The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose

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One Monster Replaces Another: On John Domini’s ‘Movieola!’

Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl.  For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling. When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre.  Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition.  First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls.  Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me -- I’m a writer.”  And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know.  Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century. * There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits.  The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” The second kind of story collection -- the so-called “connected” stories -- may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme.  It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea.  Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling). Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts.  Of course that was the goal all along.  The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits.  In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture. For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it).  As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG.  Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness. These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola!  Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship.  This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice -- which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold -- is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty.  The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls. * Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over.  It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted.  Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be.  So is the crisis averted, then?  No.  Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant.  One monster replaces another. And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that.  This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat: You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee.  The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room.  There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse.  The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens. There is no character here, no story at all.  Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales.  Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy -- it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill -- stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.

The Value of Writing Programs: On Why I Don’t Have an M.F.A.

1. Dishwashers I don’t have an M.F.A. I considered starting this essay, “I am a published writer, but I don’t have an M.F.A.,” but I thought that sounded more contentious, more chip-on-the-shoulderish than I actually feel about not having an M.F.A. I haven’t even ruled out the possibility of acquiring one, but at age 36, I have not earned a graduate degree. How did this happen? This is a question I ask myself from time to time, usually when I am approaching a period of uncertainty in my writing career -- or when the Internet throws the question in my face, as it tends to do, every few months. (More on that in moment.) Rarely does it come up in conversation. The only people who have ever asked me point blank are literary agents and other people’s parents. My own family has, if anything, discouraged me from going for an M.F.A. They don’t see the necessity of a graduate degree in fine arts. They are not alone in this feeling. I am often assured that “no one really needs an M.F.A.” But there are a lot of things in life that you don’t really need but which are awfully nice to have. Dishwashers, for example. Not having an M.F.A., I’ve decided, is like not having a dishwasher. Your dishes are as clean as anyone else’s, it just takes a lot longer. When I started writing this essay, I envisioned a straightforward personal account about why I did not get an M.F.A. and what it has been like to learn to write fiction without that particular kind of institutional support. I thought I would give the reasons I avoided graduate school at different periods of my life (lack of confidence, lack of money, lack of time) and describe how I educated myself without it (night classes, writers’ residencies, and my beloved writers' group). I thought my essay would show aspiring writers what a writing apprenticeship might look like outside of academia. And I thought that it would provide an interesting counterpoint to the narrative we so often hear, the one that seeks to professionalize creative writing by emphasizing credentials and career prospects. I also wanted to speak to the counter-narrative that aims to squash any delusions that an M.F.A. grad might have about the worth of his or her frivolous education. It’s funny, even though I never applied to any M.F.A. programs, I want to defend them. I want them to exist in the world, and I want them to be sanctuaries of reading and writing and daydreaming. It irritates me when people try to tear down that vision with practical concerns, or by focusing on hierarchies of talent, or worst, by doing a cost-benefit analysis, as if everything can be easily broken down in terms of gain or loss. I suppose I chafe because I feel as if my life is being under-valued, my life in which I have held many jobs but have not climbed any ladders; my life in which my 20s disappeared between stints of writing bad fiction and reading great novels; my life in which I did not pay much attention to practical questions. But as I began to look back on my 20s and early 30s -- prime years for M.F.A.