William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
Indie rocker Alina Simone’s loyal army of depressed Jews was surely devastated when Simone bowed out from music a couple years ago to focus on her writing, but it’s hard to kvetch about the results: the hilarious and humble 2011 essay collection You Must Go and Win, and Simone’s shrewd debut novel Note to Self, which FSG published in June. For a book in which relatively little happens (Simone’s husband joked while reading that he “couldn’t wait to read what doesn’t happen next!”), Note to Self is about a lot of things: Internet addiction, the thirst for fame, what makes art art, and when it’s time to suck it up and get your shit together.
The novel’s origin story is a strange one: Simone loved the title of a Tao Lin book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, so much that she set out to write the book she wanted Shoplifting from American Apparel to be. (Simone has read some of Lin’s work, but not the book whose title inspired her.) Though there’s no actual shoplifting in Note to Self, it does capture the “loose half-hearted morality of the hipster generation” that Simone had in mind when she started writing the book at a mercifully WiFi-less Think Coffee in the East Village.
Simone took time away from not tweeting or emailing (“Sitting in front of the computer doesn’t make me happy… I unsubscribed from everyone on Twitter except one dead girl”) to meet me at the FSG office, where she sat in a fat leather chair, profane profundities escaping her mouth like jagged bursts of cigar smoke.
The Millions: So, there are some gilded turds in your novel—
Alina Simone: That really happened.
TM: Those are real things?
AS: No, I mean nobody really gilded turds, but I had a day job that was in the Financial District and City Park, a few years ago — they always have sculptures there, public art — and they had these things that looked like giant turds. They were painted white or black or whatever but you’re wandering around wondering how this dude pulled this off. Like what is this? What was in his mind when he sat and made this? Was it just the way the clay came out of the bag? And he just said, “I’m done”? It literally looked like shit. I would walk through these giant shitty things and think, It’s kinda cool. I’m glad I live in a magical city where giant turds can decorate the landscape, and that someone is making a livelihood decorating public parks with terrible turd-like sculptures. But it got me thinking what if it literally was shit? If the guy said, “This is shit. I have this whole pretentious and elaborate backstory that makes it okay and makes it art.” I thought that would be really funny if it really was shit; that’s what inspired me.
TM: Somebody has put shit in a gallery before, right?
AS: Lots of people have put shit up! God, when I was in art school, there was a guy in my class — there was an end-of-the-year exhibit of all the undergrads’ art, and he wanted to do horseshit. It was horseshit in a bowl; he hadn’t made a beautiful painting or sculpture out of horseshit. He got some horse or cow shit and there was just a bowl, and maybe a sign over it, but it was conceptual. And my university wouldn’t let him do it because they thought it was a public health hazard, because it wasn’t behind glass or anything; it was just a bowl of shit. They said what if someone touches it, or there’s some disease in it? I dunno, it did seem a little conservative, ‘cause come on, no one’s gonna touch it, and being in a room with some cow shit probably isn’t gonna hurt anyone. But it was this huge thing and it made all the papers and I think eventually he did put it in a glass box. People have been putting shit in places for a long time. Shit is a thing. It’s totally a thing. Shit, pee, any human bodily fluid. It sells. People are into it.
TM: Do you think there’s more of that kind of shit in the art and photography and film worlds than in literature or music? Or do you think there’s the equivalent of that in every medium?
AS: I think that photo and painting and definitely video, certain art forms are probably more conducive to — I mean if you’re sculpting things I guess you can be scatological, you can use shit, sure. All of those. Literature, definitely. I feel like there’s a whole subgenre of people who write very salacious things to varying degrees of quality. I’m fine with you writing something really dirty and racy if the sentences are nicely crafted, if the writing is carefully constructed. But there are people who just poop it all out, just bloggy vomit of what happened to them, and it’s really really salacious and so it draws people. It’s like when I was in school, it was really hard to compete with people who were just yanking on people’s biological impulses to look at a giant picture of a vag. You might take a picture of a tree that’s awesome, and you used a 8 x 10 camera and it took you two hours to get that shot right and then you mixed the developer by hand using a gram scale and fine-printed it, and you made this Ansel Adams-level picture of a tree—and right next to it is this huge picture of a vag. I mean that was the photo that greeted everyone in my art school for six months. It hung over the front desk; there was a person sitting at the front desk and above him was this vag —
TM: As if he’d just exited the womb.
