Mark Binelli and I met for the first time on Oct. 27, 2012, in New York City. The excuse for the meeting was the TV broadcast of Game 3 of that year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs and have remained a life-long fan of the Tigers, so the sports editor at The New York Times thought it might be amusing to have me hook up with fellow Detroiters and write a string of sketches about the agonies and ecstasies of watching the Series. With a nod to Frederick Exley, they called the sketches “A Fan’s Notes.”
Mark Binelli also grew up in the Detroit area, and he agreed to join me for Game 3 at a dive called the Motor City Bar, about halfway between our apartments in lower Manhattan. As soon as we were settled on our barstools, Binelli delighted me by confessing that he didn’t have much use for Detroit’s twinned obsessions, cars and sports. So with one eye on the TV screen — a Detroit loss, one of four straight in an ignominious sweep — Binelli and I spent the game talking mostly about books. We talked about his first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a wicked recasting of the two doomed anarchists as a slapstick comedy act; we also talked about Binelli’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which turned out to be a marvel, a clear-eyed look at our hometown’s history, its racial divide, and the many forces that brought it low.
Since that night in 2012, Binelli, a contributing editor Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has published a stack of superb journalism — about Pope Francis, supermax prisons, George Clinton, feral dogs and ruin porn in Detroit, and a U.S. Border Patrol guard who gunned down an unarmed Mexican boy on the far side of the border fence. And now Binelli has published his second novel, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a title of considerable irony since Hawkins’s only hit record, “I Put a Spell on You,” qualified him as the quintessential one-hit wonder, though one with an outlandish stage show and a backstory that Binelli found irresistible. Binelli and I met recently in a park near New York’s Chinatown, where we drank beer and talked about books.
The Millions: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is one weird little book.
Mark Binelli: Thanks very much [laughs]. I take that as a compliment.
TM: In spots the book reads like straight journalism, then it’s almost a biography, then there are passages of pure fantasy, a little autobiography — but somehow it all hangs together. How did you arrive at this strange narrative strategy?
MB: I guess what attracted me to Jay [Hawkins] as a subject initially — I never thought I would write fiction about a musician, I’d been writing about musicians for Rolling Stone for years and that always felt like kind of a separate zone — and honestly it didn’t interest me that much, fictionalizing Jay’s story. I’d been backstage, I’d been on tour buses, I’d been in recording studios with musicians — and the idea of creating made-up scenes that I’d already lived through didn’t hold much appeal. The idea to write about Jay basically came from reading the liner notes on his albums.
TM: So there was no life-long attraction to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for you?
MB: I loved “I Put a Spell On You” the moment I heard it, which was probably at some point in college. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the Jim Jarmusch film, Stranger Than Paradise. I immediately thought, this is such a weird fucking song — it’s funny but it’s also very haunting and evil. It’s hard to make a funny song not cross into a novelty song. It was recorded in 1956, so it’s 50 years old, but to record something that’s that timeless, almost out of time, it’s a tough thing to do. So years after I first heard the song I was reading the liner notes to one of his CD’s, and the way his biography unfolded — in his telling — I thought, God, this is the ultimate rock star story/novelistic picaresque.
TM: You say “in his telling” because he was always embellishing his life’s story — claiming that he was adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he studied opera in Cleveland, that he joined the Army at age 14, that he was a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he fathered 75 illegitimate children. Did that attract you as a novelist — the fact that it was almost a made-up life to begin with?
MB: Yeah, that immediately gave me liberties to take him at his word, and then go further than that and make up scenes based on these stories that he told. But back to your original question about how the form came about, it was kind of through that. Once I was attracted to the idea of writing about him as a character, I started thinking about all kinds of different ways I might get at it. At one point I thought it could be kind of cool to write a straight, thoroughly researched biography.
TM: But you rejected that idea.
MB: I rejected that idea ultimately. I liked the perversity of the idea, because he’s not that sort of iconic musician, like John Lennon or Dylan. We could sit here and make a list of hundreds of musicians and Jay would be very, very far down the list of subjects for a biography or a novel or a rock biopic. For me, that was a big part of the appeal. It was such a weird idea to take this marginal figure who had one hit song and who made up all this shit about his life story — and then elevate him into the pantheon of rock gods.
TM: Did you start doing research into a possible biography before the book became a novel?
MB: I did a little bit of research, but pretty quickly I decided it was going to be a novel. And then at that point I decided I didn’t really want to know the truth, which is the opposite of what we have to do in our jobs as journalists. It was very freeing and nice not to want to know if he actually fought in World War II. If I know the truth, it might impair my ability to imagine it.
TM: So in a sense, the less you knew, the freer you were?
MB: Yeah, and I intentionally kind of researched around his stories. I probably could have found his military records and figured that out, but I didn’t want to do that. I did look into whether or not younger kids lied about their age to enlist, and that turns out to be true. I did look into what it was like for an African-American in the Army at that time? — how segregated was the Army? I wanted to get the details kind of right, or at least have a sense in my head of what it might have been like.
TM: Little tiny things, like when Jay goes squirrel hunting as a boy and winds up feeling that killing the squirrel was such a pathetic act — I’ve got to believe there was some autobiography in that. It was such a vivid little grace note.
MB: The funny thing about a lot of the childhood scenes is that some of that is the most autobiographical writing I’ve done. I love the idea of grafting details from my life — a white Italian-American living in 2016, in his 40s — grafting that onto the life of a black singer born in Cleveland in the late-1920s. Being able to mix all that stuff together was really appealing to me.
TM: You mentioned the Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. Something I was surprised you didn’t include was Screamin’ Jay’s movie parts. He played a hotel clerk in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. There’s that great scene in A Rage in Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, where Hawkins is performing “I Put a Spell on You” while Forest Whitaker is trying to dance with Robin Givens. Why didn’t you include some of that stuff?
