weaving those two stories together. So I'm all for show-and-tell, show-and-tell. TM: Here's another terrible maxim of writing teachers: Write what you know. That's the worst advice anybody ever gave to a writer. CK: That's what I would call profoundly common-sensical wisdom. Write from your experience, by all means – but let it be known that your experience includes not only what happened but also what you've thought about it over time. TM: I recently read Henry James's great essay, "The Art of Fiction," which I'd never read before. He had a piece of advice that's the best advice I've ever heard for a writer. And that was: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." CK: I think what he always wants to do is get into the consciousness of his characters and immerse the reader in that. Which is why his style is so intricate and convoluted – because he's actually trying to replicate the movement of their minds. TM: Much like Virginia Woolf. CK: Yes, exactly. TM: Let me ask you a personal question. How old are you now? CK: I'm 78 years old. TM: And still writing every day? CK: I'm not writing every day now, not since the onset of cancer. I've really been quite weakened and hobbled by it. So mostly what I've been doing is to try to keep up with people by e-mail, and to keep myself in writing practice. TM: Well, I'd like to thank you for talking with us, Carl, and for writing this wonderful book. It's one of the best books I ever read. CK: I'm flattered, and really very grateful for your attention to the book and your admiration. That, of course, is what every writer craves.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It's the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible -- not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view) January Point Omega by Don Delillo February Reality Hunger by David Shields Bleak House by Charles Dickens March The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver April Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis June Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson July Freedom by Jonathan Franzen August Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis September The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker October The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois November A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand December The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
On a Saturday night in April, Sam Lipsyte is at KGB Bar in Manhattan, reading from his new novel The Ask, which everyone from book critics to blogosphere lit nerds have heaped with praise in the eight short weeks since its publication. Each time Lipsyte mentions the character named Vargina, the crowd erupts with cackles and guffaws. Fast forward to the present. Exactly six months after the release of The Ask, sales are strong, it sits proudly on featured tables in bookstores, and every lit nerd that you know is raving about it. They—and everyone else gaga over The Ask—fall for the novel’s voice in a matter of sentences. That voice comes from the narrator and protagonist of The Ask, Milo Burke, and many have confused this entertaining font of rage for Lipsyte himself. Lipsyte is a far cry from his antihero, but that’s why they call it fiction. And this time, Lipsyte’s fiction has catapulted him to a height of fame and success that he had never reached before, though his longtime readers insist the talent was always there, waiting to get noticed. Milo is an angry fuckup who is disillusioned with the arts fundraising department of the New York college (he calls it “Mediocre University”) at which he works and, by the end of the first chapter, has already proven it by giving one spoiled arts brat a verbal beating that Milo tells us “there is no point in repeating.” The onslaught gets him fired, though he is soon given a second chance dependent on his success with the “ask,” which is business lingo for a rich donor. The big ask turns out to be an old college friend, now turned wealthy sleaze, named Purdy Stuart. Milo must wring Purdy dry for a huge donation to the Mediocre U. arts program. Poor Milo—and the reader, along for the calamitous ride—spends the rest of the book leaping through hoops for the potential donor. Milo speaks in a furious invective that is somehow as endearing as it is caustic and vulgar. His lexicon is the resentful vocabulary of a failure—one with a hilariously dirty mouth. On the page, it reads like a personal screed, angrily dictated into a recorder. When read aloud, it’s even more effective. People at his readings listen with devilish grins, like they’re being naughty, indulging in a bit of shared misbehavior. Lipsyte reads from The Ask in a different voice from his own, loud and declarative, imitating the different voices perfectly. With each raucous sentence, tangled in swear words and name-calling, Lipsyte brings his character to life, and readers form a real relationship with Milo. Milo’s creator is different. He’s calm, collected, and friendly. He converses in a soft, earnest tone. He makes direct eye contact and holds it. He’s an easy, fuzzy presence. But in congratulating his newest work—caught up in their love for its protagonist—reviewers seem to have taken Milo as a direct surrogate for Lipsyte himself. “Yeah, some people seem to think I’m Milo,” says Lipsyte with gentle reproach but no sign of frustration. “A lot of people thought I was the guy in the last book, too. And they thought I was the guy in some of the short stories.” A review of The Ask by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Review of Books garnered particular frustration from Lipsyte’s literary peers. Schuessler calls Lipsyte the “poet laureate of overeducated American loserdom.” Similarly, a New York Magazine profile begins by encouraging “you schmoes of America” and “sad sacks in sweaters” (those with “rampant neck beard[s]”) to, “rally ‘round your bard!” The tone of pieces like this suggests a presumption that Lipsyte is one of the very men about whom he writes—that his characters are all slightly altered stand-ins for Sam Lipsyte. “As far as some reviewers are concerned,” says Alex Abramovich, one of Lipsyte’s best friends, “Sam is modeling each character after his life. And that’s a stupid conclusion.” Abramovich and his friends welcomed Lipsyte into their circle with open arms, and are, in a sense, the reason he moved to Astoria. Lipsyte is a large man, a bit soft around the edges, but he doesn’t seem out of shape. As it turns out, he was a star shot-putter in high school. “Look,” Abramovich sums up, “the main difference between Sam and all of his characters is that Sam has never been a loser at anything he’s ever done in his life. Have you read his sentences? He’s clearly one of God’s winners on this earth. He’s just too fucking charming to be a loser.” To be fair, there are surface similarities between Lipsyte