AS: Exactly. It was just a logical progression. I remember, because I wasn’t doing that kind of art — with no judgment of value; I just happened to not be doing it — and I was like damn, it’s really hard to compete with people who are doing that. I can see why they want to look at that vag more than my tree. It’s really a brutal world out there. That was definitely another genesis for the book. I feel like that issue of narcissism in art — I don’t mean to call it narcissism, but there’s no word for it, so for lack of a better word, narcissism — I thought it was such an interesting philosophical thing to explore, and I wanted to try to do it in a narrative form. I think it’s a fascinating subject and one that really hits people’s buttons. You might have an aunt who’s 70 and you take her to New York to go to some gallery, and she might say, “What the hell is this? I could make this! I want to have an experience of art that’s deep and meaningful. This sucks.” People like to debate what makes things art, what makes things worth something. So that was part of the drive behind the book.
TM: You’re essentially retired from music. Do you miss it?
AS: I do. If a billionaire waved a wand and said he’d set me up with all the things I need to make an amazing album, I would do it. But the economics of it are just so daunting, like how do you even break even on the production costs of an album at this point? And as a solo person — I’m not part of a five-person band sharing the load — just the promotion of it. I’m not a very self-promotional person; I don’t love doing Kickstarters and websites and tweeting and blogging. I just don’t like it. The way the music industry is now, it’s essentially weeded out people like me who don’t like that stuff and aren’t good at it. If you’re kind of quiet and you don’t want to beg people and make a big thing, there’s nowhere for you to go because all the labels that used to support those people are bankrupt now. My label that put out my first two records went bankrupt. The label that put out my first EP went bankrupt. That whole tier got wiped out, and then it just leaves the major indies, and I think you have to be really going for pop success if you’re going to try to get signed to one of those, and I’m not doing that at this point at all. So it leaves you in a place where you’d have to do it all yourself and spend a lot of money, and more importantly a lot of effort and time doing things you don’t like doing that don’t reflect who you are, and it’s just exhausting. So it’s kind of sad. It does make me sad because I love to sing and I would love to make some amazing album, but I just don’t see logistically how it can be done. I think every day how I can do it without doing all this stuff, and I can’t figure it out, and no one else can figure it out either. It’s a constant discussion in the music world of the new model and how to make it all work.
TM: It seems like every job I apply for wants me to be proficient with social media and HTML and all this other stuff. There’s a whole new skillset and the younger people are going to be fine with it, I think, because they grew up with it. I used to sub at my old high school and they all had laptops that the school had lent them for the year, and they were on their cellphones the entire time.
AS: That would totally freak me out. That’s crazy. Yeah, maybe the new kids will be all about this stuff. I don’t know. I have very strong feelings about the right to be quiet, and the right to not be self-promotional. I actually pitched The New York Times an editorial about the right to be quiet, trying to put forward the notion — especially as a musician, now that things have changed and now that a purely capitalist system is not going to support musicians at the level of real people, not Lady Gaga or something — I said why is it that people keep telling musicians they need to change their model and be self-promotional and tweet and Kickstart and do this and that? Why don’t cultural institutions that support all the other arts open the umbrella to support pop musicians? Because at this point all the pop musicians I know — even people you’d be shocked, shocked that are struggling — are really having a hard time making a living. It was never how I made a living; I always had a day job and I’m married and I’m fine, but I know people who this is their life, they don’t have another source of income, and downloading and all this stuff has eaten away at their livelihood. Why is it that now that I’m a writer I can get a job teaching? My resume as an indie rocker completely dwarfs my resume as a writer — very impressive, lots of press from fancy places and citations and awards and things. But there’s no job for that. How come that is less valid an American art form than writing poetry and saying, “I published a chapbook with 500 copies on some little press that some guy runs”?
