The Art of Fielding: A Novel

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Literary Curveball

When most baseball players retire, they manage other teams, but Derek Jeter will manage a publishing imprint. The shortstop will open a publishing company, Jeter Publishing, in a partnership with Simon & Schuster. He expects to publish middle-grade fiction, children's picture books, adult nonfiction, and books for children learning how to read. The first title should hit shelves in 2014. Maybe this could have been a good backup career for The Art of Fielding's Henry Skrimshander.

The Point of the Paperback

1. “Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.” Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways? I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks. I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either. Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot. 2. About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look? The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers. Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance? “I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.” What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals? I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically. “Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ” “Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.” Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.” 3. A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it. “It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.” A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales. An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.) Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist. Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around. Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse. When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away. “The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says. Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list. “Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.” There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit. At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send. “Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.” The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending. “Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.” Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists. “We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.” 4. Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store. My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.” Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.” What else can authors do to support the paperback launch? Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme. And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference. I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf. “Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.” More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet. “The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”  

The Millions Top Ten: April 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Pulphead 5 months 2. 4. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 5 months 3. 5. The Book of Disquiet 5 months 4. 6. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 5 months 5. 9. New American Haggadah 2 months 6. 10. Train Dreams 3 months 7. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 8. - Binocular Vision 1 month 9. - Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 1 month 10. - How to Sharpen Pencils 1 month Last fall, the book world was abuzz with three new novels, the long-awaited books 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as Chad Harbach's highly touted debut The Art of Fielding. Meanwhile, Millions favorite Helen DeWitt was emerging from a long, frustrating hiatus with Lightning Rods. Now all four are graduating to our Hall of Fame after long runs on our list. This means we have a new number one: John Jermiah Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, which was discussed in glowing terms by our staffer Bill Morris in January. The graduates also open up room for four new books on our list. A Pulitzer win has propelled Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern into our Top Ten (fiction finalist Train Dreams by Denis Johnson has already been on our list for a few months). Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision is another recent award winner making our list for the first time. Don't miss our interview with her from last month. In January, author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic for us. The essay has remained popular, and a book he focused on, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, has now landed on our Top Ten. And then in the final spot is David Rees' pencil sharpening manual How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening. Our funny, probing interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, 11/22/63, The Sense of an Ending, and The Great Frustration. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. 1Q84 6 months 2. 3. Pulphead 4 months 3. 4. The Marriage Plot 6 months 4. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 4 months 5. 7. The Book of Disquiet 4 months 6. 5. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 4 months 7. 8. The Art of Fielding 6 months 8. 9. Lightning Rods 6 months 9. - New American Haggadah 1 month 10. 10. Train Dreams 2 months Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life has graduated to our Hall of Fame, and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 slides back into the top spot. Debuting on our list is Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's New American Haggadah, just in time for Passover. We reviewed the new take on an ancient religous text last month. Next month should see a lot of movement on our list as we're likely to see four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, meaning we'll see four new titles debut. Near Misses: Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, The Sense of an Ending, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 6 months 2. 1. 1Q84 5 months 3. 4. Pulphead 3 months 4. 3. The Marriage Plot 5 months 5. 8. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 3 months 6. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 3 months 7. 9. The Book of Disquiet 3 months 8. 5. The Art of Fielding 5 months 9. 10. Lightning Rods 5 months 10. - Train Dreams 1 month Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life lands atop our list, unseating Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and another Kindle Single, Tom Rachman's short-story ebook The Bathtub Spy, graduates to our Hall of Fame. (Rachman's book The Imperfectionists is already a Hall of Famer.) Debuting on our list is Denis Johnson's novella Train Dreams, which won mentions from Adam Ross, David Bezmozgis, and Dan Kois in 2011's Year in Reading series. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was a big mover again this month, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World also jumped a few spots. Near Misses: The Great Frustration, The Sense of an Ending, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, 11/22/63, and The Sisters Brothers. See Also: Last month's list.

Judging Books by Their Covers: U.S. Vs. U.K.

Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I've always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments. The American cover is especially striking, with the bird and skeleton looking like something out of an old illustrated encyclopedia. And the wide black band suggests something important is hidden within. The British version feels generic, with the beach-front watercolor looking like a perhaps slightly more menacing version of the art you'd have hanging in your room at a seaside motel.    