MB: That did cross my mind, but in my head the book stops with him in Hawaii, sort of in exile. Pretty early on, I became less interested in what he did after that. The only point in the book that jumps forward in time is that one short scene where all of Jay’s offspring have a family reunion.
TM: That actually happened, right?
MB: Again, I’m not sure. There really was a website somebody put together after Jay died called “Jay’s Kids,” and they put out a call to Jay’s offspring to get together. I don’t know if there really was a meeting. Early on, I thought about doing a chapter where I interviewed a bunch of his kids. Then I had an idea about doing a long chapter from the point of view of one of his kids, going around the country trying to meet his lost siblings. I kind of cycled through lots of alternate scenarios. I have a problem picking one book when I start writing a book, and I think that’s partly where this hybrid style comes from.
TM: Have you heard this term “ahistorical fantasia?”
MB: Um, no.
TM: I’ve seen it used in reference to Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! — where there’s a set of historical facts, which the author twists and then adds fantasy on top. Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is such a book, and I would certainly think Screamin’ Jay would fit in there.
MB: I’ve never heard that term, but I like that kind of book. Based on these first two novels, I guess that’s what I do [laughs].
TM: What is it that you do?
MB: Before I wrote Sacco and Vanzetti, I was trying for years, pretty unsuccessfully, to write short stories taken from my life. It never worked. When I hit upon the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, part of what worked for me was the history element of it — having something I could research and draw upon. In a way, it connects with my work as a journalist. You go out and talk to people and take notes. You have raw material to work with. With the novels, I liked having raw material to work with — with Sacco and Vanzetti, it was the history of Italian anarchists and film comedy teams; with Screamin’ Jay, it was his story of the world he was living in. I liked having that stuff and then being able to just fuck with it.
TM: So the history is a springboard, a beginning point. It’s not the point.
MB: Right. You can play off of it and mess with people’s expectations. I found that works for me.
TM: What are some other books that you would consider similar in that approach? E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime?
MB: Maybe Ragtime. I loved the book, but Doctorow is not doing anything totally crazy with history. A novel by Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, is a recent example, where he takes this sliver of a fact from history–
TM: That John Lennon actually owned an island off the west coast of Ireland.
MB: — and then he makes up this great taxi driver/fixer character who takes Lennon around on this lost weekend there. I think all of that’s made up. I don’t know if Lennon even visited the island. That’s something great. I think maybe Pynchon to a degree does a lot of that. It’s funny, the other day I was in a Duane Reade and they were playing an old Chuck Berry tune, one of his big hits. I love Chuck Berry, it was a great song, but I heard it and I thought this really sounds like a song from the ’50s. It sounds very dated. And it just made me think how weird “I Put a Spell on You” is — you don’t really know where it comes from. I think that’s partly why it’s been covered so often and in so many different ways. And then Jay’s theatricality was ahead of his time.
TM: He was fucking with political correctness before political correctness existed. Going onstage inside a coffin? With a bone in his nose? Come on!
MB: Right, he was dressing like an African witch doctor from a very racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the ’40s. He knew what he was doing. He was messing with audience expectations — white audience expectations. One of his later records was called Black Music for White People, and it seems to me his stage persona, his get-up, his whole shtick was a way of saying to white audiences, “You think you want authenticity from a black performer? How ’bout this?” I kind of love the idea of that. Again, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but I’ve got think some of that was going on in his head.
TM: Are you going to write about musicians again, other than in your journalism? You think fictionally you’ll attack other musicians?
MB: I don’t have a next project. I have a few rough ideas, but none of them involves music. I stumbled onto Jay’s story and was drawn to it, so it could happen again. You never know.
Loren D. Estleman is a crazy prolific writer, in a league with Anthony Trollope and Joyce Carol Oates. In his 63 years, Estleman has produced more than 70 books — novels, collections of short stories, and writing manuals, as well as book reviews and assorted journalism. The words don’t just pour out of Estleman’s typewriters — he owns dozens of them, including some century-old museum pieces — no, they roar out, a relentless typhoon of words — words that are even more remarkable for their consistently high quality than their staggering quantity. In this sense he’s closer to rock-solid Trollope than to hit-or-miss Oates.
Newly published is Desperate Detroit: And Stories of Other Dire Places, a collection that will solidify Estleman’s stature with his hardcore fans while serving as an ideal introduction for uninitiated readers. The book is a sumptuous smorgasbord featuring hit men, riffs on John Dillinger and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a homicidal newspaper reporter, a grifter, an insurance scammer, a coffin-maker, a crime-solving bookseller, a truck-driving contract killer, and a cop who gets seduced into murder. Estleman’s universe is not a just or tidy place. Some people get away with murder, repeatedly, while others get framed for murders they didn’t commit. Everyone’s working an angle, and there are double-crosses and surprise twists, humor and ample darkness. There’s even a vampire western! One of the few things missing from this collection is a hard-boiled story featuring Estleman’s irrepressible Detroit P.I., Amos Walker.
For 40 years and counting, Estleman’s bread and butter have been the western and the crime story, though his fiction ranges so widely, from the 19th century to today, from prairies to ghettos, that it would be impossible and unfair to peg him as any single kind of genre writer. If anything ties Estleman’s work together, it is the eternal presence of crime in human affairs. “Crime,” as he writes in the new book’s introduction, “is the most durable small business we have.”
As I read these stories, I kept flipping to the front of the book, where their original publication venues and dates are printed. I was surprised to notice that, with a few exceptions, they first appeared in one of two places: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The first short story Estleman published, “The Tree on Execution Hill,” appeared in the August 1977 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Used” was his first sale to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the June 1982 issue. These stories, which both appear in Desperate Detroit, were the beginnings of long and fruitful partnerships that endure to this day.
So this book was turning out to be more than a sampling of stories by a writer with a vast range, an iron work ethic, and a time-tested ability to please readers. The book is also a window into the way the publishing of short fiction has changed in America since World War II — a time of brutal contraction both in the audience for short stories and in the venues where they get published.