TM: “You’re hired!”
AS: Yeah, but they are hired. And I don’t understand why that is seen as more of a valid thing to teach undergrads than songwriting. It’s just another genre, another format. Just like poetry has its constraints, so does songwriting. Why is it that you can get a Guggenheim Grant for being a writer but not for being a pop musician? If you look at the requirements, you’d really be shoehorning your way in. They’re not trying to get people like that; the musicians who are encouraged to apply for that are experimental or world or something that has traditionally been labeled as uncommercial. But indie rock is uncommercial now — it’s free, people steal it. It’s not a way to make money. So I pitched this article to say that it’s not just musicians who should reform themselves; they’re fucking reforming. They’re doing everything they can; they’re hustling and scrabbling and selling t-shirts and god knows what else. But what about the cultural institutions? Why shouldn’t anyone else reform given the way things are? I feel really passionately about that too; I think it would be — in every genre, not just music, but writing and film and everything — I think it would be a huge loss if we lost the quiet artist. Someone like Kafka or PJ Harvey, who does not blog or tweet or anything. If we lost that artist because it wasn’t possible to be reclusive and just go away and make great art. That would be tragic.
TM: Do you think it’s because there’s a stigma attached to more popular art? That the more popular something is, the less intellectual or artistic or deserving it is?
AS: I think there probably was some truth to that at a certain time, maybe in the ’80s, but I think that most people recognize that even genre things take a great deal of skill and craft and art to execute well, and that you can be just as much of an artist working in a really broad universal genre way. But I think the Guggenheim also says you can’t enter if you’re a genre writer — so what does that mean? Colson Whitehead’s last book was a zombie book. It’s clearly not just a zombie book for stupid people, which is what the Guggenheim is implying. But a zombie book for smart people — would that be okay? Or is it just not okay because it has a zombie in it? What do you call Stephen King, who went from being a pulp horror writer to one of the great American writers, who’s publishing in The New Yorker now and getting all the awards and reviewing for The New York Times Review of Books? Is he a genre writer? I feel like our cultural institutions are twenty years behind in terms of what art really is and their definition of art. It’s crucial that those people — they are the supporters and arbiters of taste, and upholders of art and art culture — they should be keeping up with the times and nurturing art of all kinds. They’ve become these weird gatekeepers for a very old school vision of what art is, which is stupid and annoying.
I checked the Guggenheim requirements about a month ago for this article, and I think maybe children’s writers weren’t allowed, so what does that mean? Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak — are these guys just hacks who don’t deserve it? I don’t understand this criteria. Maybe it’s just because Mr. Guggenheim, this rich guy who died like 70 years ago, said, “THIS IS HOW IT SHALL BE.” But it’s not just them; it’s a lot of different cultural institutions that cling to this idea — like the music that needs to be supported is the weird experimental music that no one listens to because that’s uncommercial. Well, okay, but there’s extremely innovative and complicated and genre-pushing music being made in rap and indie rock and elsewhere, and I don’t even understand what the distinction is anymore. Frankly it almost feels a little racist to me. I feel like universities are always upset about the fact that they don’t get enough black applicants — well, why don’t you let African Americans teach creative writing based on being really good musicians? There are tons of innovative, intelligent, creative rappers; why are they less qualified to teach creative writing than some poet? It would be kind of awesome; if Jay Z were teaching a class, I would take it. Or Black Milk, or someone ten tiers down from them, whatever. I think that would be interesting.