The Millions Top Ten: January 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 4 months 2. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 5 months 3. 3. The Marriage Plot 4 months 4. 6. Pulphead 2 months 5. 4. The Art of Fielding 4 months 6. 8. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 2 months 7. 5. The Bathtub Spy 6 months 8. 7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 2 months 9. 10. The Book of Disquiet 2 months 10. 9. Lightning Rods 4 months It was a quieter month for our list, with no new titles breaking in and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1. The big movers on the list were John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which received a glowing write-up from our staffer Bill, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which Jonathan Safran Foer called a book that changed his life. With an array of hotly anticipated titles coming in February, we'll see if any newcomers can break in next time around. Near Misses: Train Dreams, The Sense of an Ending, Leaves of Grass, The Great Frustration, and A Moment in the Sun. See Also: Last month's list.

HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction

1. A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.” It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago. “Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called -- what is it -- ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?” “They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said. 2. In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction -- or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.” Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them. Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay "Why Bother?", Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts -- the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few. The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here -- because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series -- I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift -- and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal. What’s changed? For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland -- all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable -- enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules -- to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans. But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains: Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time -- that is spread over thirty years -- and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool. By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point -- and to do it readily -- marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction. I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction. Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV -- and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run. I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up. 3. For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes). Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work. I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked. I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.” The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode -- scene of my childhood -- had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house. [For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0]. I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision. Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction -- and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood. And that idea weirded me out. 4. The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness. When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure). That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house. What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them -- and to know them on our own terms -- drives us to read. Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation. Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house. What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks. It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in. 5. A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew. It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively. And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day. Photo courtesy the author.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 3 months 2. 3. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 4 months 3. 2. The Marriage Plot 3 months 4. 5. The Art of Fielding 4 months 5. 4. The Bathtub Spy 5 months 6. - Pulphead 1 month 7. - The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 1 month 8. - The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 1 month 9. 6. Lightning Rods 4 months 10. - The Book of Disquiet 1 month While the top of our final list for 2011 included the same familiar names and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1, our year-end coverage helped push four eclictic new titles onto the lower half of our list. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was one of the most talked about books of 2011 and our own Bill and Garth offered glowing comments on the book in our Year in Reading. Jonathan Safran Foer touted Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows as a book that changed his life. (Our own Emily Mandel also wrote a fascinating essay inspired by the book over a year ago.) Colum McCann said of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, "It was like opening Joyce’s back door and finding another genius there in the garden." Finally, Hannah Gerson came up with "12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use" but only one of them was a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. With all these new books showing up on our list, four titles got knocked off: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass Other Near Misses: Train Dreams and The Great Frustration See Also: Last month's list.

A Year in Reading 2011

If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Millions Top Ten: November 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 2 months 2. 3. The Marriage Plot 2 months 3. 7. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 3 months 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 4 months 5. 5. The Art of Fielding 3 months 6. 10. Lightning Rods 3 months 7. 6. Leaves of Grass 5 months 8. 9. A Moment in the Sun 6 months 9. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 10. - The Sense of an Ending 1 month Haruki Murakami returned to our top spot this month with 1Q84 (read our review here), while Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here) crept up to the second spot. Meanwhile, Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car jumped into our third spot and Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods was also making a strong move higher. Another Kindle Single, Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy, and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test graduate to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss Janet's review of the latter. Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern appears on our list shortly after winning the National Book Award, while the Booker Prize win propels Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending onto our list. Near Misses: How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 11/22/1963, The Sisters Brothers, Salvage the Bones, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition See Also: Last month's list.

The Notables: 2011

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)

The Millions Top Ten: October 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - 1Q84 1 month 2. 1. The Enemy 6 months 3. - The Marriage Plot 1 month 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 3 months 5. 3. The Art of Fielding 2 months 6. 5. Leaves of Grass 4 months 7. 9. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 2 months 8. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 6 months 9. 7. A Moment in the Sun 5 months 10. - Lightning Rods 1 month The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren't the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, "in a just world, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month." The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens'The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss the review that started it all. Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer's Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer's books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher's debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. See Also: Last month's list.