The first issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, featuring stories by Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, was published in the fall of 1941, which means the magazine has now reached the venerable age of 75. The first thing you need to know about Ellery Queen is that he didn’t exist. It was the pen name of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who developed an unusual division of labor. Dannay edited the magazine until his death in 1982, while the two collaborated, sometimes contentiously, on the short stories and novels that appeared under the byline of Ellery Queen and sold some 100 million books. “We fight like hell,” Dannay said of his collaborating cousin. He added, a bit more loftily, “Our books are as much a canvas of their time as the books of Proust were of his time.”
In 1956, a sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, began publishing, also edited by Dannay. Its only affiliation with the great filmmaker was the use of his name and image on the cover for branding purposes, sort of like Donald Trump spring water. The magazine was born at what would seem an unpropitious moment — as the slick magazines (Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Story, Good Housekeeping) were either going out of business or dropping fiction, while the pulps (Black Mask, Two-Fisted Detective, Weird Tales) were succumbing to television, paperback novels, comics, and changing post-war tastes. And yet, both EQMM and AHMM managed to survive the shakeout, and they continue to thrive.
Dannay’s likening of Ellery Queen to Proust may be a stretch, but it was revealing. “One of Dannay’s aspirations for EQMM was to demonstrate that the mystery was a ‘genuine literary form,’” the magazine’s current editor, Janet Hutchings, told me in an email. “This led to the publication of work by more than 40 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, including William Faulkner.” Other names to grace the table of contents include Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Ed McBain, Isaac Asimov, Ruth Rendell, and Ian Rankin. EQMM was the first magazine to publish Jorge Luis Borges in English. Stephen King, a frequent contributor, calls it “the best mystery magazine in the world, bar none.”
Maybe one reason the magazine and its sister continue to thrive is that our age has finally caught up with Dannay’s 75-year-old vision. In 1941, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, the detective story was “frowned upon by the fusty gatekeepers of the literary establishment.” Recently, after years of being segregated by those gatekeepers, writers began to allow “high” and “low” literary genres to cross-pollinate freely and fruitfully. The result was mash-ups, crossbreeds, delirious hybrids. Along with Estleman’s vampire western, we got movies like Cowboys and Aliens. Novelists, including Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!) and Matthew Sharpe (Jamestown), fused seemingly incompatible genres into novels that are called “ashistorical fantasias.” Michael Chabon’s romp about comic book artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Elmore Leonard — primarily a writer of crime and western fiction like Loren D. Estleman — won high praise from such “literary” authors as Walker Percy and Martin Amis. Meanwhile, there have been successful efforts to resuscitate the impulses that once drove pulp fiction, most notably the Hard Case Crime series, which has published more than 100 titles in the past dozen years, including a lost novel by James M. Cain, an original by Stephen King, and, later this year, a lost novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. “We’re trying to keep that style of publishing alive,” the series’s co-creator, Charles Ardai, told me. “Short books with a lot of velocity, compelling plots, beautiful cover art — and not too much ‘literary’ artifice.”
Ardai, not surprisingly, is an ardent fan of EQMM and AHMM. (He has worked at the former and contributed stories to both.) He’s also a fan of Loren D. Estleman. “He’s a bit of a genre blender,” Ardai says. “He’s of that pulp tradition where a writer would write westerns and horror and crime. I think he’d be proud of being described as a throwback to an earlier era, when writers wrote prolifically and never failed to entertain. It’s not haute cuisine — it’s red meat, the stuff you can’t put down until your plate is clean.”
When I’d finished reading Desperate Detroit, I called Estleman at his home in Michigan. (Full disclosure to fend off charges of log-rolling: Estleman wrote an enthusiastic review of my first novel in The Washington Post Book World in 1992, I sent him a thank-you note, he responded — and we’ve been pen pals ever since.) When Estleman came on the line, I asked him about the recent cross-pollination between genres, and between genre and literary fiction.
“I’ve made the point for years now that no genre ever dies,” he said. “Mainstream literary writers — people like Anne Tyler, who I like very much — are fighting over a smaller and smaller patch of ground. And genre writers are writing with more maturity. What genre writers understand now is that when someone dies, someone is out there to mourn them. Every death has a repercussion. So there’s a maturity that wasn’t always there before. These are novels about social conscience, reflecting what’s going on in our world.”
We’re getting back to Proust here. When I asked him about the importance of EQMM and AHMM to writers of short fiction, Estleman said, “They’re great magazines. They support unknown writers and they’ve launched a lot of people. They pay quite well, too, and sometimes the stories get included in anthologies. I’m still getting royalty checks for stories I wrote 30 years ago.”
But Estleman doesn’t deny that the shrinking of the market for short fiction has put a pinch on him and every other writer working today. “I would have loved to work during the golden age of pulp magazines,” he said. “There were at least 100 of them, and a writer could just go down the list submitting a story until it sold. Elmer Kelton, the great western writer, once told me that back in the day a writer could become a millionaire at half a cent a word.”
It’s something Anthony Trollope understood more than a century ago. And while Loren D. Estleman may not be a millionaire, he’s a writer who has made a solid living by working every day, one word at a time. Writer’s block is not in his vocabulary.
Naturally he has a new novel out, a western, featuring one of his most durable characters, U.S. Deputy Page Murdock. It’s called Cape Hell, a title that would have been right at home on the cover of a pulp novel.
“See here, I want you to come to Random House and lose some money for us with literary books,” the press’s president and publisher, Harold Evans, told Daniel Menaker, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, in 1995. “You have five years to fook oop.”
In his memoir, My Mistake, Menaker recounts this scene and his subsequent transition from magazine to book publishing. Blessed with this permissive mandate, Menaker naturally chose a book of short stories for his first buy. He ran the project, George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by his boss, Ann Godoff, who told him:
“Well, do a P-and-L for it and we’ll see.”
