I’m a binge reader. And I also read in spurts. Usually when I’m not caught up inside the lives of characters I’ve created and I can’t or don’t want to disrupt the dream. I don’t read to escape anything. I read to feel better. To respect other folks’ lives, the difficulties they’re facing, the way they manage, ignore, or flee from them. I want to see how the writer makes me care about the people she’s invented because I want to believe they could be real, that their problems are complex but plausible, such that I forget about my own and am empowered by watching, and fingers-crossed that these characters will unravel some of these knots in such a way that when they arrive at another plateau, a clearing, regardless of how temporary, I’ll be just as relieved for them as they are. I want to go on an emotional journey where their payoff is also my payoff, and when I close the book I not only feel grateful for my life, but the story I’ve just read has enriched me and it’s power has now snuck into my heart and soul and will be with me forever. I don’t ever forget a good book because I am changed. In much the same way being in love changes you.
Having said this, I admit I was feeling pretty purple earlier this year, so I revisited these novels and story collections that were guaranteed to take me on realistic journeys I knew would make me laugh out loud, empower and uplift me, but also make me feel as if what I was going through couldn’t compare to what these folks were dealing with. Of course, they delivered and helped me feel lavender again.
Haircut & Other Stories by Ring Lardner. Back in college, when I first read “Haircut” and “I Can’t Breathe,” I hadn’t read any stories where the characters spoke in voices that weren’t measured or “pretty” (like we’d been forced to read in high school literature class), but they were conversational, tragic, and hilarious. Ring Lardner taught me that humor could be taken seriously, and his idiosyncratic and satirical style helped me to honor my own voice. Plus, we’re both from Michigan!
We the Animals by Justin Torres. A 126-page novel that broke my heart from page one. I’d never read a coming-of-age story about a Puerto Rican family, and this one is both heartbreaking and beautiful because Torres’s prose is pungent, written in jewel-tones, but not deliberately to draw attention to it. I cried while reading this novel, and believed every word of it because I know families and especially children who do suffer like this, but am glad some of them are able to escape out into the open and survive.
The Boat by Nam Le. I wish I could write like him! From the opening of the first short story: “My father arrived on a rainy morning. I was dreaming about a poem, the dull thluck thluck of a typewriter’s keys punching out the letters. It was a good poem — perhaps the best I’d written. When I woke up, he was standing outside my bedroom door, smiling ambiguously.” What an image. Nam Le was 29 when this collection of stories was published, but he writes as if he has a long past. His prose is seamless and the stories offered me a glimpse inside the lives and worlds of people I would probably never come to know, but his genius is how he manages to capture the voices of characters unlike himself, characters whose struggles reflect all of our humanity.
I’m a sucker for a strong voice in fiction and memoir, which is why I’ve seen fit to get reenergized to prepare for my next novel by rereading these masterpieces: Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price; Who Do You Love by Jean Thompson, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons; Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan; Loving Donovan by Bernice L. McFadden; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and my favorite memoirist, Rick Bragg: All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frogtown. (They read like novels and I thought for sure Rick was probably black or a member of my family based on how his kinfolks lived, as well as the language he used).
It goes without saying that I usually reread One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez and his short story collections about every two to three years, mostly because I want to believe in magic not just magic realism.
I wish I could write a short story, but I’m too long-winded, which is why I have so much respect for them. Also, it’s easy to read two or three short stories back to back and travel emotionally without feeling you’re ending a marriage, but simply getting off an exit, which is another reason why I devour The Best American Short Stories annually (as I’ve since 1984), along with The O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and New Stories from the South.
There are so many brilliant and powerful writers whose work doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I wish I could tell them how grateful I am for all the beauty, joy, and pleasure reading their words have given me. Their stories have been life affirming. And we so need it now.
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I am a writer because, as a married man, I cannot become a priest. Fittingly, I first met my wife at a priest’s rectory. Father Joe Celia made dinner each Sunday for student parishioners of St. Pius X church at Susquehanna University. Twenty students lined two tables that stretched out of the dining room and into the living room. I came for the gravy, meatballs, and garlic bread — authentic Italian cooking was in short supply in this pocket of central Pennsylvania — and for the friendship of Father Joe. I quit the college’s basketball team when I didn’t land the starting point guard spot as a freshman. My coach told me to have patience; Father Joe added that I could benefit from some humility. I didn’t listen to either of them, and would live to regret it. So goes Catholic guilt.