and his character. Both men are Jewish. And the “Jewish question,” as it turns out, hits a nerve for Lipsyte in curious ways. “I’m not observant at all, but I think about being a Jew all the time,” says Lipsyte. “And I write characters that have a similar condition.” Indeed, The Ask isn’t really a Jewish novel, but there are, throughout its pages, tinges of the Jewish experience. For one thing, Milo routinely kvetches over his decision to not have his son circumcised. Meanwhile, his son, Bernie, has his own obsession—more age-appropriate—with the extra tubing. “Do superheroes have foreskins?” he asks his dad. “Does Goliath have a foreskin?” Lipsyte, as is his talent, turns a meaningful family moment into comedy just in time: “Not for long,” Milo answers. “Not when David’s done with him.” When Bernie asks who David is, Milo tells him, “A foreskin collector.” But apart from these brief mentions—allusions to Milo’s inner Jew—the character does not outwardly act like one of the tribe, and Lipsyte isn’t interested in writing a Jewish novel. “It was done,” he declares. “There was a whole generation that dealt with that. I’m not going to say, Oh, I’m Jewish and people really like books about Jewish stuff, so I should write something that has to do with Jewish stuff. That’s not really going to get you anywhere.” Nevertheless, there are those who see deeply entrenched Jewish themes in Lipsyte’s work. Once, a decade ago, a friend of his ended up on a panel for some sort of Jewish literary prize. Lipsyte’s book of short stories, Venus Drive, was nominated, and according to his friend, one of the panelists said during a discussion, “Why are we even considering this one? There’s barely any Judaism in it.” Lipsyte’s friend responded: “Are you kidding me? It’s like the most Jewish thing I’ve ever read.” Another link between Lipsyte and Milo: they both have five-year-old sons. In The Ask, Milo says of his kid: “Bernie was a beautiful boy. Good thing, too, as he’d become an expensive hobby. Preschool, preclothing for the preschool. Then there were the hidden costs, like food.” When this line is read aloud to Lipsyte, even he can’t help but laugh. Yeah, he wrote it, but it’s damn funny. Yet suddenly, he gets very serious and says, “I think Milo also deeply loves his son.” When the progressive, hippie-taught “school” that Bernie attends shuts down and Milo must spend entire days with Bernie, his fatherly love does shine through. Lipsyte has fond memories of walking through Astoria with his own son, early inspiration for scenes in which Milo strolls through Queens with Bernie, chiding him to stop playing with trash from the street. Lipsyte says that someone once asked him if having kids would change his writing. “Well, I hope so,” he told the guy. “It would be kind of weird if it didn’t.” He chuckles, remembering this. Abramovich feels that Lipsyte’s affability is a main cause of his friend’s newfound mega success. “Sam had a huge log built up of people who adore him,” he says. “He’s just the warmest, most generous and likeable person. And this isn’t boilerplate bullshit; this is true. One thing is that he never says ‘no’ to anyone. But another is that he’s really doing the work.” Commitment is what the young writer Tao Lin, who has done readings with Lipsyte, also points to. “Everyone I know feels that he really ‘went for it’ with this book,” Lin wrote over Google chat in May. “Which explains the ‘mad coverage’ it’s getting.” Lipsyte has earned a stellar reputation among other writers, even if it took reviewers longer to hop on board. On the evening he read at KGB, the author John Wray, who has been lauded for Lowboy, read before him. Wray announced, “I was going to read from Lowboy until I realized I’d be reading with Sam Lipsyte, and well, he’s very funny. So I’m going to read something a little goofier, with aspirations toward comedy.” His offering wasn’t nearly as funny as what Lipsyte read, but it was a valiant attempt. Lipsyte acknowledges the connections he has to Milo. “I think we have many selves and there may be a version of me inside that sort of has the same thoughts as him,” he says about his crude hero. “I don’t necessarily wallow in the bitterness, but his way of looking at the world isn’t alien to me. I think he’s often pretty clear-sighted.” Then, inevitably, he teases himself: “Maybe I’m just making up friends for me to have.” But the happy truth is that he doesn’t need to make up friends anymore. For most of his career, he struggled to get noticed. Although The New York Times reviewed all of his books, the consensus is that he was still under the radar, though Lipsyte responds playfully, “I always wonder where the radar is located, ya know?” Finally, with The Ask, Lipsyte has struck a chord. And people aren’t just praising the book, they’re interested in him as well; twelve major magazines interviewed Lipsyte in March and April. Ever humble, he tries to deny an increase in press. “I’ve always had great response from the people whose opinions I’ve cared about,” he insists. “So in my mind, my work was getting noticed.” Soon enough, though, he folds: “Okay, I've gotten more mainstream recognition for this book than my others combined. It's been a leap in coverage and conversation.” What excited Lipsyte the most in post-Ask coverage of him has been the fact that in a People magazine feature on which books celebrities are reading, Michael J. Fox mentioned The Ask. Fox said he was enjoying it. “I grew up watching Family Ties, so to see 20-something years later that Michael J. Fox is reading the book, well, I think I can retire now.” Lipsyte is positively giddy when he says this. Why did The Ask finally earn him such success? Why not his novels Home Land or The Subject Steve, or his collection of short stories, Venus Drive? “The Ask might be different [from his past work] in that there's a family at the core of it, a family that's come apart,” speculates Ben Marcus, a colleague and friend of Lipsyte’s in Columbia’s Creative Writing department. “Perhaps that draws more people in, feels more universal.” Lipsyte himself is more hard-pressed to wonder about the winning combination. “I think that what happened with this book is that I’ve been working for 15 years, and building something of a readership, and good will among some critics, and I benefited from that,” he guesses. “And the rest is sort of timing.” In a period of economic stress, political strife, and general apathy, The Ask nails the current malaise, and not in a preachy, tiresome way. It handles the issues that are bugging everyone by acknowledging just that—they’re bugging us. In the case of Milo Burke, they’re pissing him off. Yet if Milo were just pissed off, he’d be a more grating, whiny character. Instead, his anger is conveyed with humor. “Sam’s humor isn’t sitcom humor,” says Abramovich. “You don’t come up with some wacky situation. His humor is gnarly syntax and