“What’s a P-and-L?”
“You don’t know how?”
The dialog continues for pages, Godoff guiding Menaker with Socratic patience through the advance, payment schedule, initial print, returns, trim sizes, PPB (plant, printing, and binding), and finally the pricing, before arriving at the beautiful and the good formula for putting out a debut collection. “That ought to do it. Isn’t this scientific?”
(Menaker can afford to lead with his book publishing greenness here, knowing full well that Saunders, whom he edited at The New Yorker, has since entered the American short story writer’s pantheon.)
Reading Menaker’s anecdote, I wondered about the first professional decisions of newly minted editors — be they powerful tastemakers blissfully ignorant of P-and-L statements or recently promoted assistants. What drew them to the first proposal they tried to acquire? Did they look upon the decision as a momentous one? Do they even remember it now?
I asked six editors to share a story about their first buy, encouraging them to reflect on the projects themselves and what they were thinking at the time: their vision of where their list should go and the risk, fear, excitement or challenges involved. Here are their stories.
Scott Moyers, Vice President and Publisher of The Penguin Press
I spoke by phone with Moyers, who recalls the sense of initiative behind his first acquisition: “I felt like I was reaching out into the world and creating something.” He had been an assistant at Doubleday for four years before making a “huge leap” to Associate Editor at Scribner. Going after projects was difficult because as a new editor, he “didn’t know many agents and didn’t expect to get a first crack at many projects.”
Sometime during this period, he read a “stunning piece of longform journalism” in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas E. Ricks about a Marine platoon’s boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Moyers jokingly described how he went on to pester Ricks and his agent for the book rights to a longer, “almost anthropological study” about Marine culture, its indoctrination methods, and the occasional tensions with the values society the soldiers were tasked to defend.
The pestering paid off, as he secured the floor in the auction, an anonymous baseline bid with the right to come back and beat any higher offers. There was another offer, which Moyers topped to secure Ricks’s Making the Corps, a success he says helped to “cement [his] status as an editor.” Moyers would go on to edit more books by Ricks, sell his books when he became a literary agent, and acquire his books yet again when he returned to editing.
Over the years since that first buy and the “almost existential fear” of being a young editor — one might compare it to a kind of tweedy boot camp — Moyers says he gradually learned what can and cannot be controlled in publishing. Reflecting back on the period when he was trying to make a career, he wryly notes that “nobody necessarily cares about your success except you and your parents,” and that Ricks’s decision to go with a young editor was an “act of generosity and faith” that he has not forgotten: “We grow more protective as we grow conscious of whom we owe.”
Kathy Pories, Senior Editor, Algonquin Books
Moving from the rigorous standards of nonfiction reporting to tales that couldn’t be any taller, Kathy Pories describes in an email how she reeled in quite the catch with her first acquisition:
The first book I acquired as an editor was a book by a local writer. His agent was in New York, and the book was out with other editors. It had an experimental feel to it, a structure unlike most books I’d read so far…fable-like. It felt like the kind of novel that people would either “get,” or they wouldn’t, so it felt a little risky for it to be the first book I bought. Still, my Editorial Director, Shannon Ravenel, was firmly in agreement — there was something so exciting and original and moving about this father-son story — and so she gave me the go-ahead to make an offer.
That book was Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. I remember that I was so green that Shannon kept passing me post-its with messages about what I should say to the agent (which in retrospect, I’m sure he could detect in my halting delivery as I engaged in my first negotiation. I wish I had a recording of that conversation now.) And we had no idea how big that book would become, or that within weeks, film rights would be optioned — or that it would actually become a movie. Anyway, it was an auspicious start. Seventeen years later, I still think you have to have that feeling that something is risky; those are the books that are the most exciting to publish. But I’m a little better on the phone these days.
Timothy Bent, Executive Editor (Trade), Oxford University Press
Timothy Bent remembers acquiring a vital, memorial work that has stayed with him over the course of a long career in commercial and academic trade publishing:
When I was at Arcade about twenty years ago I urged Dick Seaver, the publisher, to sign up a book whose manuscript he had given me, a newly hired assistant editor, to read. It was a essentially a “grief” book: a father’s biography of a daughter born with birth defects and who lived only a short time — barely over five months. It was a really painful story — operations, hope, more operations, loss. This was before I was a father myself and therefore before I could really understand all the dimensions of the grief, but the writing was so limpid, the thoughts and expression so unsentimental, the vision of this child so clear — what character and personality in a months-old child! — that I wanted badly to work on the book. I championed it, Dick acquired it for me, and I edited it.
The author is William Loizeaux, and the book is called Anna: A Daughter’s Life. It taught me to understand that every life, however foreshortened and unfulfilled, was worthy of a book, just as are those of Great Lives and Large Deeds; Anna inhabits one of those unvisited graves (as the narrator at the end of Middlemarch has it), whose lives we would never know or appreciate were it not for the written accounts by those who love and remember them. Her life counted. I gave myself to that book and became very close to the author and his family; when it was reviewed in the New York Times by Reeve Lindbergh, appreciatively, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment that has never been matched since, though I’ve now acquired and edited many hundreds of titles, many on those whose remains inhabit highly visited tombs. How does a biography of Anna Loizeaux stand up to one of Bismarck? In my mind, it just does: that’s what a writer can do.
Alex Star, Senior Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux
Alex Star’s first buy involved an essayist, Meghan Daum, who made her reputation partly on the strength of a comic, rueful, and rodent-populated essay about the perils of being an editorial assistant: “For the editorial assistant, every day is a new near-death experience. As if ‘going toward the light,’ we chase after what literature there is, trying, at least in the beginning, to discover the genius in the slush pile who’s going to elevate us from entry-level minion to up-and-comer with a brilliant eye.” Star writes:
The first book I acquired, in the spring of 2012, was a collection of essays by Meghan Daum. This was doubly gratifying, since her first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, was an important book for me back when I was trying earnestly to mis-spend my own youth, and because a new essay Daum had written, about a parent’s death, struck me as her best work yet. Daum’s new collection will appear this fall, and it covers mortality, children, animals, music, and growing older — an entire course on human nature, inside two covers.