-seeking -- I realized that my reasons were not as straightforward as I would like to believe. Beneath my sensible narrative is a deep anxiety around the very idea of getting an M.F.A. It’s an anxiety with multiple strands. The first has to do with privilege. The second has to do with approval. And the third has to do with freedom. 2. Privilege Every month or so, the Internet produces hand-wringing articles about the worth of creative writing degrees and/or the realistic job prospects for those seeking literary careers. Money is the measuring stick: Who gets paid to write? Who gets paid to teach? Does writing make money? Does teaching make money? Does publishing make money? Does it make enough money? Are there people who will do it for free? If there are people who will do it for free, doesn’t that devalue the work that others expect to be paid for? I’ve been writing fiction for next to nothing for over 12 years. I’d like to say that I’m completely over the question of “What is the value of my life’s work within a capitalist framework?” But, you know, I’d also like to say that I’m over the question of “Is my body attractive according to Western beauty standards?” Some questions you can’t escape without becoming a full-time monk. The Internet often operates as a mirror of one’s anxieties and last fall I had a novel under submission at several publishing houses. I was finding out what my fiction was worth and it was scary. I took a lot of articles personally. I got depressed just reading the subtitle of Cathy Day’s article here on The Millions, “Making Sense of Creative Writing’s Job Problem.” (Creative writing has a job problem? I always thought the thing that made creative writing so appealing was that it had nothing to do with getting a job.) The marketplace was also the frame of my colleague Nick Ripatrazone’s well-reported and sensible, “Practical Art: On Teaching The Business of Writing”. There was a warmth and calm to this essay that I admired, but I disagreed with the premise. Why teach the business of writing? Why emphasize to students something the world is going to force them to learn anyway? Once I started reading these articles, I noticed they were everywhere. The New York Times Book Review questioned the value of M.F.A. programs by asking Can Writing Be Taught? (Consensus: yes). Over at The Atlantic, an article noted the increasing popularity of M.F.A. degrees, despite their increasing cost and poor job placement. This was characterized as “a mystery.” (Just think about that for a minute: an educational choice can be characterized as mysterious simply because it does not guarantee financial gain.) Financial journalist Felix Salmon warned young writers not to pursue careers in journalism if they hoped to have “a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle”. When a survey in the U.K. revealed that “author” is Britain’s most dreamed-of job, an author countered with a list: 14 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Dream of Becoming a Full-Time Author. (Reason number one: “The money isn’t what you think it is.”) If aspiring writers weren’t sufficiently beaten down by the prospect of their pathetic lives outside of the well-paid middle-class, there was Ryan Boudinet’s much-discussed rant: Things I Can Say About M.F.A. Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One. (Quick summary: now that Boudinet is not in the business of encouraging writers, he can discourage them with relish.) This is but a sampling of the many articles, blog posts, book reviews, and round tables that question the value of writing programs. When I first started noticing them, I wasn’t sure if there were actually an unusual number of articles on the topic or if it only seemed so because I was seeking them out. But just a couple weeks ago, The New York Times published “Why Writers Love To Hate The M.F.A.”, an article that is pegged to the M.F.A. debate: A graduate writing degree, unsurprisingly, turns out a lot of opinionated writing. Sample manifestoes from blogs and chat rooms: “Why you should hate the creative writing establishment ( if you needed any more reasons)” and “14 Reasons (Not) to Get an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (and Two Reasons It Might Actually Be Worth It).” In scholarly circles, the boom and its implications have been a subject of heated debate since at least 2009, with the publication of Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.” In it, Dr. McGurl, a Stanford English professor, describes the M.F.A. as the single biggest influence on American literature since World War II, noting that most serious writers since then have come out of graduate-school incubators. The Times attempts to address both sides of the do-or-don’t debate, but leans toward don’t, ending with a quote from an aspiring novelist who is looking for a job. He is characterized as someone with “no illusions” about the feasibility of a writing career, but the article refers several times to the supposed out-sized ambitions and/or fantasies of aspiring fiction writers. Almost every article you read about M.F.A. programs will mention these delusions of grandeur, but in my experience, apprentice writers have the opposite problem. They’re an anxious bunch, with little confidence in their work. They feel that nothing they write will ever be good enough. They sit at their desks and wonder if deep down, they really are delusional. They interrogate themselves as harshly as the world does. There’s a collection of short stories by Alice Munro titled, Who Do You