And don’t even get me started about opera. Like, really? This? The average age of an opera-goer is like 80, and it absorbs massive amounts of resources and millions and millions of dollars to support something that such a tiny section of the population cares about or can even afford to see. Almost no one can experience this art that you’re spending lots of tax dollars and public money supporting. There are crazy disparities there. Maybe that’s what my next novel will be about — it’ll just be one long rant about that. That no one will read.
This was my first year reading in public. I mean, I’ve always read books on transit and in parks, ever since I first learned how to attach meaning to the little symbols that make up words. But this year, I kept a public reading journal, where I have written about 50 books. For the most part I read only really good books, because I have never felt compelled to finish reading anything just to say I have. Of the 50, there were only a handful I wouldn’t gladly read again; about seven books that were truly excellent, in both intent and execution; and two that I had to read twice, because they lit my life on fire.
The first in this last crazy-making category was Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, which is a novel, but like a photograph presents an image of real people. Using recorded conversations with her friends, stray thoughts on the nature of genius, and details from her personal and professional life, Sheila Heti has managed to collage these real experiences to create — or perhaps, more accurately, curate — an impressive work of fiction.
To express their love, Sheila and her friends are always trying to make each other feel famous, by taking pictures of each other, writing stories about each other, painting each other’s portraits. If you’re on Facebook, you will probably recognize a little of yourself here. And yet Heti’s characteristically gamine voice cuts through the cloudy sentimentality that can settle over the divide between authenticity and the appearance of authenticity, between fame and celebration. The novel is an attempt at answering the titular question, and the mingling of the real and unreal, the recorded and the ethereal events in her life makes for a fantastically compelling read. Heti’s ultimately a genius for being able to so powerfully and lucidly demonstrate that the answer to the question of How Should a Person Be? is to keep on asking the question, and to keep on committing to being as a person should.
The other book I had to read twice was Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel. I thought I hated it, and I went back to it, just to make sure. It’s actually really brilliant. Like How Should a Person Be?, SLFAA blurs autobiographical events and recorded conversation together to produce something fictional. But there are so many key differences, and I’m only really drawing the connection now, months later. SLFAA chronicles the small adventures of a Tao Lin-type guy named Sam. The book opens with a conversation Sam is having with his friend, Louis, over Google chat. Instead of providing an ugly and vaguely digitized transcript of this conversation, Lin tags these dialogs with the word “said,” which kind of blew my mind. Here was an element of emotional verisimilitude, of experiential recognition, that completely shocked me; because I’m part of the generation that grew up online, I felt like I had found a mirror. The reason that I thought I hated this book was because the rest of the reflection that Lin provides is incredibly vague. SLFAA is full of unmoored things, signifiers unburdened from the responsibility of meaning, and the entire work reads like a staccato surface of the partially observed. And who knew this sort of thing was even possible, let alone incredibly readable? So it’s brilliant, and I still kind of hate it, but holy hell has Shoplifting From American Apparel ever lit me up.
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We’re all familiar of a certain stereotype of literary fiction as a category of beautiful homework reading, often characterized by stiffening description, upper-middle class liberalism, and a nutritious but often un-fun writing style written with what Virginia Woolf referred to as a brass pen. Things are even worse for so-called multicultural literature, relegated as it often is to what novelist Amitava Kumar has called “the ghetto of identity” and typically thought of as sentimental, auto-exotifying, and irrelevant. While my line of work typically precludes me from picking favorites—I’m the head of a literary arts nonprofit called The Asian American Writers’ Workshop—it often seems to me that the mode for many Asian American writers is less memoiristic or dramatic than comic. I’m thinking of a number of recent books that are linguistically playful, compulsively readable, and, you might say, somewhat agnostic when it comes to matters of race, such as Ed Park’s Personal Days, Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, Ed Lin’s This Is A Bust, Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook, and Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects, among many others.