Jenna Johnson, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jenna Johnson, who has been acquiring books for eleven years now, began with one about eight dramatic seconds. As she suspects is often the case with young editors, Johnson benefited from the “kindness of a senior colleague” for her first buy. During our phone call, she explained that inundated editors will sometimes encourage up-and-comers to pursue projects, which, however intriguing, they themselves might not have time to take on.
Thus was a book on rodeo culture passed along to Johnson by an editor for whom she had been reading manuscripts. Johnson’s history background and “demonstrated love for the American West” made her the perfect person to take the reins of W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo, which offered a lively account of the rodeo and its literature, a discussion of the West’s place in the American imagination, and a portrait of the author’s own “rodeo bum” father.
Johnson said that the first buy “signals a moment of traction,” a crucial step for a young editor “learning to negotiate the system and find a book that suits the house.” Though a project about rodeos was not an “obvious Harcourt book” at the time, the house had published works by Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, so there were some “points of contact” for a book about sports culture.
What came through most vividly in our conversation was the joy of working alongside the author to achieve “the right balance” of reportage, history, and memoir: the challenge in any piece of narrative nonfiction. From this first buy and from many subsequent acquisitions, Johnson has come to see that writers and editors often end up as each other’s “mentors” in steering a project home.
Jeremy M. Davies, Senior Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Finally, Jeremy M. Davies writes in about a thwarted first buy, which teaches him that a young editor must hone his taste as well as his strategic instincts to make his way in the publishing world. What follows is a two-part story of discovered manuscripts, intrigue, innocence lost, and a gleeful turn to (fictional) anarchy:
I had only been at Dalkey Archive for a couple of weeks. The first book I wanted to see signed on was an unsolicited submission by a translator of a deceased author who, at that point, had never, to my knowledge, been Englished. While I had minor reservations about the book — I wouldn’t say I’d put my head on the block for it, as I would have for Édouard Levé, or Lascano Tegui, or Gerald Murnane, to name three more recent Dalkey acquisitions behind which I’m proud to have been lurking — but I was certain it was right for Dalkey, and that the author was someone for whom Dalkey would be applauded for introducing to the Anglophone world.
Now, you have to understand that, then as now, it’s the Director who makes all final decisions about, well, everything. The process was semi-democratic, in that a book universally praised was far more likely to get the Director’s okay. Books to be rejected would either be dismissed out of hand or else assassinated by other, less obvious means.
I was nervous about making a strong positive recommendation so soon after arriving at the Press, but, to my surprise and relief, I received a fairly rapid and equally positive reply, and permission to contact the translator with the news that Dalkey did, indeed, want to publish his work.
At the next meeting, the book was axed on account of another staff member’s claiming that he didn’t, after all, “like the ending.” I suspected there was more to it than an aesthetic judgment, but what could I do? It was enough to kill the project, and I was instructed to reject the MS, even though it had already been accepted. The translator wasn’t too pleased with this apparent duplicity, and I wasn’t too thrilled to seem the culprit. But that’s showbiz, I guess: it was a good lesson.
Another “excellent” press would acquire the book and translate several more by the same author, whose identity Davies will not reveal: “Here’s a hint: it ain’t Bolaño.” In the story’s denouement, our hero, wiser and schooled in the Machiavellian dealings of non-profit publishing, triumphs:
The first actual acquisition I handled differently. This was an original English-language MS that (also) came in on the slush pile, a few months later. The submission held my attention as being written by someone in control of his material (not often the case with slush). I was struck by its tone, ambition, and eccentricity, and its very skillful juggling of slapstick silliness with desperate bleakness. It also didn’t hurt that it played to my pathological cinephilia. Cutting to the chase, this was Mark Binelli’s wonderful Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, which recasts the titular anarchists as vaudevillians who appear in such films as Ventriloquism and Its Discontents.
So, I saw that the book was “the real thing” (such clarity, in those days!), and I likewise saw that Mark was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. (And if you haven’t read his nonfiction, you should: his most recent book is Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, and he recently published a great profile of Pope Francis.) Evidence that I wasn’t a complete idiot: when I brought the book up, I started with the Rolling Stone connection and only then went on to quality. This put things in the proper context: Sacco and Vanzetti was a project that had a chance at some real publicity, and thus sales, so its high quality as fiction became added momentum in overcoming editorial inertia, rather than the initial meek shove. There were no sneak attacks this time, and the book was published in 2006 to great reviews all over the place.
But, you know, like the man said, “Show me a movie with a happy ending, and I’ll show you a movie that ended ten minutes too early.”
1. Two Guys Walk Into a Bar
We agreed to meet in a dive called the Motor City Bar, a couple of Detroit guys drawn together by a rare chance to watch our hometown Tigers play in the World Series. The bar is located, oddly enough, on New York City’s Lower East Side, 650 miles from Detroit but just a few blocks from where we now live. Beer and baseball were merely an excuse for getting together. The real reason Mark Binelli and I met in the Motor City Bar was to talk about his terrific new book about our hometown, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.
The book is a long-overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the one-dimensional narrative of urban decay that has been spewing out of Detroit roughly since 1970, the year Binelli, the son of Italian immigrants, was born. My family had moved away from Detroit a year earlier, after I’d spent the first 17 years of my life there. In other words, Binelli and I are a generation apart and we experienced the two very different sides of the Detroit coin: I was lucky to surf the glory years of Mustangs and Motown and the MC5, while Binelli rode the relentless downward spiral of layoffs, factory shutdowns, declining population and rising crime, and the wholesale transfer of blue-collar jobs to non-union southern states and to worker-unfriendly countries like Mexico and China.