Think You Are? (This is actually the Canadian title; in the U.S. the book was published as The Beggar Maid because publishers were not sure that American readers would fully appreciate the shaming implied by the question.) The stories concern Rose, a gifted young woman from a small village who aspires to an intellectual, cosmopolitan life, the kind of life that is usually reserved for young men of a higher social class. It’s one of Munro’s recurring themes, and the story of Munro’s own ambition. Nobel Laureate Munro does not hold an M.F.A., in part because M.F.A. programs were not as prevalent when she was coming of age, but mainly because she was a woman from a blue-collar background. The world had no expectation for her beyond marriage and children -- an expectation she obliged in her early 20s, then defied by writing while her children napped. Who Do You Think You Are? To me, that’s the question that lurks beneath all these M.F.A. articles. So many of them remark upon the proliferation of creative graduate degrees, always noting the cost and time, the debt that so many students are likely to accrue. There is often a tone of annoyance. Who do these students think they are, racking up all that debt? Who do they think they are, taking such risks? Don’t they know their place? Don’t they know that getting an M.F.A. is a privilege? Sometime in my mid-20s, when I was most seriously considering graduate school, I decided I wasn’t privileged enough to do it. I just didn’t see myself as someone who could afford to leave a salaried job for two or three years. Maybe it’s more honest to say that I wasn’t comfortable taking on that privilege. This is a discomfort that Elif Batuman exposed in her fiery 2010 essay, “Get A Real Degree,” which argues, among other things, that M.F.A. programs are secretly ashamed of the privilege associated with literary writing, i.e. “the anxiety that literature might not be real work.” As a result of this anxiety, writing workshops spend too much time trying “to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do.” Batuman thinks this is ridiculous: “Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.” Eighty years earlier, Virginia Woolf told a room of female undergraduates basically the same thing when she said: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In the same lecture, Woolf also described the world’s “notorious indifference” toward creative writing: [The world] does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. Woolf lays out the impractical nature of creative writing more sharply than any of today’s wet-blanket advice-givers. And yet she is much less cynical. By observing that what all great female writers had in common was a middle-class upbringing, she wants to liberate women, to let them know that the reason the world is full of male writers has little to do with talent or desire or willpower, and everything to do with how much time and money is accorded to them. For a lot of writers, getting an M.F.A. is a way of getting Woolf’s room -- and, if they are lucky, some money too, in the form of a scholarship or stipend. Those who don’t receive financial aid have to pay for the privilege. When I was younger, the idea of paying for the time and space to write really bothered me. I thought becoming a writer would mean more to me if I got there “on my own.” At my most cynical, I saw M.F.A. degrees as something people got to legitimize their desire to write -- something to temporarily gain status, or worse, to please their worried parents. What I didn’t understand when I was younger was that there’s nothing wrong with this need for legitimacy, especially if it alleviates anxiety and allows one to write. (And we all know that people have paid a lot more and done a lot stupider things to alleviate status anxiety.) Nor did I realize how much I had internalized certain status anxieties. Mixed in with my guilt over my privilege was the question of whether or not my writing ability was even deserving of special attention; I worried people would think I was ridiculous for lavishing so much money and time on my negligible talent. I think that’s why I get so annoyed by articles (and, let’s be honest, comments on articles) that decry the value of M.F.A.s; they remind me of my inner good girl, the as-of-yet invulnerable phantom who wants every life choice to be approved of by others. 3. Approval A big reason I never went back to school is that I worried that my good-girl impulses would take over in a school setting, and that my need for approval from teachers and peers would subsume the playful, secret, and defiant impulses that led me to write in the first place. Like all children, I made up stories before I could read. Learning to write down the stories in my head was a revelation: they seemed real in a way that made me feel powerful. Even as I realized that writing was an approved activity in the eyes of teachers and parents, it was something I mostly did on my own time, outside of school, away from the prying eyes of grown-ups. I wrote for fun when I was child, and later I wrote to understand the world and my place in it. I have no idea when I decided I would one day try to write books, but in high school the idea was firmly in place. It just seemed like something I could do if I put my mind to it. I did not think of it as a career. I did not think of anything as a career when I was in high school. That was part of my youth and part of my privilege. In college, I met people who thought of everything as a career. And, after college, when I moved to New York, I met people who thought of everything -- even their personal lives -- as a potential source of income. As much as I love the overall level