Staff Pick: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Since I became a mother four months ago, my method of choosing reading material has changed.  Firstly, the book in question must be what John Gardner called profluent; that is, readable, one page pushing me to the next and the next, until, in a rush, I'm finished.  A book that I can't put down is a book that I'll want to read even if I haven't slept, even if my nipples are sore and my hair is matted with throw-up.  (Motherhood and college aren't that different, you see.)  Because I'm severely sleep-deprived, the prose of said book can't be too dense.  I need to understand what's happening, okay?   Lastly, the book can't be too heavy.  I don't mean this figuratively, I mean that the book must be light enough to read with one hand, as I will need the other one to hold my son as he nurses.  He nurses a lot.  I tried to read The Art of Fielding and my wrist almost broke. This is how I started reading smart crime novels.  First I went on a Tana French tear, and then I ate up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, which added Mississippi and snakes to its tale of dead bodies and a misunderstood outcast. These were well-written, completely manageable Mom Books.  I re-read The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, which, with its snap-shot scenes and meandering plot, didn't have profluence so much as a poetic realism that kept me in its clutches. And then I decided to try some nonfiction.  I'd recently given up reality television (er, most of it) after Rachel Zoe said "literally" for the zillionth time, and I thought reading a true story would scratch the itch of confessionals, cat fights, and the shock that the drama is all too real. I chose Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen because it was a Word Bookstore Favorite at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival.  I didn't attend the festival, but the store listed it in their e-newsletter as the book "that can change your life." (I see now that the key word is "can"--not "will."  Oh those cagey booksellers!)  Since I'd been considering getting back into running, I figured it might help motivate me. Let me get this out of the way: I hate running.  I did it a few times a week for about six months before I got pregnant, and I was happy to stop.  I never enjoyed it: it hurt, it was boring, and I always worried about getting a sunburn.  I much prefer exercise that requires learning a routine; if there's a mirror to admire and curse myself as I do so, all the better.  However, I liked the idea of reading about running.   A well-written depiction of physical exertion is supremely satisfying; it's like watching The Biggest Loser, bowl of ice cream in hand. Born to Run is about a tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who run incredibly long distances with grins on their faces and nary an injury.  Like all good nonfiction, though, it's about far more.  The book seems to simultaneously dilate and contract--its scope becomes bigger as it focuses on smaller, personal stories.  As it progresses it folds in more and more information and background: we're looking for a cadaverous-looking white man who runs with the Indians, known as  Caballo Blanco; we're discovering the lifestyle, diet and outlook of the Tarahumara; we're learning the biographies of some of the best ultra-marathoners in the world, such as the keyed up and loquacious Barefoot Ted, who, you guessed it, runs without shoes; we're meeting scientists who might have figured out why we run in the first place; we're celebrating the beauty and insanity of the human race.  By the last fifty pages I couldn't wait to go to a dinner party to share some of these amazing stories and facts.  Everything I said to my husband began with: "Did you know..." My brain was aglow. I also liked McDougall's own role in the book.  At the story's opening he's a casual jogger with a bum foot, and at the end he's competing in a Tarahumara race.  Much of his struggle reminded me of novel-writing.  His trainer tells him, "Just beat the course.  No one else, just the course," and that advice helps him reach the finish line.  These are also wise words for anyone who's mired in the first (or tenth) draft of a book: put away thoughts of the larger literary world, its capricious machinations, its fellow writers, and focus on the writing itself.  And, most importantly, don't forget to smile.  McDougall argues that the runner who approaches the act with joy, and who faces the world at large with that same open heart, is better runner.  I'd say the same applies to the writer.  It's no coincidence that Anton Chekhov considered compassion a requirement of fiction writing. The fact that I haven't yet returned to running is no fault of this book. I will. I promise.  When I do, I will keep my gait and posture in mind, and I will approach the challenge as a child would--that is, like it's not a challenge at all. Until then, I'd rather be reading.