“For people of my generation and younger,” Binelli, 42, writes, “growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. Our parents could mourn what it used to be and tell us stories about the wonderful downtown department stores and the heyday of Motown and muscle cars. But for us, those stories existed as pure fable.”
Despite this divide, it turns out that Binelli and I have much in common. His book grew out of an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which sent him home in early 2009 to cover the American International Auto Show and, more broadly, Detroit’s teetering auto industry. The omens at the time were dire: Binelli arrived the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as the world was plunging into a vicious recession; Michigan’s unemployment was above 15 percent; the former mayor of Detroit was in jail after resigning over a sex and corruption scandal; and the leaders of Chrysler and General Motors, two of the domestic auto industry’s so-called Big Three, had just returned from Washington, where they’d gotten down on their knees and begged for a federal bailout.
After finishing the magazine assignment, Binelli decided to stay in town and keep digging. For the next two and half years he lived near the Eastern Market, where, as a teenager, he had made deliveries for his father’s knife-sharpening business. (Binelli’s only novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, stars a pair Italian slapstick comedians who specialize in throwing very sharp knives and very messy pies at one another.) Binelli talked to everyone he met – businessmen who had moved their operations from the suburbs into vacant downtown buildings; creative young people who had recently arrived, eager to take advantage of cheap rents and the city’s anything-goes atmosphere; natives who had fled, attended top colleges, then come home to try to make a difference; urban farmers and gardeners; the students and staff at a successful magnet school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers; plus a colorful gallery of firefighters, autoworkers, artists, metal scrappers, vigilantes, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and activists.
The deeper he went into the story, the more convinced he became that the negative old narrative had played itself out. In its place was emerging a new sense of purpose and possibility. “It didn’t make rational sense, I knew, but I found myself edging over to the side of the optimists,” Binelli writes. “I couldn’t say why; it happened gradually, on the level of anecdote: I caught myself noticing and relishing slight indicators that in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.”
2. “The Messiah Is Us.”
As our first beers arrived and the World Series game began, I told Binelli that I’d had a weirdly parallel experience. In January of this year, just as Binelli was wrapping up the research for his book, I got an assignment to write a series of articles for Popular Mechanics magazine, positing that Detroit’s future is actually beginning to look intriguing and surprisingly bright.
I hadn’t been back to Detroit in more than a decade, so my editor laid out the encouraging signposts for me. There is strong support to build a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the busiest international trade crossing in North America, which is now serviced by an ancient bridge owned by a miserly billionaire who pockets all the toll money. There is a growing entrepreneurial class, high-tech businesses are flocking to downtown, and the city’s vast open spaces are already being turned into farms and gardens, wild forests and bike paths. My editor, who had visited Detroit numerous times in the past year, promised me that the city is well on its way to becoming an urban environment unlike anything anywhere else in the world.
I arrived in time for the 2012 Auto Show, sweating bullets of dread. What would I do if my reporting led me to the conclusion that the rosy story I’d been assigned to write was nothing but a pipe dream? Like Binelli, I knew that Detroit has stubborn, seemingly insurmountable, problems, including high rates of crime, unemployment, and illiteracy, a school system hobbled by years of corrupt and inept management, and a city government so financially strapped that basic services are spotty at best, and sometimes non-existent. For good measure, there are as many as 50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets and empty spaces.
To my enormous relief, there was more to see than the well documented blight. I ran into the same energy and determination Binelli had encountered, and before long I, too, found myself edging over to the side of the optimists. It certainly helped that the local auto industry, with a boost from a federal bailout, had not only survived but was suddenly, almost miraculously, turning record profits. But what truly amazed me was that Detroiters shrugged at the news of those profits, and the news that Chrysler was adding a shift and hiring more workers at its humming East Jefferson plant. This was my epiphany. This told me that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.
This do-it-yourself ethos was beautifully expressed to me by Jack Kushigian, a native Detroiter who grew up working in his family’s machine shop, then went off to San Francisco after college to work as a computer software engineer. Like the members of the reverse diaspora Binelli had encountered, Kushigian came back home to try to make a difference. I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. “Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,” Kushigian told me. “Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.”
3. America’s Mecca
After ordering a second round of beers and noting that the Tigers had fallen behind the San Francisco Giants by two runs, I said to Binelli, “I think the thing I hate most about the way people perceive Detroit is ruin porn – you know, all those books full pictures of gorgeous abandoned buildings and open prairie.”
“Yeah,” Binelli said, “people from Detroit get so inured to it. It’s like a New Yorker walking past the Empire State Building and not bothering to look up. I used to think ruin porn in Detroit was voyeuristic and creepy. But it’s not necessarily invalid because, let’s face it, that’s the way the city looks.”
The remark says a lot. While I reject ruin porn out of hand, Binelli has the subtlety to dislike it but admit it has its place in the narrative. “Why not embrace the mystique?” he went on. “Tourists come to see those ruins. They’re a legitimate part of the history of American industry. They’re like our Acropolis.”
When Binelli encountered a group of German college student poking through the gutted Packard plant, he asked what had inspired them to vacation in Detroit. One gleefully replied, “I came to see the end of the world!”
A more nuanced reading was offered by a Dutch photographer named Corine Vermeulen, who came to Detroit in 2001 to study at nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, then stayed on to document the opposite of ruin porn: urban beekeepers and farmers, lowrider car nuts, storefront mosques, and the artwork of the late Detroiter Mike Kelley. “I feel like Detroit is the most important city in the U.S., maybe in the world,” Vermeulen told Binelli. “It’s the birthplace of modernity and the graveyard of modernity…. Detroit in the present moment is a very good vehicle for the imagination.”