Two books in this category—Monica Ferrell’s The Answer Is Always Yes and H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy—both follow their picaresque, if somewhat tentative, protagonists on their quest for cultural cachet, boozy good times, and, more equivocally, young love in New York. These exuberant novels are field guides to New York subcultures of the recently expired present—the ‘90s club scene and the weeks after 9/11, respectively—and drip with pop cultural, status-conscious, anthropological detail. (You could call them the nerdy poet wing of lad lit.) They do a good job depicting one of the virtues of life in New York: its wonderful unpleasantness, as espied in the perpetually unshaven, hungover, nocturnal state of their main characters.
What if Nabokov wrote a college movie? Monica Ferrell’s The Answer Is Always Yes tells the story of NYU freshman Matt Acciaccatura, a closet nerd desperate to become cool, who inexplicably ends up as the promoter at one of the hottest clubs in New York. Yes is about coolness, which seems 1) dubious and manufactured, 2) asymptotically out of reach and sought only by unhealthy climbers, and 3) a state of ecstasy. This is probably the only novel that documents both that word’s eponymous pharmaceutical twin in millennial rave culture and the word’s mystic etymology: ecstasy refers to a state of rapturous displacement from one’s own body. As Matt learns, no one can live in a state of ecstasy (or coolness) for long. While he’s often an angry and neurotic striver, as brand name-conscious as Madame Bovary and disempowered as a teen shooter, the novel seems secretly about something more innocent: the less adventurous realm not of ecstasy, but of happiness—ephemeral, lyrical, mundane.
Huck Finn via global youth culture and post-9/11 detention, Home Boy follows Shehzad nee Chuck who occupies the three roles of the South Asian man in the American imagination: he starts the novel as a finance worker, spends the middle as a taxi driver, and by the end is detained by the Federal government under suspicions of terrorism. Chuck, like most of the characters in the novel, possesses two names, signaling his dial allegiances to both the Asia of Nusrat tunes, the verses of Faiz, and transcontinental flights to Karachi and to the America of the Big Apple, The Great Gatsby, and gangsta rap. At one point someone calls Chuck a “homeboy”—which immediately makes him question his ethnic allegiances, like a neurotic Roth narrator. Yet I think the novel’s point is that ethnicity is not an overriding kingdom that trumps other parts of our identity. Rather, the lava of culture—the novels and poems we love, our favorite beers and pop songs—creeps over everything and accretes into our personality. The constant detritus of culture gives the novel a Bellow-sian capaciousness (here’s the diction of the opening page: boulevardiers, dialectic, postcolonial, Telemundo, crazy motherfucker, Big Butt), which represents an attempt to swallow a Baedeker of old school rhymes, barfly one-liners, and diasporic factoids into the American vocabulary.
Tao Lin’s new novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is about a young writer named Sam who, for mysterious reasons, steals from American Apparel repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and lands himself in jail. The story is told a spare, unemotional voice that is, at turns, funny and strange and yet somehow casts a melancholy light over the characters. Here, I ask Lin about his choices in crafting the book. Lin is also the author of four other books including a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed. He has a blog and a Twitter account.
Deb Olin Unferth: In Shoplifting from American Apparel I notice you give as much narrative weight to the episodes where Sam is in jail as you do to the places where Sam is doing more mundane activities, such as going to Gainesville or chatting online with a friend. Why is that?
Tao Lin: I wanted to try to write from a more distant and inclusive perspective, and to the most inclusive perspective (the universe itself) everything has the same value. I think I wanted to do that, in part, because it’s a way of viewing things that is consoling to me, because it makes it so how one feels, in whatever situation, is determined by how one wants to feel or decides to feel, or how one decides to view the situation, not by what the situation is. So when conventionally bad things happen one can view it neutrally and not feel bad.
DOU: Was your interest in the title you chose due to the sound and meaning of the phrase, the catchiness and humor of it, or did you choose it to direct our reading of the story, as in, to call our attention to certain parts of the book—the shoplifting and jail parts—and point to them as significant in a plot that is otherwise unhierarchical?