of ambition of New Yorkers, the constant talk of what things are worth, in terms of marketability, is mostly stifling. For several years, I made tiny little handmade books out of old magazines and fast food wrappers and old photographs, but I stopped after a while, because whenever I showed them to people I was asked if I had ever tried to sell them and when I said no, they were just for fun -- that is, a way of enjoying my creativity in the simplest, most childlike way -- I was met with a confused, sometimes condescending gaze. It bothers me that I stopped making those little books. I’m not sure why I stopped. I think I got the sense that if they didn’t make money or, barring that, fit into a “career trajectory,” they were a waste of time. And I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. Or maybe: I didn’t want people to think I was wasting mine. That’s what I mean by my “good-girl” impulses. Bound up in these good-girl impulses, there is also a desire to be good, and to not spend my time on pointless amateur art projects when I could be helping others or, at the very least, making enough money to ensure that I will not require help from others. Getting an M.F.A. has always felt like both a good-girl choice and a bad-girl choice. It’s the good girl choice because it imposes order, at least temporarily, on the unruly apprenticeship that every writer must complete. It’s the bad girl choice because it’s expensive and unnecessary. It’s the good-girl choice because it would have credentialed me for teaching. It’s the bad-girl choice because it wouldn’t have credentialed me for anything but teaching. It’s the good girl choice because it would have returned me to the school setting. It’s the bad girl choice because it would have taken me out of the world, away from the needs of others. I believe every female writer has to contend with her inner good girl. Woolf called her “The Angel in the House.” She was the model of congenial femininity, an inner voice that stifled Woolf’s early days of writing: She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it -- in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Woolf found the voice of the Angel so seductive that she had to permanently silence her: “Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” Sometimes I think that not getting an M.F.A. was my way of killing the Angel in the House. It was an easy way to rebel and, in a strange way, it gave me confidence. As much as I complained about the time my jobs took from writing, it felt good to support myself. I could feel pride in finding my own structure and routine outside of school and away from the voices of peers, who might unwittingly sound a lot like the chiding good girl within. Above all, I could write without seeking approval. For me, that was a kind of freedom. 4. Freedom In his 2010 Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen was asked if he had ever considered getting M.F.A. when he was starting out: Franzen: I got married instead to a tough reader with great taste. We had our own little round-the-clock M.F.A. program. This phase of our marriage went on for about six years, which is three times longer than the usual program. Plus, we didn’t have to deal with all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate. We did actually apply to some programs one year, in hopes of getting a university to support us financially, and we were both accepted at Brown. But the money Brown offered wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t go, because it might have smoothed some kinks out of the work that were better not smoothed out. As a journalist, I’m always striving to become more professional, but as a fiction writer I’d rather remain an amateur. Interviewer: Did you devise another kind of program for yourselves? Did you go to readings? Franzen: No, we didn’t want to be around other writers. In some semiconscious way, we recognized that we weren’t good yet, and we needed to protect ourselves from depressing exposure to people who’d already gotten to be good. When I first read this interview, the idea of being an “amateur” fiction writer became a touchstone for me, because I thought I knew what Franzen meant. I thought he was referring to a kind of writing that was free, unfettered by expectation or obligation, and most importantly, not tied to employment. Rereading the interview, I am struck by Franzen’s wariness. By not getting an M.F.A., his writing retained its “kinks;” his writing was “better not smoothed out.” I think here, Franzen is alluding to the great lit-crit bogeyman, M.F.A. Fiction. We all think we know an M.F.A. Fiction when we read it. It’s elegant and distilled and very cleanly written; there’s little urgency in the narrative or the language; it doesn’t seem to come from the writer’s heart and mind, instead it’s written from ego -- a desire for a career, or maybe just a desire to avoid criticism by writing something unimpeachable. They’re what one of the women in my writing group calls “polite lady novels.” They’ve been around forever except in other eras we just called them boring books and didn’t feel the need to devalue an entire generation of teachers and writers. And yet, there is a strain of fussiness in workshops, of talking about writing as if it’s something that can only be done in a certain way with a certain precision by a certain kind of special, talented person, when in fact writing is something that everyone learns to do as a child and many can learn to do quite well. Writing is democratic. This is something I have always felt, intuitively, but I wouldn’t have thought to describe it that way until I heard Jamaica Kincaid speak at a Q&A a couple years ago. The