Father Joe reminded me that I was in college to study, not dribble. He was a patient mentor, and a saint for his willingness to read my terrible first drafts. In one story, I spent thirteen pages going step-by-step through the celebration of Mass. Father Joe gave that one back to me and said he had enough of that each weekend. Summary is sacred.
I missed my family back in New Jersey, but Father Joe’s dinners helped ease the distance. Most of the students at those dinners were weekly regulars, but one Sunday I noticed a beautiful girl sitting with friends in the living room. My first words to her were the less-than-smooth “dinner is ready.” We grew up a half hour away from each other. My AAU basketball practices and home games were played at her Catholic high school. She would run sprints for winter track while I fronted a full-court press, but we never met. It was not yet our time. But it was our time that afternoon. I did not simply fall in love; I collapsed and keeled. After dinner I told my roommate that I would marry Jen. It was an accurate prediction.
Only a few months earlier, I had made another prediction to my roommate. I was going to enter the seminary to become a priest. More specifically, I wanted to become a Jesuit. And by “entering the seminary,” I meant beginning the discernment process that preceded the long formation period. It can take nearly a decade to be ordained as a Jesuit, but they seemed like the best fit for me. They were priests, but they were also lawyers, teachers, and writers.
When I met my future wife that Sunday afternoon, I did not hear thunder. I did not shudder at betraying God. Rather, I recognized that my belief was not meant to develop into ordination. I was not meant to become a priest. I was meant to become a husband and a father. I should have trusted in my family’s history. My own father, while a student at Holy Cross College, was preparing to enter Jesuit discernment when he met my mother. Thankfully, they chose each other.
So much of faith is a matter of similar pivots and choices. Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is confronted by his friend, Cranly. Dedalus does not want to attend Easter Mass, upsetting his mother. Cranly quips that it “is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Dedalus, ever sensitive and defensive, stands his ground, stating that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.” James Joyce’s entire canon is steeped in the Catholicism he rejected. For Stephen, and for Joyce, the poet replaces the priest. Dogma gets in the way. Transcendence is found in art. Although young Stephen dreamt of standing before a congregation, as an adult he would rather be God on the page. I love Joyce’s work, but disagree with his conclusions. He was a shrewd enough Catholic to know that Stephen’s words reflect Lucifer’s, but more importantly, they reveal a dual rejection of servitude to the Church and priestly service to the flock.
Like Joyce, I am a cradle Catholic. I have known no other creed. My childhood was suffused with rosaries, missals, crosses on chains, books about saints, nightly prayers, reflections on the pain and power of the Passion and the Resurrection, and Mass, but it was also saturated with watching the Boston Celtics and taping Hot 97 on both sides of cassettes until Biggie blurred into EPMD. New Jersey is a synthesis of Philadelphia and New York City, of Newark and the Pine Barrens. Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and Irish immigrants have created a folk Catholicism that begins in our cities but bleeds toward the suburbs, where each small parish has its own culture. Here in Jersey, The Exorcist still wounds us, but we return to it, like paying respect to a warning. Weird NJ is not simply a regional magazine; it is a way of life. The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.
Even as a boy, I knew that most devout Catholics did not enter the clergy, but I was always interested in the vocations of priests. They were very much regular men. My priest joked with parishioners after Mass, gave us pep talks before CYO games, and ate French onion soup at Houlihan’s. My interest in the vocation began with those observations, but evolved during college. I moved from studying astronomy, a theology of the stars, to literature and creative writing. Comparative literary analysis fits Catholicism well. Catholic thought is diverse and deep, from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Walter Ong, SJ, and G.E.M. Anscombe. For me, the Bible was the ultimate text: an amalgamation of literary forms, a work that demanded attention, elicited contrasting reactions, and always seemed to reveal fresh meanings after re-readings. It was that intellectual pull, coupled with the beauty of ritual and the opportunity to offer spiritual support to a community that made me want to become a priest.