juxtapositions, and that’s a hard sell. I think it’s a happy miracle that he’s gotten as far as he has.” Whether it’s the family focus, his many years’ worth of strong relationships, or the humor that is to thank, Lipsyte’s number has been called at last. What has emerged is a writer who cares about fiction, in a literary climate that continually seems to cast it aside. Lipsyte read Reality Hunger—perhaps the year’s most discussed nonfiction release, in which David Shields suggests shattering labels like “memoir” or “novel” and simply calling everything a “book”—but Lipsyte is not concerned about the future of the novel. “There’s this constant debate about the novel. Is it dead, has technology rendered it dead, but the novel is a technology,” says Lipsyte. “What the novel can still do that other outlets can’t do is operate on a certain level of language and consciousness and association. There’s so much to do there, and there are still so many possibilities.” Sam Lipsyte, then, is less ordinary than he seems at first glance. He takes language and twists it, tortures it. He makes you laugh until it hurts and makes you nearly cry, often in the same paragraph that a few sentences earlier had offended you, outraged you. He isn’t sure which other contemporary writers are writing the same kind of books. “I’m in a tradition,” he says with a furrowed brow, “but I don’t know who else I belong with right now. Maybe I’m the beginning of a new trend.” Whether or not it’s a new trend, Lipsyte is doing something new, bringing something fresh and valuable to the literary table—something seriously funny. And his next work, a book of short stories for FSG, will almost certainly be welcomed with rave reviews. Correction: Originally, this piece incorrectly stated that Lipsyte had once worked at the New Yorker, and that he was half-Jewish. Those statements have been corrected. We apologize for the error. [Image credit: Ceridwen Morris]
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. - Freedom 1 month 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 3 months 3. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 3 months 4. 10. The Passage 2 months 5. 3. Tinkers 4 months 6. 4. Faithful Place 2 months 7. 6. The Big Short 6 months 8. (tie) 7. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 3 months 8. (tie) - Super Sad True Love Story 1 month 10. - A Visit from the Goon Squad 1 month Three of the summer's biggest literary novels vaulted onto our list in August. Surprising probably no one, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came out on August 31 and in one day was popular enough to debut at the top of our list. Two other literary superstars also debuted, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, reviewed here, and Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed and profiled here. Meanwhile, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger ended its run on our list and graduated to the Hall of Fame. Shields wrote a spritied defense of his book for us and provided a supplementary and exhaustive reading list as well. Elsewhere, Stieg Larsson's second "Millennium" book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, got bumped from our list (though the trilogy's final book remains firmly ensconced), as did weighty fave War and Peace. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, War and Peace, The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, Things We Didn't See Coming. See Also: Last month's list
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 June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Reality Hunger 5 months 2. 5. Stoner 6 months 3. 8. Tinkers 2 months 4. 6. The Big Short 4 months 5. (tie) - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 1 month 5. (tie) - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 1 month 7. 10. Wolf Hall 6 months 8. 9. War and Peace 3 months 9. - The Girl Who Played With Fire 1 month 10. - Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 1 month With four books -- The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? -- graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer's 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list. And it's Shields' controversial Reality Hunger that's still holding on to our top spot. Near Misses: Twilight of the Superheroes, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists See Also: Last month's list
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 May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Reality Hunger 4 months 2. 2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 6 months 3. 4. Let the Great World Spin 6 months 4. 5. The Mystery Guest 6 months 5. 6. Stoner 5 months 6. 8. The Big Short 3 months 7. 9. The Interrogative Mood 6 months 8. - Tinkers 1 month 9. 10. War and Peace 2 months 10. 7. Wolf Hall 5 months This month, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger slips into the top spot. Shields recently offered an energetic defense of the book and an accompanying reading list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel's list and number eight on our readers' list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. We've been learning more about Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is the surprise Pulitzer winner and small press hero, Tinkers by Paul Harding. Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End See Also: Last month's list
Both of my parents were journalists. My mini-rebellion was to become a fiction writer. I wrote three novels, but trying to write my fourth, I couldn’t commit the requisite resources to character and scene and plot—apparently, pretty important elements of a novel. This book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, became a literary collage, and that was my Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment. I’ve never touched terra firma again. All of my books since have been literary collage. I love literature, but I don’t love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent. Twenty years ago I was hired by the University of Washington creative writing program to teach fiction. However, by the mid-1990s I had stopped writing or reading much if any fiction. I felt after a while as if I were taking money under slightly false pretenses, so in order to justify my existence to myself, my colleagues, and my students, about ten years ago I developed a course in the self-reflexive gesture in essay and documentary film. The course reader was an enormous, unwieldy, blue packet of hundreds upon hundreds of statements about nonfiction, literary collage, lyric essay. That course packet was my life raft: it was teaching me what it was I was trying to write. Each year, the course packet became less unwieldy, less full of repetitions and typographical errors, contained more and more of my own writing, and I saw how I could push the statements—by me and by others—into rubrics or categories. All the material about hip-hop would go into its own chapter. So, too, the material about reality TV, memory, doubt, risk, genre, the reality-based community, brevity, collage, contradiction, doubt, etc. Twenty-six chapters; 618 mini-sections. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has created quite a lot of controversy, so this may sound disingenuous on my part, or falsely ingenuous, but all the book really ever was to me was that blue-binder life-raft: it was a book in which I was articulating for myself, and my students, and my peers, and any fellow-travelers who might want to come along for the ride, the aesthetic tradition out of which I was writing. It wasn’t the novel. And it wasn’t memoir. It was something else. Hard to define, but it had to do with the idea that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one; if you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms; it’s a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many really do? And here was the big break: I realized how perfectly the appropriated and remixed words embodied my argument: just as I was arguing for work that occupied a liminal space between genres, so, too, I wanted the reader to experience in my mash-up the dubiety of the first-person pronoun; I wanted the reader to not quite able to tell who was talking—was it me or Sonny Rollins or Emerson or Nietzsche or Frank Rich or, weirdly, none of us or all of us at the same time? Until that point, I never thought a great deal about the degree to which the book appropriated and remixed other people’s words. It seemed perfectly natural to me. I love the work of a lot of contemporary visual artists whose work is bound up with appropriation—Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Cindy Sherman, Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol. And I’ve been listening to rap for thirty years. Why in the world would contemporary writing not be able to keep pace with the other arts? My publisher, Knopf, which is a division of Random House, which is a subset of Bertelsmann, a multinational, mutli-billion-dollar corporation, didn’t quite see it the same way. I consulted numerous copyright attorneys, and I wrote many impassioned memos to my editor and the Random House legal department. At one point, I considered publishing the book on my own. Random House and I worked out a compromise whereby there would be no citations throughout the text, but there would be an appendix in the back with citations in very, very small type (if you’re over fifty, good luck reading it). I received permissions from everyone I quoted, including many whose work fell well within fair use. Quite a few of the citations are of the “I can’t quite remember where this is from, though it sounds like fourth-generation Sartre; endless is the search for truth” variety. The appendix is prefaced by a disclaimer in which I explain that “I’m writing to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost,” and I urge the reader to “grab a sharp pair of scissors and remove the appendix along the dotted vertical line. . . . Stop; don’t read any farther.” Numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ because I don’t genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one). I’ve become the poster boy for The Death of the Novel and The End of Copyright. Fine by me. Those have become something close to my positions. However, when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” My literary sea was frozen, and this book was my axe. Art, like science, progresses. Forms evolve. Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. See Also: All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List
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 April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list
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 March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Corrections 5 months 2. 5. Reality Hunger 2 months 3. 10. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 4 months 4. 6. Let the Great World Spin 4 months 5. - The Big Short 1 month 6. 9. Wolf Hall 3 months 7. 3. The Interrogative Mood 4 months 8. 4. Austerlitz 6 months 9. 7. Stoner 3 months 10. 8. The Mystery Guest 4 months Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was the readers' favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis' look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis' was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic See Also: Last month's list
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 February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 6 months 2. 2. The Corrections 4 months 3. 4. The Interrogative Mood 3 month 4. 3. Austerlitz 5 months 5. - Reality Hunger 1 month 6. 6. Let the Great World Spin 3 months 7. 8. Stoner 2 months 8. 5. The Mystery Guest 3 months 9. 10. Wolf Hall 2 month 10. 7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months New to the Top Ten list this month is Reality Hunger, a book by David Shields.. We had an early look at the book, a two-part interview with Shields, and Shields' shared his Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections stayed atop the list, but that top spot will open up next month as Cloud Atlas is poised to join the Hall of Fame. See Also: Last month's list
Following is a continuation of my interview-conversation with David Shields, author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the subject of this interview. Click here for Part One, wherein we discuss the nature of a “manifesto,” love of lists, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joyce, Chekhov, and the novel as a dead shark. The Millions: Another element of conventional fiction which you take up is the notion of a resolved plot arc, the falsity and myth of the “complete narrative action,” in favor of the entropic, the incomplete, the underprocessed. I wondered, though, in assembling the text-collage that is RH:AM, if you had some sense of narrative movement or “story” as you arranged, ordered, and created a structure for its fragments. David Shields: Oh my goodness yes. The book pretends to be entropic, but it has an unmistakable movement to it. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative (as I say, more or less, in the book). The book gets increasingly personal, keeps developing its argument(s), keep opening out and inscaping in; I hope that is manifest. If the book is a collection of 619 riffs, it’s not working for the reader. It’s an absolutely sustained argument about appropriation, genre, and doubt. TM: What about process? Did you arrange and rearrange a million times? Lay out little post-it notes on a giant canvass on the floor, Jackson Pollock style? Had you been “collecting” quotes in a notebook for 20 years? Etc. (I recall that in workshop you would sometimes pull out from your pockets your notes, scribbled on the backs of grocery and ATM receipts. Ah, the romantic image of the scatter-brained artist.) DS: A dozen years ago or so, you took a graduate course with me, Sonya, in self-reflexive gesture in documentary film and essay, did you not? [Yes – good memory, exactly 12 years ago.] Can’t remember if I was teaching the course then. Over many, many years I’ve been teaching the course, and the reading material for the course has tended to be a very unwieldy packet that I developed, hundreds if not thousands of passages from various people. And each year, the packet would get slightly more refined, focused, and the big break for me was seeing how I could push these passages into rubrics, otherwise known as chapters. Then I needed to organize each chapter for maximum effect, and all of the chapters for maximum effect. I thought it was still a first draft for the book. But I read it and kept rereading it and rereading it, and I realized that for me, at least, the form worked, as is, to my astonishment, in a variety of ways. A rabbit pulled out of a hat—my favorite kind of book. TM: Junot Diaz recently wrote on a New Yorker blog that President Obama’s central failing of the last few months has been absence of narrative. He wrote: "Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing[…] The story always wins.” Did you happen to catch that, and what do you think of that? DS: I didn’t see Junot Diaz’s blog, and I haven’t read his work. But he’s a fiction writer; of course he’s going to say that: story is all. I’d say pretty much the opposite. I’m interested in ideas. I love the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, because Nick Carraway is thinking really well about things for 20 pages. The rest of the book is a snooze, because it’s just a bunch of sops to the lazy reader, otherwise known as not particularly revelatory plot developments. I wake up a little for the last 2 pages. So, too, I adore the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five. The best 30 pages Vonnegut ever wrote. That’s the entire book, compressed to thought, to consciousness. What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to us: birth, love, death. What I want is to gain access to how you think. That will assuage my loneliness. I want work that foregrounds that to an extraordinary degree. A few such books are published as novels: Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Camus’ The Fall, Proust. TM: What, if any, would you say is the distinction between the kind of raw, collagey, reality-fiction art forms that most interest you, and plain old reality TV of The Real World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Keeping Up With the Kardashians variety? DS: I’m not really very interested in reality TV, I must say. There’s kind of a difference between, say, Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary films—which have had a stronger influence on my aesthetic than just about anything I can think of—and Jon and Kate. What is the distinction? An animating, artistic intelligence that is organizing material into a metaphor that ramifies. TM: Given RH:AM’s “evangelistic” impulse, does the possibility that the majority of readers who have a fidelity to fiction and the conventional novel form won’t be reading RH:AM trouble you at all? DS: Hmm. To me, the book is much more self-critical than that. Also, see answer to the question about novels. If you’re opposed to abortions, don’t have one. If the argument doesn’t fly for you, I’m sorry that I didn’t bring you along. But fiction and poetry have ancient cheering sections. Thrillingly great nonfiction—essay as art—needs a fuller articulation of how and why epistemologically sophisticated nonfiction (Bouillier, Wenderoth, McElwee, Simon Gray, Spalding Gray, Cyril Connolly, Nietzsche, Markson, Lesy, Adler, Brainard, Dyer, Fusselman, Galeano, Lindqvist, Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sebald, Trow, Thernstrom, Castle, Bernard Cooper, Annie Dillard, Pessoa, Mendelsohn, Spiegelman, Hardwick, Cioran, Rousseau, Duras, Pascal, Rochefoucauld) is about as exciting as prose gets. For that task, I’m your man. One needs to shout to be heard sometimes. TM: Funny, though: it’s obvious to fiction writers that nonfiction rules the day, commercially speaking – money, readership, likelihood of getting published, etc. When I teach fiction classes, there’s always a demoralizing moment at the end of the term where I tell students to have low expectations for publishing fiction, because fewer and fewer people read it; if they want to get published and want to be read, they should write nonfiction. Why do you think each side sees itself as the David and the other as the Goliath? DS: It’s a funny idea. Writer as perpetual spy in the house of love. Victim-lit as a way to psych oneself up. Crucial for me in writing this book—and in a way I’ve been writing it for thirty years, and certainly for the last fifteen years—was my vexed sense of the way in which great nonfiction is badly boxed in by straightahead memoir, on the one hand, and straightahead fiction, on the other. If I felt nonfiction ruled the day, the book may not have had its (willed? invented?) raison d’etre. The winner may get to control the story, but the loser always has the best stories. TM: You quote at length Kevin Kelly, from an article in the New York Times: Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library. The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to write texts into this library… In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. Then you go on to write: It’s important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms…I don’t think it’s a very good idea to write in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves. Did you at all consider publishing RH:AM in a more digitally-driven or technologically hybrid form, i.e. not primarily as a book? Do you think your work from here forward will be in print/book form, or something that incorporates more a fundamentally multi-media conception? The approaches of documentary and other cinematic forms, as well as music, for example, seem to figure integrally into your Manifesto. DS: Interesting. One offer I had from a UK publisher was to publish the book as a series of tweets. I was tempted, but I decided not to go that way. I feel like my bluff got called. Here was my chance, but I was still somewhat loyal to good old print. We shall see where I go next, Sonya—whether this book will find its way digitally and what I’ll do next. I’m extremely interested in opening up the floodgates, but part of me still loves the monumental old dam up on a hill. I’m working it out. TM: Lastly: in RH:AM’s epigraph, you quote Picasso’s “Art is theft.” In the first sentence of the book, you write about artists “smuggling” reality into their work, and then later you quote Bacchylides: “One author pilfers the best