writer Ian Frazier, one of Kincaid’s oldest friends, moderated the discussion, and he asked Kincaid to elaborate on something she’d said to him when they were teaching together: Frazier: One evening we were sitting around talking with people and we were talking about writing and you said, “writing is not an art” and I thought, Writing is not an art? And you said, no, it’s not like painting, it’s not sculpture, it’s not architecture, it’s not music, it’s not an art. You said, “it’s deeper than that.” Can you explain that? Because I wrote that down. I thought, Writing is not an art? Part of the point was that it can’t be taught, but another point was that it was something that everybody does -- that speech is something everybody does. Kincaid: Yes, everyone can do it. There are things that people who are involved in it like to make precious. And um, exclusive. And I suppose I say things like that because someone like me is not, uh, there’s no reason, there’s no example for me to follow to be a writer and I don’t want it to be exclusive and special and I want me to always be able to participate in it. The phrase “writing is not an art” reminded me of Franzen’s amateur ideal. Perhaps the main reason I avoided graduate school was that I was afraid of being paralyzed by self-consciousness. Like Franzen, I worried about trying to compete with people who were better writers, or just plain more sophisticated. I was afraid of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, and I was afraid that feeling would spoil the naïve pleasure I took in making up stories. In retrospect, I don’t think a couple years of workshops could have spoiled something so deeply rooted and, you know, I might have learned something, too. But I understand why I felt such self-protective instincts. Writing is the one area of my life I have always felt is my own terrain, separate from anyone’s expectations about whom I should be and what I should think. I think a lot of people feel this way about writing, that it’s a free and open space, that anyone can do it, and that’s why the elitism of M.F.A. degrees bugs the hell out of people. For some writers, getting an M.F.A. is simply not an option, for financial reasons or because they are occupied in some other way, e.g. full-time employment or caregiving. The more standard the degree becomes, or at least, the more it is perceived as standard, something a writer needs in order to be published, the more privileged creative writing becomes. From this perspective, I can see why people are grossed out by the rapid growth of M.F.A. programs. At the same time, the M.F.A. system has the potential to be a lot more meritocratic than the publishing world, simply because anyone can apply; you don’t need an agent or an introduction. The question shouldn’t be whether or not getting an M.F.A. is a worthwhile for those privileged enough to agonize over the cost. Instead we should ask: how can we better support people who want to write? Support isn’t only about money. (Although more academic funding would certainly help a lot of writers.) Support is about making people feel as if their voices are important, as if it’s worthwhile for them to take the time to seriously engage with literature, to add their own stories, essays, dramas, poems, and novels to the conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years and is thus far dominated by white men. The literary world’s overwhelming white-maleness is well known and now, thanks to VIDA, well-documented. Things are changing, but not fast enough, and whenever I read an article that attempts to give a dose of “reality” by reminding would-be writers that what they want to do is really, really hard, in addition to being financially unsustainable, I hear condescension and defensiveness. Compare the “practical” advice of your typical M.F.A.-bashing article to the guidance that Kincaid gave, off-the-cuff, at her Q&A: I was saying to some kids the other night, that among the things I find writing is, is it’s very dangerous. Sometimes you unexpectedly might be called upon to die for it and you should be able to say this is something I must say and know that after you say it, you will lose your head. And if you don’t feel that way, then you shouldn’t do it. I really do think that. It would be better to be dead than not to be able to write what it is I want to say. Often as a writer, a certain kind of writer, you do feel people would like you to stop it, and in a way sort of kill you for writing this difficult thing, or for saying these unpleasant things, these things they call unpleasant, but I think you must just as some point, you know, you uh -- hmmm, I have to be very careful -- I’m willing to have my head cut off for saying something but on the other hand I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But yeah, uh...if that was all writing was about, well, I’d rather have just kept to the thing that I was consigned to be, which was a servant in somebody’s house, that was what I was meant to be, but I thought, this is the self that I want, the self you see before you is not the self that someone wanted me to be, it’s something that I made, and I made it happen through writing. To me, the most significant part of this speech is the pause when Kincaid searches for words and then says, somewhat vaguely, if that’s all writing was about... There, I think the meager “all” she’s referring is not only a sense of decorum, but the sense of writing as a job in the world. If writing were just about making a living, about writing the words that will please other people and bring in a paycheck, she wouldn’t do it; it wouldn’t be enough for her. And maybe that’s what a lot of these cautionary