The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding

1. Is it possible for an otherwise straight man to be struck by a bolt of gay lightning and next scene end up declaring his undying love to a beautiful young Adonis? It’s a question Thomas Mann addressed with searing insight and eloquence almost 100 years ago in his famous novella Death in Venice, and one that was more recently revived in novels by Michael Cunningham (By Nightfall) and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding). All three works feature middle-aged men ensconced in intellectual careers who find themselves unexpectedly obsessed with much much-younger men -- or in Death in Venice, a 14-year-old boy -- of great or “classical” beauty in the ancient Greek tradition, which leads to crisis, self-evaluation, and -- ultimately -- destruction. Death in Venice is about a 50 year-old famous writer -- Gustav von Aschenbach -- who was once married (his wife died long ago) and is the father of a now-grown daughter. One day, after basically being cruised (Mann does not use the expression, of course) by another man on the train platform in Munich, Aschenbach makes the impulsive decision to travel to Venice, where he quickly finds himself in the grips of an obsession for a 14-year-old Polish boy of “godlike beauty” named Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. Mann’s character is what we would now probably call a “closet case,” someone who has long had homosexual feelings but possessed the “common sense” and “self-discipline” (Mann’s words) not to act on them. After Aschenbach sees Tadzio, he remembers “[f]eelings he had had long ago, early and precious dolors of the heart, which had died out in his life’s austere service and were now, so strangely transformed, returning to him.” Before you get too creeped out by the pederastic nature of the attraction -- which is not in any way to deny its creepiness -- it’s worth noting that except for some returned glances of indeterminate meaning from Tadzio, who is not unaware of the older man staring at him and (eventually) following him around, the relationship remains through the end completely one-sided. Most of the action unfolds in Aschenbach’s mind where he wrestles with doubts, melancholy, and increasing helplessness as he watches a life and career built on intellectual order unravel in the face of Tadzio’s beauty. In many respects -- including the trip to Italy and the distant but intense infatuation with a Polish boy -- Mann’s story was autobiographical; by his own admission and despite being married with six children, he fell in love with a number of men throughout his life, leaving behind only the question of whether any of these relationships were consummated. Not that it matters in light of Mann’s intention to create a character who -- like so many people -- has spent a lifetime plagued by unrequited or even unstated desire. For this reason (and because he does not in fact molest a 14-year-old), we end up understanding Aschenbach’s plight and pitying him, not hating him. 2. In By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham creates a situation that at first glance feels similar to Mann’s, but becomes much different -- and in some ways, more complicated -- as the story unfolds. The man in question is a 43-year-old art dealer named Peter Harris. Over the course of a few days, Harris succumbs to an unexpected desire for his 20-something-year-old brother-in-law, Ethan (or Mizzy, short for “the Mistake”), who moves in with Harris and his wife in their Soho apartment while he (Mizzy) figures out his next step in life. Mizzy has had affairs with both men and women, although he expresses a desire to settle down with “a regular girlfriend.” Harris, in contrast to Mizzy and the ghost of Aschenbach, is pretty much 100 percent straight, as he acknowledges a few seconds after resisting the impulse to touch Mizzy’s sleeping face. “Whoa. What’s that about?” he asks before Cunningham tells us. “Okay, there’s gay DNA in the family, and he whacked off with his friend, Rick, throughout junior high, and sure, he can see the beauty of men, there’ve been moments (a teenage boy in a pool in South Beach, a young Italian waiter at Babbo), but nothing’s happened and he hasn’t, as far as he can tell, been suppressing it. Men are great (well, some of them), but they’re not sexy.” Elsewhere, Cunningham describes Harris enjoying sex with his wife (including a cunnilingus scene that clearly is not something your average gay man ever wants to contemplate) and mulling over the affairs he could have had with various women he’s been attracted to over the years. More intriguingly, Harris is haunted by a teenage crush he had on the best (girl) friend of his older gay brother, who (the brother) died years earlier after contracting AIDS, and in particular by a memory of his brother and the girl standing in the water as he sat on the beach, an image that (except for the girl part) is lifted from the final scene in Death in Venice, where, as Aschenbach suffers a cholera-induced heart attack, he watches Tadzio wade into the ocean. Whether or not you believe in the psychology of Harris -- and while reading, I had my doubts, which Cunningham anticipated and addressed -- he’s not a typical, self-hating closet case in the modern sense of the term, which would be difficult to avoid if Cunningham were just rewriting Death in Venice 100 years later. You get the sense that Harris is trying to figure out in a serious way what’s happening to him, and to act accordingly. I also wondered if it might be possible for a teenage kid watching his older brother die of AIDS to completely sublimate his own homosexual feelings, to the point that they are a total shock to him when they surface 25 years later. Whatever the answer, Cunningham uses of an array of striking symbols and imagery related to Harris’s understanding of beauty (he is an art dealer) and his memories of the past, which all work to transcend more obvious and -- in today’s world -- possibly banal questions related to his sexuality. If I ultimately didn’t empathize with Harris to the degree I did Aschenbach, I found him interesting and challenging on an intellectual level (if not exactly emotional, because I couldn’t quite imagine the same thing happening to me, or anyone I know). 