When I say that I cannot become a priest because I am married, I do not mean to simplify that statement, or to offer it as a complaint. If I were able to become a priest now, that decision would not be my own; it would belong to my wife. And that is one tremendous hypothetical. Catholics know Pope Francis is brilliant, compassionate, and not interested in changing doctrine. My personal desire to become a priest does not alone warrant revision of clerical celibacy. But I remain a practicing Catholic. You might call me an elapsed Catholic, to satisfy the jokes of my lapsed friends. My doubts have never been about God, but about the mechanisms of the Church, the institutional sins. Yet I have been blessed with the acquaintance of wonderful priests like Father Joe. Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have seen priests live as writers. The novelist Ron Hansen, while not a priest, is a deacon in the San Jose diocese. A lifelong Catholic who attended daily Mass, Hansen’s earliest novels were historical westerns, including Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He explains that his earlier subject matter was the result of following T.S. Eliot’s critical precept of the “wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences.” “Frustrated” that his fiction “did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life,” Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel about a stigmatic seventeen year-old woman who enters a convent in upstate New York. Ever since, Hansen has not shied from engaging the mysteries of faith, but believes that fiction writers “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” I appreciate that sentiment. I have never hid my belief, but do not compel others to follow my faith. Like Luke Ripley in Andre Dubus’s wonderful “A Father’s Story,” I “have no missionary instincts.”
Contemporary priests who write recognize they must pass the highest stands of craft and storytelling before engaging the spiritual. I think of the excellent writing by priests at The Jesuit Post, the sharp cultural work of Fr. James Martin, SJ, known by many as the “Colbert Show chaplain,” and the fiction of Fr. Uwem Akpan, SJ. Born and raised in Nigeria, Fr. Akpan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. His short fiction appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Say You’re One of Them. He has noted that while not all priests are writers in the traditional sense, “there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people.” Echoing Hansen, Fr. Akpan is drawn to fiction because it is “exploratory” and “not doctrinaire.” His description could apply to Outer Darkness, a “grounded take on exorcism . . . exploring everyday evil in an idyllic Midwestern town.” The show is currently in development from AMC, and is written and co-executive produced by Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ. These contemporary priest-writers follow in the lineage of 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose groundbreaking poetry intrigues believers and non-believers alike.
This cross-appeal may be why priests make such complex characters in fiction. Consider the priests in The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, not to mention the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Erin McGraw.
Priests and writers have much in common. Priests need to craft homilies that connect with an audience. These audiences range from the standing-room holiday crowds to the handful of daily congregants. A homily must simultaneously inform, entertain, and most importantly, serve as spiritual guidance and replenishment. Priests modulate between abstractions and specifics. They reach for the didactic without becoming pedantic. The celebration of Mass can be a grand ritual, the perfect antidote to a prosaic week, which makes poorly organized liturgical celebrations and flat sermons so obvious.
Even the most dedicated Catholics become uncomfortable in pews. Some are waiting to bring their daughters to soccer games. Others pine to watch football or stream Scandal. They have good intentions, but they offer both subtle and obvious cues when their attention is strained. A good priest will know the limits of his audience; a great priest will help them transcend those limits. He will show them the joy of this time spent together. As Thomas Merton said, “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.”
I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.
I write from a Catholic worldview, but don’t often write about clergy or Catholic schools. Father Joe taught me that lesson, and thankfully, I listened. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I recognize that time spent at my desk can devolve into hours of selfishness, so I need to earn those words. Good fiction can be a form of good works. As a Catholic, I recognize that life is a story of continuous revision, of failure and unexpected grace, and of dogged hope. I am comfortable with the white space of ambiguity and mystery. I have faith, not certainty. To approach God in any other manner deflates the divine. I write and I believe in order to better see the world. Now, more than a decade after I left that rectory convinced I was meant to become a father and not a Father, a writer and not a pastor, I finally realize that I have not traded one vocation for another. I have discovered their common source.
Image via firstworldchild/Flickr
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July’s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)
In “Where We Must Be,” the first story of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a young woman, Jean, is driving north to Washington. After a wasted summer in Los Angeles, during which she failed to find acting work, she passes through one of the redwood forests in Northern California. A sign beside the road advertises, “Actors wanted,” so she leaves the highway and follows a dirt road. Stationed in the cul de sac is a mobile home that functions as an office for a man who arranges “encounters.” Tourists from around the country, Jean discovers, are willing to pay for the opportunity to get chased through the woods by Bigfoot. In a moment of desperation and humiliation, she auditions, stomping around the trailer in costume, “bellowing and shaking [her] arms.” The man hires her immediately.