articles mean to say: don’t try to make your living by writing. Try to make a life. 5. A Long-Winded Justification I began this essay shortly after submitting a final draft of a novel to my agent, but then faltered because I feared it was too motivated by my fear of failure. There was also a part of me that thought that if my book didn’t sell, I would just be writing a long-winded justification of my stupid life choices. Well, my novel did sell, but I still worry that this is just a long-winded justification of my stupid life choices. I would never recommend for anyone to live my life the way I’ve lived it and yet, the older I get, the fewer regrets I have. That’s maybe the central paradox of maturity. There’s no one way to become a writer or to measure the success of a writer. That’s a good, even beautiful thing, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a situation that generates a lot of mixed feelings: uncertainty, regret, loneliness, and a whole family of selfs: self-pity, self-loathing, self-involvement, self-aggrandizement. I’m pretty sure writers are most tempted to give advice in the midst of mixed feelings. I write to you from a place of mixed feelings, too. But I want to complicate things. Or maybe I just want to have a conversation about writing and life that exists outside the marketplace, outside whatever role the world has assigned to you. People will tell you that such a conversation is a privilege, and maybe it is, maybe you shouldn’t make any life decisions based on it. Then again, maybe you should. You’re allowed to imagine a life for yourself that has nothing to do with your finances, nothing to do with success or failure, nothing to do with what’s sensible or expected or practical or needed. It doesn’t mean you’re delusional. It’s doesn’t mean you’re spoiled or narcissistic. Writing and reading and speaking freely are the basis of any democratic society. We need more people, from a greater variety of backgrounds, to exercise that right. My one piece of advice is to ignore anyone who makes you forget that. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Beautiful Ruins 4 months 2. 9. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 2 months 3. 4. The Son 3 months 4. 3. Bark: Stories 3 months 5. 8. The Good Lord Bird 3 months 6. 7. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 3 months 7. 5. Just Kids 6 months 8. - Americanah 1 month 9. 6. Eleanor & Park 3 months 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 3 months   As I predicted in last month's write-up, the ascension of The Beggar Maid to our Hall of Fame means that Alice Munro has now officially graduated to the "Top Ten Two Timers Club" (working title) — a nine-member cohort of authors who've reached the Hall of Fame for more than one book. Consequently, space on the Top Ten has opened up for a new number one -- Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter -- and for a new addition to the list: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which saw a sales bump after it was released in paperback last March, and then again after it was announced that a film adaptation could be on the way. (Of course, being featured on a surprise Beyoncé album never hurts, either.) Millions readers looking for an additional Adichie fix are welcome to check out her contribution to our Year in Reading series, as well. Meanwhile, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World continues to enjoy breakout success among Millions readers. The book takes place in the not-too-far-off future, where "competing giant fast food factions rule the world." (One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, that's different from the way things are right now.) Next month, I expect to see multiple books from our recent Most Anticipated list to make it into our Top Ten. After all, two Millions staffers did just publish books last week, you know... Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, The Fault in Our Stars, and Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 6 months 2. 2. Beautiful Ruins 3 months 3. 5. Bark: Stories 2 months 4. 3. The Son 2 months 5. 4. Just Kids 5 months 6. 8. Eleanor & Park 2 months 7. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 2 months 8. 9. The Good Lord Bird 2 months 9. - A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 1 month 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 2 months   In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series's five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they've reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.) The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle). (*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.) Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he'll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012. Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor's mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, "It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?" What more, indeed? Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirAmericanahStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2014