of another and calls it ‘tradition.’” At The Millions, editor Max Magee recently published an interview with an anonymous “book pirate,” and the interview prompted a lively and heated discussion among readers, and a record number of comments. How are we to negotiate/understand this new landscape of borrowing and stealing and sharing literary content in a way that is generative for literature, not merely parasitic? DS: “After decades of measures that have drastically reduced the public domain, typically by extending the terms of protection, it is time to strongly reaffirm how much our societies and economies rely on a vibrant and ever expanding public domain. The role of the public domain, in fact, already crucial in the past, is even more important today, as internet and digital technologies enable us to access, use, and re-distribute culture with an ease and a power unforeseeable even just a generation ago.” (Public Domain Manifesto) Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (parts I-III) is taken directly from other sources (especially Plutarch)—none of which are cited, of course. As I say in a preface to the appendix (I wanted to publish the book without any citations, but I wound up needing to do so, to comply with Random House’s legal obligations), “I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism, but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.” “Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet.” (William Gibson) Art is a conversation between and among artists; it’s not a patent office. Reality can’t be copyrighted. The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger. I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time—feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new. Cortázar: “To quote someone is to quote oneself.” Walter Benjamin: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” “My taste for quotation, which I have always kept—why reproach me for it? People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what pleases us.” (Alain Robbe-Grillet) “Language is a city, to the building of which every human being has brought a stone, yet each of us is no more to be credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef that is the basis of the continent.” (Emerson) “Genius borrows nobly.” (Emerson again) “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (T.S. Eliot) “About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” (Josh Billings) “People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” (Goethe) "A great man quotes bravely and will not draw on his invention when his memory serves him with a word as good. What he quotes, he fills with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of his table talk is presently believed to be his own." (Yet again Emerson, who is unfailingly brilliant on this subject). The mimetic function has been replaced by manipulation of the original.
Update: Don't miss our newest "Most Anticipated" list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond. There's something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño's relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available) Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison's unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison's death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it's the masterpiece they've been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim's affliction is that he's unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says "Ferris possesses an overriding writer's gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement." See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone's first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth's review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd's novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. "There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd's wide-ranging new thriller," said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, "It's a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it's also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city."The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova - The follow-up to Kostova's big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says "lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers." PW adds "The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer." See Also: Elizabeth Kostova's Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss' Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel's appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg's translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo's forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book's surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book's slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says "Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur."Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We've already discussed Shields' forthcoming "manifesto" quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited "the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010]." The book now sits on my desk, and while haven't yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in - British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield's Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, "Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that's not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited."Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort - a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here - was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel's prologue. It begins, "Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral's staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each."March Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan's new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski's New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book's protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book's chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change "debate." The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan's books have elements of satire, it's unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it'll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says "let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?" Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask "isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness."The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee "offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story."Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash's follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book's title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote "The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it." The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze's new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, "the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease."So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver's latest takes on the healthcare debate. The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk's novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, "It is the author's mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat's cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision."Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG's promotional material calls "McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing." "Silk Parachute" is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It's available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee's recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, "long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe 'on the chalk' from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France." Since McPhee's most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do "blooks" too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago's blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, "which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street," according to the Independent, in its report on the book's Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there's an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant's Journey, which "traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria," and Cain, "an ironic retelling of the Bible story," was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey's new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville "character" is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache."The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: "The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy... is the search for synonyms for 'brilliant.'"Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel's previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel's follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It's Canadian publisher has called it "shocking." And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by "pioneering postmodernist" Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: "Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008."May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, "blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme." As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, "it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one." Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? "They had made a movie about us."The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It's looking like that promising first effort may translate into a "big" novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge - the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II - and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon ("To bring an entire lost world... to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul... takes something more like genius.")The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson's nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn't exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions' readers get behind a book, it's often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final book in Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson's sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There's not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman's life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children's series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, "The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul." In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate's "Myths" series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser's Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: "Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper... covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card... Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment."June The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It's long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, "Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire."An American Type by Henry Roth: Here's another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s "comeback" effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, "discovered," according to the publicity materials, "in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor," will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: "Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West."A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it's as ambitious and layered as Look At Me--and I'm sure it'll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, "an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs," and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, "from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future." Color me intrigued. (Edan)July Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: "His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in 'a completely illiterate New York,' he said. 'In other words, next Tuesday.'" August Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it's hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a "sample translation" on Petterson's agent's website, it begins: "I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual." September C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: "What are you writing now?" And McCarthy responded: "Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon."Unknown Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it's "a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children."Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives - the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash - will be the length of the novel's gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip - particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel's content. From various obscure interviews, we've managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen's original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an "inside baseball" look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, "will play an important role in the novel." 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel." (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace's unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears - April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: "The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it's all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity."There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here - let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.