3. In The Art of Fielding, Guert Affenlight is the 60-year-old president of a fictional Wisconsin college who one day falls hard for a 20-year-old student/baseball player named Owen Dunne. Because Harbach explores many other forms of male or “homosocial” relationships in the book -- friendship, mentoring, competition, enmity -- to include a sexual affair between two men makes perfect schematic sense, and was a courageous decision if you consider the general reluctance of writers (and publishers) to tackle the subject. Like Cunningham, Harbach draws on Death in Venice for inspiration, giving his lead character a similar name (Aschenbach/Affenlight) and making him an unmarried man of letters with an adult daughter whose biological mother died long before the start of the story. Also similar is the way both characters are effectively blinded or even awestruck by their feelings for the younger men in question. Upon meeting Owen, Affenlight is “steamrolled [by] a feeling…sweet and fortuitous,” which nicely echoes the florid language that Mann uses to such great effect in describing Aschenbach’s obsession. As the stories continue, however, the two characters begin to diverge. Whereas Mann unveils many clues about Aschenbach’s homosexual past (in thought, if not action), Harbach -- much like Cunningham -- presents us with a man who has apparently never had homosexual feelings, and moreover has spent a lifetime making “brilliant” love to numerous Cambridge-educated women; but unlike Cunningham, Harbach doesn’t offer an alternate explanation (meaning something besides repressed homosexual desire) for his character’s sudden infatuation. The only real hint readers are given about Affenlight’s past is a dissertation he wrote about homoerotic elements in 19th-century letters, although his daughter clarifies that the paper is about male friendship, thus placing it more squarely in the homosocial category. Affenlight is in a striking and unusual position, but to simply repeat that he’s in love with Owen doesn’t get below the surface. His lack of articulation makes it hard not to feel a bit slighted by him; we want to know more about what’s really going on in his head. By alluding so heavily to Aschenbach/Death in Venice, Harbach seems to think he has given us enough to go on, except that as discussed above, Mann makes it clear that Aschenbach is dealing with long-repressed feelings, which is not the case with Affenlight. Affenlight’s lack of insight is compounded by the way he (or Harbach) continually describes Owen in terms that seem at odds with physical attraction for another man, even if the attraction is unprecedented. When Owen sits in the dugout, for example, his contours are “slender-limbed, right knee flipped girlishly over left” and when after Owen’s jaw is shattered, he still looks “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful… possessed of an Asian delicacy.” When the relationship becomes sexual, Owen kisses Affenlight “on the tip of the penis in a womanly way.” After they go to a hotel to (vaguely) “make love,” Affenlight “lay on his side…[in a] a quintessentially feminine posture…[as] with his free hand he caressed Owen’s belly, which itself felt almost feminine, not muscled but soft…” (Emphasis mine throughout.) Men who are having sex with other men (even for the first time) might wish they were thinking about a woman, or have a lot of associated torment and angst before and after the event, but that’s a different issue, and one from which Affenlight does not apparently suffer. While it’s possible that Harbach (like Mann and Cunningham) wants to allude to a more classical tradition in which the androgynous qualities of young men were extolled, there’s a big difference between framing beauty in gender-neutral terms, as Mann and Cunningham are both careful to do, and framing it in exclusively feminized terms. Owen is also a sexually experienced 20-year-old man, which though young by almost any reckoning is miles away from an adolescent boy of 14. There’s an undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in the many scenes in which Affenlight appears; it’s difficult to like him, which does not seem to be Harbach’s intent. Though it’s true that Affenlight at times comes off as unevolved (Affen = “monkeys” in German) and immature -- he has never had a long-term romantic relationship, for example, and he still lives in campus housing -- the other characters in the book without exception go out of their way to praise and to honor him. Even Owen is very forgiving of the older man when he seems to least deserve it, such as when he tells Affenlight (who is nauseated after giving his first blow job) that he was “wonderful” while also offering that “if you’re straight, you’re straight…C’est la vie.” Affenlight’s daughter confronts him after she discovers his affair with Owen, but she’s more concerned with protecting her father’s reputation -- and hers -- than seriously questioning him or his professions of love for a man younger than her. Owen, in contrast to Affenlight, is very articulate and open about his feelings. He’s a self-professed “gay mulatto” who as a freshman (most of the book unfolds two years later, during