Vermeulen’s favorite movie is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is set in a very Detroit-esque post-industrial netherworld called “the Zone,” a desolate, forbidding place where it’s possible for intrepid visitors to have their deepest desires fulfilled. Vermeulen offered to show Binelli one of Detroit’s “Zones,” and off they went to a 189-acre prairie on the East Side officially known as “the I-94 Industrial Project,” a federally designated tax-free “Renaissance zone,” where all the buildings got torn down and the only things that got reborn were grass, wildflowers and a single factory. Vermeulen and Binelli climbed a hill to survey this vast savannah. “From up here,” he writes, “it was difficult to believe we were minutes from the downtown of a major American city.”
In a footnote he adds:
Corine had never heard of Geoff Dyer, but in his collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he makes the same connection, sprinkling his account of a trip to the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival with references to Stalker and the Zone.
(My footnote to Binelli’s footnote: Geoff Dyer has since published an entire book about Stalker called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, which we wrote about earlier this year.)
Binelli’s footnotes are among his book’s great pleasures. He knows Detroit’s history cold, but he also understands its lore, which may be even more vital to his project’s success. Here is his footnote on the source of an early Detroit nickname:
See, for example, Newsreel LIX, of John Dos Passos’s The Big Money: “the stranger first coming to Detroit if he is interested in the busy, economic side of modern life will find a marvelous industrial beehive…DETROIT THE CITY WHERE LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.”
To commemorate the roll-out of Ford’s Model A in 1927, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired to photograph Ford’s mammoth River Rouge complex. After noting that Sheeler shot the plant the way an 18th-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, Binelli added this footnote:
The most famous shot in Sheeler’s series, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, invokes neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ, the titular conveyor belts forming the shape of what is unmistakably a giant cross. The photograph was originally published in a 1928 issue of Vanity Fair, where the caption read: “In a landscape where size, quantity and speed are the cardinal virtues, it is natural that the largest factory, turning out the most cars in the least time, should come to have the quality of America’s Mecca.”
That word tabernacular is absolutely perfect.
After explaining that Edsel Ford paid Diego Rivera $20,000 to paint the famous Detroit Industry murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Binelli notes that Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, managed to get in a dig on Edsel’s father, cranky old, anti-Semitic Henry. Here’s the footnote:
At a dinner party, Kahlo mischievously asked Ford if he was Jewish.
4. Eminem and Clint
The Tigers, meanwhile, were stringing together so many zeroes that the scoreboard was starting to look like a rosary. Naturally I started seeking a scapegoat and decided I wanted the head of the Tigers’ hitting coach on a platter. That’s another difference between Binelli and me. He doesn’t look for scapegoats.
Instead, he rejects the conventional reasons for Detroit’s decline: greedy labor unions, the 1967 riot (or “uprising,” as many black Detroiters still call it), the white flight it supposedly inspired, and the first black mayor it supposedly helped elect, fiery, divisive, foul-mouthed Coleman Young. As Young put it in his memoir, he was able to take over the city administration in 1974 because “the white people don’t want the damn thing anymore.” If Binelli sees a scapegoat, it’s the provincial Midwestern burghers who ran the American auto industry into the ground, cloistered in their enclaves in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, oblivious to foreign competition, playing golf while Detroit burned – “the preposterously overpaid executives, with their maddening, sclerotic passivity in the face of their industry’s demise.”
To his credit, Binelli points out that Detroit’s decline was a long time in the making, and racial tension was not something that arrived in the 1960s. Since its founding in 1701, the city has always been a racial and ethnic stew, spicy and violent. There was a nasty race riot in 1863, another in 1943 that left 34 Detroiters dead. The city’s population peaked in 1952 at about 2 million and has been falling ever since, sometimes gradually, sometimes precipitously. Today it’s around 700,000, or about one-third of what it was at its peak, and it’s 85 percent black. So the 1967 riot didn’t scare off the white people, it merely accelerated an established trend. The auto industry and “urban planners” finished the job, with their ever-bigger cars, their ever-bigger highways, and their zoning laws and red-lining that encouraged suburban sprawl while keeping black people safely sequestered below 8 Mile Road. Oh, and let’s not forget the Big Three’s willingness to “outsource” jobs, final proof that corporations are not people, they’re machines driven by the profit motive and very little else. Certainly not by loyalty to local workers when it’s possible to pay somebody in Alabama or Mexico far less to do the same job.
The Motor City once had mass transit – until automotive interests realized that people who ride trolleys don’t drive cars or ride buses. While covering that Auto Show in 2009, Binelli took a ride on what passes for mass transit in Detroit today – “the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs through downtown Detroit in a three-mile, one-way loop. The city used to have an extensive trolley system, but it was purchased by National City Lines, a front company formed by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other automobile interests, after which the trolley tracks were ripped up and replaced with buses. The People Mover began running in 1987 and seems, in its utter uselessness, as if it might have been built by another secret auto industry cabal, as a way of mocking the very idea of public transportation.”
Such observations show that Binelli, like all accomplished journalists, is equally skeptical of breathless hype and received wisdom, and he can also be very funny. As the TV camera panned across the packed stands in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, which opened in 2000, Binelli and I had to admit that though we miss long-gone Tiger Stadium we’ve both developed a grudging admiration for the new park. But his book makes clear that Binelli doesn’t buy into the facile media fantasy that sports are an accurate barometer and metaphor for a city’s fortunes, such as this serving of horseshit from a CNN columnist: “History has shown that when the city’s sports teams start doing well, it’s a sign of healing in Detroit.” When I mentioned that line from the book, Binelli laughed and said, “It’d be nice if it was true. But it’s not.” And he rightly lumps Comerica Park and neighboring Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Lions, with the dozens of shiny new stadiums littering the land, calling them “state-subsidized giveaways to corporations in exchange for their willingness to locate in the city.”