The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such "best of" lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest. It's also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones...and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another. And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual "Year in Reading" series - an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we've asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation. Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation Edan Lepucki of The Millions Michelle Huneven, author of Blame Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City David Shields, author of Reality Hunger Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1 Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com Patrick Brown of The Millions Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men John Williams, editor of The Second Pass Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize Ed Park, author of Personal Days Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica Dan Kois, author of Facing Future Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 | Support The Millions
In our all flash, no substance age, manifestos aren't usually the subject of much popular interest, but essayist and author David Sheilds' forthcoming book Reality Hunger bears "Manifesto" as a subtitle, and it may break the mold. What this book is exactly is another question entirely, and not a surprising one considering Shields' background as a genre bender. One thing that's clear is that the book, which will be published in March, has accrued an impressive roster of blurbers. Charles D'Ambrosio first piqued my interest with his entry in our Year in Reading last year: One of the best books I read this year won’t be published until next year but I think it’s insanely great so here goes: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. It’s a kind of chrestomathy that seems to come from one author but in fact is a compendium of quoted passages from writers, rockers, poets and whatnot, all of it traversing the disputed terrain of the real. It’s got a cranky, manifesto feel, its generous, serious, ridiculous, subtle, its ambitious but with a nonchalant throw-away feel like a Lou Reed lyric, its parts are so tightly strung together that you can’t pick a single thread without involving yourself in the whole shivering web. Anybody who writes or thinks or breathes is already living inside the questions raised by Reality Hunger. This book will drive me nuts for years. I think it’s destined to become a classic. That actually became an official blurb for the book (or D'Ambrosio had already written it and reused it for our series), and in offering praise for the forthcoming book, D'Ambrosio is joined but other literary luminaries like Jonathan Lethem ("It’s a pane that’s also a mirror; as a result of reading it, I can’t stop looking into myself and interrogating my own artistic intentions. It will be published to wild fanfare...") and Nobel-winner J.M. Coetzee ("Reality Hunger is...an all-out assault on tired generic conventions, particularly those that define the well-made novel."), among others. Knopf, in its publicity material says "David Shields has produced an open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century." If you're like me, you read all of the above (and perhaps more; Richard Powers, Charles Baxter, and Lydia Davis are among several others who offered early praise) and had to know more about this new... whatever it is. The literary journal Willow Springs has published the most substantial excerpt, and it offers (in what will seem like a counterpoint to all the non-specific but glowing praise) a handy editors note telling us: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, from which the following is excerpted, is made up of 563 numbered entries, organized into twenty-six lettered sections. Constructed as a collage of voices and ideas, “Reality Hunger” establishes early on that “genre is a minimum security prison,” from which David Shields has already escaped. Nine pages of the collage ensue, and they are somewhat underwhelming but oddly mesmerizing as well, with autobiographical recollections that give way to intellectual revelations. "When I was growing up, The New York Times was air-mailed to our house every day," he writes near the top of one of the numbered sections, and a few lines later we're at "My father reminds me that Walt Whitman once said, 'The true poem is the daily paper.' Not, though, the daily paper as it’s literally published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering anxiously in between." The numbering of the chunks and mundanity of the recollections followed so soon after by the intensity of revelation give the whole excerpt a bloggy, if not Twittery, feel. A briefer excerpt in another literary journal, Lake Effect, shows something different, though, aphorisms mostly: "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector." An interview in an early Willow Springs touched on the book and offers some more clues, which I don't quite know how to place, for example, "Reality Hunger contains dozens of unattributed quotes from various writers, filmmakers, philosophers, and other people." And then there is Sheilds' essay in the March 2006 issue of The Believer, also titled "Reality Hunger," which begins "The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me." This all doesn't exactly clear things up for me, but it points to the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest early next year.