“Where We Must Be,” like most of the stories in this collection, concerns a folkloric animal. The protagonists, or their loved ones, are obsessed with these monsters—the Amazon’s mapinguari, Lake Michigan’s mishegenabeg, the Congo’s mokele-mbebe—but no beasts manifest physically. We see Bigfoot, but only as a costume worn by an actor. Unlike Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where humans interact with bizarre creatures in an otherwise literary setting, van den Berg’s freshman effort is far from a fantastical work, indexing fabulism without ever adopting its tropes completely. And this peripheral treatment of the absurd may signal a change in contemporary letters.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline arguably borrowed an aesthetic engendered by Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo (or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for that matter), but George Saunders’ 1997 collection repopularized the critical viability of comic fabulism in the 21st Century, setting off a string of imitators. And though there are some young, stalwart realists—Jhumpa Lahiri, and more recently, Josh Weil—for ten years the lion’s share of new books getting buzz in the literary circles have contained something outlandish. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude has flying children; Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned features vikings.
There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the fabulist trend. But in practice, a lot of the work that falls into the post-modern, ironic sub-genre lacks real weight. Simply being clever is no doubt easier than balancing ingenuity with pathos. Shakespeare’s jokes released tension, but he didn’t found his plays on them. At her best, Laura van den Berg manages to establish an equilibrium between concept and poignancy. It doesn’t appear she trained to be a realist—there aren’t a lot of camps instructing such writers these days—but she may end up a champion of the movement.
There are certainly times when What the World seems structurally transparent. Van den Berg is a well-disciplined storyteller, but in some of the stories the sum of the parts isn’t much more than the sum of the parts. She always introduces her conflict early, then provides a subplot, an accessible over-arching metaphor, and finally a turn. But in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” for instance, about a young woman working in a Manhattan mask store and sleeping with her married boss, the various planks get hammered into place but the surface doesn’t feel sanded. There’s something inorganic about the unfolding of the narrative, as if van den Berg were a politician delivering her catch phrases from the stump; she’s on message, but the tenor of the delivery lacks passion.
On the other hand, “The Rain Season,” about a woman who retreats to Africa after her house burns down in Chicago, borders on masterful. “The Rain Season” is one of six stories featuring monsters—in this case mokele-mbebe, the amphibious African jungle reptile descended, as legend has it, from the sauropod family. In the village where the narrator teaches, the monsoon season is impending, and so is civil war. The townspeople spread the rumor that mokele-mbebe has left the forest and killed a farmer, and in deference to tradition, draw the monster’s image in the soil to ward off additional invasions.
Van den Berg does nothing specifically to exoticize the setting, but even in a book by a native African, like Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, the sections of the continent ravaged by disease and violence are the ideal breeding grounds for magic. When the hills are full of rebel soldiers who loot, rape, and kill indiscriminately, why shouldn’t the jungle contain a creature with the head of a hippopotamus that devours children? Yet in “The Rain Season,” mokele-mbebe is not a distraction from the human story. Rather the legend is a cultural articulation of fear, and the way van den Berg handles the relationship between fable and fact is pitch perfect. In a collection that can feel at times numbed by grief and loss, “The Rain Season” rises above distress, even approaching sentimentality. Normally I’d be opposed to a story at whose core are piteous children (“The Rain Season” contains a near saccharine scene: a semi-orphaned student gives his teacher a beautiful, handmade object), but as a counterpoint to the tragedy encapsulating the rest of the tale, a little maudlin gauze feels not just permissible, but necessary.
Before the book’s release, Barnes & Noble chose What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us for its “Discover Great New Writers” series. Undoubtedly, this is a boon for Ms. van den Berg. But more importantly, if her collection continues to gain traction, realism and sincerity, like some rough beast borne on slow thighs, may have finally reemerged from the forest. Van den Berg is writing a novel, now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that book she discards the surreal elements altogether. She doesn’t need them.
That sound you hear is a thousand book publicists wailing. Oprah Winfrey will announce today that her eponymous talk show will end in September 2011. That means that in less than two years, the ultimate book publicity coup will be off the table.