Yet there’s no denying that cars and sports are still central to the lives of most Detroiters. Nowhere was the convergence – and the narrative power – of these passions more revealing than in the recent Chrysler ads starring Eminem and Clint Eastwood.
“It’s funny how much people loved those Super Bowl ads,” Binelli said. “I think it’s because Americans want Detroit to succeed. It’s like we need the idea of our worst place coming back. If Detroit can turn it around, then Stockton can too, and Las Vegas, and all those cities in Florida that got hammered by the recession. Now outsiders want to cheer Detroit on.” What those Chrysler ads were pitching, he wrote, “had far less to do with cars than an elemental, nearly lost sense of American optimism.”
My elemental American optimism got snuffed for the night when I watched the final Tiger batter strike out swinging, a fitting exclamation point to a limp 2-0 loss. A loss the next night would complete a dispiriting four-game sweep by the Giants.
But as Mark Binelli and I finished one last round and said our goodnights, I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was remembering his remark in the book that he’d been drawn back to Detroit by the chance to influence the story of the century. “It might very well turn out to be the story of the last century, the death rattle of the twentieth-century definition of the American Dream,” he wrote. “But there could also be another story emerging, the story of the first great post-industrial city of our new century. Who knows?”
Nobody knows – yet. But based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what Mark Binelli and other perceptive observers have written, my money’s on the second horse. The longshot. The spavined one that’s coming from the back of the pack, coming on strong, and showing signs that she just might emerge as the world’s first great post-industrial city.
Image credit: Daily Invention/Flickr
Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn’t need my staff pick (I’m sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she’s a contender for this year’s Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, “Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?” So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book’s language put a charge through me – I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between “she,” the unnamed adulteress, and “you,” the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two’s web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom’s language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife’s ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle’s The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he’s good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren’t new to him – his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn’t taken before – but it’s a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn’t wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem’s crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt’s unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long – somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a “crisp and perspicuous” account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: “The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.” And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt’s book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy’s mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI’m not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed “ahistorical fantasia” (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here’s the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here’s the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli’s pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author’s peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the “debonair” voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn’t work, but it does: “And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.” Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn’t that about sum it up?) I’m torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like “Barbados” and “The Bush Administration.” Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York and is currently working on a second novel.I didn’t read so many new books this year, but three I loved were Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (probably my favorite final sentence of the year), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (expected to hate it but all of the effusive praise totally deserved) and Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker (deranged, Terkel-esque Q&A’s with the bottom rungs of Chinese society.)New (to me), and highly recommendable: Geoff Dyer’s self-described “method biography” of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which I loved despite having never read any Lawrence aside from a couple of short stories; James Merrill’s Divine Comedies, specifically the long poem “The Book of Ephraim,” which JM claimed to have written with the use of a ouija board (!); Lydia Davis’ great first collection, Break It Down; and William Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck, a perfect novel, and the best thing I’ve read in a very long time.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just 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.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of Fimoculous.com.Elizabeth McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of Salon.com author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
In this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a bemused consideration (not available online) of the Library of America’s new edition of John Smith’s works. Collected fact, or collected fiction? she asks. In True Travels alone,Smith [claims] to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses – and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States.Putting aside, for the time being, questions of veracity (not to mention morality – “outwitted heathens?”), the quadricentennial seems like a good time to touch upon the wonderful (and growing) body of fiction inspired by Captain Smith’s exploits.John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is surely a leading exemplar of the subgenre – as well as being one of the finest novels of the 1960s. Into the hilarious and strangely affecting story of one Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Barth drops passages from Smith’s “secret [read: invented] histories.” Smith emerges as a liar and braggart of the first rank. But Cooke’s intrepid tutor Henry Burlingame, undaunted, seems to model himself on the Captain. In the course of the novel, he “hunts treasure [and] wooes princesses,” while bewildered Ebenezer blunders along in his wake. If you want a black comedy of high adventure (or if you want to see where Pynchon got the language for Mason & Dixon) look no further.In the 1990s, William T. Vollmann revisited the Jamestown story with Argall. Here, we get Barth’s pastiche of colonial Queen’s English filtered through Vollmann’s distinctive authorial temperament. Like Barth, Vollmann is fascinated by the violence of the early English colonists and the slaughter endured by the American Indians (a fascination he indulges throughout his unfinished Seven Dreams series). Unlike his metafictionist predecessor, however, Vollmann blurs the lines between fiction and journalism, between fact and legend… Sound familiar?We’ll pass over Disney’s Pocahontas (IMDb) in silence, but Terence Malick’s astonishing movie The New World (IMDb) certainly merits inclusion in the Jamestown canon. Malick takes a characteristically earnest approach to his subject. Even as his colonists descend into evil, Malick unabashedly evokes the romantic pull of the virgin land. He portrays the Powhatan tribe as innocents, much as the settlers did – but without the condescension that enabled so much slaughter. This movie is resolutely un-PC, and for that reason its condemnation of European conquest breaks through the familiar litany of post-colonial pieties. It is devastating, as any account of the origins of the U.S.A. should be.Now Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father, has come along to toss his buckler into the ring. His new novel, published by Soft Skull, is called, simply Jamestown. I have not read it, but I can say that I like Sharpe’s writing a lot. Here he reimagines the Jamestown colony as a postmodern battleground, pitting settlers who travel by bus against indigenous people unskilled in the use of sunscreen. This appears to be an “ahistorical fantasia,” along the lines of Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! or Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! It’s notable that younger American writers are fleeing the good government of the historical novel in an era that has itself started to seem dystopic…that has, as Frederic Jameson puts it, forgotten how “to think the present historically.” But Sharpe’s choice of setting seems propitious. For as the Vollmann and Barth books show, there’s nothing novel about these wild new novels. They’re part of a grand tradition of American craziness that, Jill Lepore points out, stretches back to John Smith himself – “Who told his glorious deeds to many, / But never was believ’d of any.”