his junior year) has a college-age boyfriend. While it’s certainly conceivable that a 20-year-old would have sex with (and deeper feelings for) a 60-year-old, Harbach gives us no particular reason to understand why Owen is interested in Affenlight. On a physical level, Owen seems to go for more typical fare, such as the hairless, muscled 20-something stroking a ginormous cock we see on his computer. On an intellectual level, Owen admires Affenlight’s research, but that doesn’t really make a compelling case for a sustained relationship, particularly one so far outside the bounds of convention (even gay convention). Harbach hints at the possibility that Owen may be using Affenlight to promote the agenda of a student environmental group, but this theory doesn’t really square with the high regard Owen seems to have for Affenlight at the end of the book. Harbach also adorns Owen with an array of pointless clichés that long ago felt more tired than funny in television sit-coms. When we meet Owen, he’s busy scrubbing the grout in his bathroom (wearing the long, yellow rubber gloves) as he listens to techno music. His dorm room is decorated with fine art and expensive rugs, he keeps guest towels, he is disturbed by the mere sight of a canister of protein powder that his roommate Henry brings into the room because it clashes with his aesthetic sensibilities. In the Queer Eye tradition he mandates that Henry join him on a shopping trip to buy some skinny jeans. He speaks with a “melted-butterscotch” or “sonorous butterscotch” voice, and uses world-weary expressions like “verily” and “kindly desist,” which though no doubt intended to read as witty or self-consciously ironic does not excuse his overall two-dimensionality, particularly when viewed in the context of the other serious athletes (and well-rounded characters) who are his teammates. That Owen is a varsity baseball player could in theory cut against the stereotype he presents, until we learn that he spends the fall and winter of his first year rehearsing and acting in a play, not to mention his habit of reading literature in the dugout. Meanwhile, Henry and the other guys on the team are training hard; they run stairs and lift weights until they puke. The team captain, Mike Schwartz, is a blue-collar, Jewish bear (but straight) who plays in great pain, expects 1,000 percent at all times from the rest of the team, delivers rousing pre-game talks, throws guys up against the lockers when they mouth off, and is generally a hard-ass, albeit one with a good heart. Harbach, in other words, does not assemble a comedic team of misfits, outcasts, and nose-pickers along the lines of the Bad News Bears, but a team of competitive baseball players and one Lamar Latrell (the “limp-wristed” javelin champion from Revenge of the Nerds). None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy reading The Art of Fielding; there are many places where Harbach offers earnest descriptions of situations we can all relate to, such as the way Henry -- the prodigiously talented shortstop -- begins to lose his cool under pressure, or the awkwardness he feels entering a social milieu so different than what he has been exposed to before college. But Harbach’s success in these other parts of the book is exactly why the relationship between Affenlight and Owen feels so ungrounded and disconnected from the way people (and especially gay people) arrive at and understand our sexuality. Love can strike anyone at any time, Harbach seems to believe, which though possibly interesting or even commendable in the abstract, is a sensitive and possibly perilous idea to play around with when you get down to the details, particularly in a culture where the issue is still politically and socially loaded, where presidential candidates can still maintain their legitimacy while arguing that homosexuality is a choice and that it’s dangerous for men to shower together in the army, or where only one professional baseball player in the history of the league has come out. Harbach could have easily deconstructed or at least analyzed such misguided attitudes, not for the sake of political activism or correctness, but to make the gay relationship at the heart of his story as compelling as the baseball games in which Henry heartbreakingly commits one error after the next; in short, to give readers the chance to feel the same empathy for his gay characters as we do for his straight ones. Image: Wikipedia

The Millions Top Ten: September 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. See Also: Last month's list.

The Art of Hyping

Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding is ubiquitous. We tapped it in our Second Half of 2011 Preview. n+1 bundled it with year-long subscriptions. The Awl interviewed the author. The New Yorker's Book Club picked it as their September book. It was reviewed in The New York Times. Now Keith Gessen's expanded his Vanity Fair piece on the novel's development into a standalone e-book. In light of all this hype, McNally Jackson's Tumblr provides a poignant list of baseball puns for reviewers to start avoiding.

Tuesday New Release Day: Harbach, Hitchens, Tuck, Farah, Solomon, Barry, Krauss

A big haul of new books this week. At the top of the list is Chad Harbach's much anticipated debut, The Art of Fielding. Also new this week: the new Christopher Hitchens collection Arguably, Lily Tuck's I Married You for Happiness, Nuruddin Farah's Crossbones, and Anna Solomon's debut The Little Bride. Sebastian Barry's Booker long-listed On Canaan's Side is now available in the U.S. And Great House by Nicole Krauss is now out in paperback.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list
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