TL: I sort of modeled Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title on Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade’s title. The Easter Parade’s title references an event about 20% into itself, in which the two main characters (who from that moment forward have, from certain perspectives, very depressing lives), I think, are at an Easter parade and happy, or at least content and calm, and, it seems, looking forward to the rest of their lives with some degree of optimism. The Easter Parade’s title therefore directs the reader, after they have finished the book, or whenever they think about the book, to the idea that the climax of the main characters’ lives occurs 20% into the book, when they are around 18 I think, in a book that ends with the main character at age 50, which to me is affecting, both in terms of me thinking about the characters’ lives and that Richard Yates’ wanted to direct the reader to that.
Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title also references an event that is about 20% into itself. But due to the nature of the novella, that it treats events the same, with the same amount of attention, and without any sentences about the characters’ thoughts or feelings, so you don’t know if they’re happy or sad, it is less referencing a time of happiness in the past than just neutrally referencing a time in the past.
Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title is me saying “time is passing, which is affecting, to me,” whereas, in my view, The Easter Parade’s title is Richard Yates saying “the climax of these characters lives occurred early in their lives, and time is passing, which is affecting, to me.”
DOU: In Shoplifting from American Apparel time shifts unexpectedly. A paragraph may open with “Four months later…” and it feels strange because we had thought we were in the middle of a scene or a situation. The choice seems almost random, not as if it is random, but as if you may have meant it to seem random, to give the suggestion of randomness. Do you mean to do that? Or what effect do you hope to achieve?
TL: When I work on a book such as this one, where the sentences are simple and literal and concrete, and not a lot of time is spent on the words within the sentences, the work I do is mostly on trying to achieve a level of non sequitur (or “randomness”) from sentence to sentence and scene to scene that is consistently “not normal.” I try to make the entire book exhibit a consistent level of non sequitur, ideally the same level of non sequitur from sentence to sentence as scene to scene. I hope to achieve, by doing this, a quality of rereadability due to the book seeming weird or aberrant, to some degree, like it has its own rules that seem to make sense to itself. In a fantasy book, one would create weirdness or uniqueness by changing the physical rules of the universe or changing the concrete details of the universe. In Shoplifting from American Apparel I wanted to create uniqueness by changing the “experience” of the universe, by making it consistently jarring or illogical from sentence to sentence and scene to scene and therefore, if I’m successful, and if one acquiesces while reading to the “rules” of the book, not jarring or illogical (due to it being consistently jarring and illogical), just different.
DOU: What can you say about the ending? Why did you choose to end where you did?
TL: To me, the book, in its lack of rhetoric, and lack of focus on anything else but what I’m about to type, has a kind of theme maybe: that I’m aware of the passage of time and it is affecting to me. The ending is affecting to me because it references childhood in a non-rhetorical and almost “accidental” way. After reading the last line I think about the past but also about the present as the future’s past. The question at the end of the book sort of implies to me another question that would be something like “what did you want to be when you were 25?” which Sam’s age at the end of the book.
DOU: How, to you, is Shoplifting from American Apparel different from your other books?
TL: It has a more consistent and extreme and sustained prose style. It has a more consistent tone. It doesn’t have any sentences about characters’ thoughts or feelings. It has little or no sentences that I feel embarrassed to read aloud. It has no em-dashes and I think no semi-colons.
But overall I think I still view it as the same kind of book as my other books because to me it is conveying the same philosophies and thoughts and feelings about life as my other books, just using different strategies to do so.
Booksellers across the country have loaded up dollies with towers of boxes and carted them to the front of the store. Amazon has broken into its super-secret, double-locked, chain-link fence. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is here. Understandably, other publishers have ceded this Tuesday almost entirely to the Dan Brown hype machine, but those looking for something (very) different can today find Joyce Carol Oates doing the zombie thing (not really) and the latest from Tao Lin.