Oprah’s Book Club isn’t quite the powerhouse it once was. The club was started in 1996, a savvy move when neighborhood book clubs were in vogue with the Oprah demographic. The Book Club also was a way of distancing the show from its increasingly shock-oriented daytime peers (a format, we may forget, that Oprah once partook of.) In those early years of the Book Club, Oprah would often, though not always, chose a little-known, “mid-list” book that would become an overnight bestseller. In a literary world where writers are playing the lottery against the longest of odds, Oprah was the winning ticket.
The Club earned a reputation, perhaps unfair to the Club and perhaps unfair to the books that were a part of it, as a redoubt of “women’s fiction,” but the selections were more varied than that, ranging from melodrama like Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone to more nuanced fare like Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. The Club went on like this for about five years, selecting 10 or 12 books a year, and, with a flick of this magic wand, turning each one into a bestseller.
And then Jonathan Franzen came along. You can argue whether Franzen should have accepted Oprah’s selection as just another of many honors bestowed upon The Corrections or whether he had every right to exert some well-earned control over how his book was marketed, but one thing seems clear. Oprah had never contemplated the idea of someone turning her down.
After Franzen, the Book Club, as if trying to find its purpose again, meandered, initially with some fanfare, but increasing as an afterthought, through classics by Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and others. The books still sold but she was only making a couple of selections a year, and some of the dazzle had leaked out of the enterprise. Then, to juice things up, Oprah announced that she would return to selecting living authors.
In all the furor that followed the uncovering of James Frey’s confabulations in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, it’s easy to forget that prior to selecting Frey’s book, Oprah had actually announced that she was going to go back to picking books by living authors, and there was a good deal of discussion around this, as though “living author” was a genre you might find in the bookstore. But implicit in this announcement was a recognition that Oprah’s Book Club just wasn’t as exciting without the sub-plot of making an author an overnight millionaire and household name.
Or, to put it another way, What Oprah told the New York Times was, “I wanted to open the door and broaden the field… That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It’s kind of hard to do that when they’re dead.” But that was before Frey turned the whole thing into a circus, culminating with Oprah’s finger-wagging excoriation of Frey on her show.
Since the Franzen-Frey double-whammy, the Book Club hasn’t been quite the touchstone it once was. There some moments of cultural relevance, like the cognitive dissonance of Oprah selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road days before it won the Pulitzer, seeing an Oprah logo next to McCarthy’s name on the book cover, and later, her visit to his ranch for her show. But the Book Club remains an afterthought, with new selections happening only rarely (Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them in September was the first of 2009) and, while the books she picks still sell and publicists still get excited, the Club isn’t as much on the media radar, and no one wrings their hands about Oprah’s impact on literary culture any more.
This isn’t to say, however, that the Book Club was the only reason that Oprah was important to the publishing industry. Oprah had guests flogging books in categories outside of fiction and confessional memoir (and, yes, fictionalized confessional memoir) on the show all the time, and the big sales that followed for these celebrity memoirs, diet books, and self-help guides showed that, in publishing (and in every other business), landing Oprah was still the ultimate publicity coup. While gallons of ink were spilled on the Book Club’s literary taste, Oprah’s role was probably far more insidious with these other titles, most notably with her incessant flogging of the “power of positive thinking” pabulum found in The Secret. (Salon.com’s 2007 takedown of The Secret, and Oprah for hyping it, is essential reading.)
So, with the Book Club wasting away and the end of Oprah now in sight, what’s a publicist or mid-lister hoping for a miracle to do? The reality is that it’s hard to imagine our culture supporting an enterprise like Oprah’s Book Club again. In 1996, audiences were far less fragmented, and even a daytime show could command enough of the public’s attention to achieve the desired critical mass. Oprah is set to extend her media empire in new ways, as she’s launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) early 2011, and while word is she’ll do a daily show there, don’t be surprised if she takes the shift as an opportunity to retire the Book Club concept. And even if she doesn’t, OWN will be just another, and maybe smaller, piece of this already fragmented media landscape, and a new Book Club likely wouldn’t be the winning lottery ticket it once was.
Who knows, maybe she’ll get into publishing, instead. (I can almost hear the manuscripts flying her way.)
Bonus Link: The complete list of Oprah’s Book Club titles