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. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 5 months 2. 9. Beautiful Ruins 2 months 3. - The Son 1 month 4. 8. Just Kids 4 months 5. - Bark: Stories 1 month 6. - Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 1 month 7. 10. The Circle 2 months 8. - Eleanor & Park 1 month 9. - The Good Lord Bird 1 month 10. - Jesus' Son: Stories 1 month   Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count 'em) titles to our Millions Hall of FameThe Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This "March 2014" class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let's run the tape: Donna Tartt's novel won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner's novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year's Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri's work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date. Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their "to be read" shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn't so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads. To wit: we're replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore. Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer's The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It's a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, "a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas," and one that "leverages" a "certain theory of Native American societies ... to explore the American creation myth." Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, "If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context." Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year's National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work's praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is "one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life." Evidently you listened. New(ish) releases weren't the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It's a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket. And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark's imminent publication? Perhaps it's best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack's profile of the author speak for itself: Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how. Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki's summation of Moore's influence on a generation of American short story writers: We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition. Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, "Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: 'Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'" (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen's list of gift ideas from last year. Near Misses: AmericanahLittle Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton ChekhovA Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2014

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. 1. The Goldfinch 6 months 2. 2. Selected Stories 6 months 3. 3. The Flamethrowers 6 months 4. 4. The Luminaries 6 months 5. 5. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment 6 months 6. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 4 months 7. 8. The Lowland 6 months 8. 10. Just Kids 3 months 9. - Beautiful Ruins 1 months 10. - The Circle 1 month   The first six spots in the March Top Ten are unchanged from February, and only two newcomers — Beautiful Ruins and The Circle — managed to crack this month's list. Their arrival was made possible by the ascension of Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge to the hallowed ground of our Millions Hall of Fame. It may come as a surprise to faithful Millions readers that this is the first time Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins has made our Top Ten. First published in 2012, Walter's novel has been a mainstay in our Year in Reading series ever since. First came the estimable trio of Emma StraubRoxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum, who by turns referred to the book as "precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted," "one of my favorite books of the year," and "especially special." More recently, Kate Milliken commented on how it seems the entire world has read the book already, and that she was late to the party when she got to it in 2013. Of course, that didn't stop her from diving in, later confirming what others have said all along: "Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’." (If you still need more convincing, then know this: the book is on its way to the big screen, too.) On the other hand, Dave Eggers's The Circle has hovered outside of the Top Ten ever since Lydia Kiesling identified it as "occup[ying] an awkward place of satire and self-importance." It wasn't the most positive review she's written, but it wasn't altogether negative, either: "There are noble impulses behind this novel — to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain — and it basically delivers on these fronts." And if nothing else, Kiesling notes that the book provides a reliable glossary of "awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak," which should prove useful for anyone hoping to understand the language of blog posts on TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and other sites devoted to the latest digital secretions from Silicon Valley. Stay tuned next month for the likely graduation of six titles to our Millions Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will surprises emerge? As with March Madness, the only certainty is uncertainty, so we'll have to wait and see. Near Misses: Eleanor & Park, Bark: StoriesThe Son, The Unwinding, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines, and The Good Lord Bird. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Goldfinch 5 months 2. 2. Selected Stories 5 months 3. 3. The Flamethrowers 5 months 4. 4. The Luminaries 5 months 5. 6. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment 5 months 6. 5. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 3 months 7. 9. The Interestings 6 months 8. 8. The Lowland 5 months 9. 7. Bleeding Edge 6 months 10. 10. Just Kids 2 month   No new titles were added to this month's Top Ten, and the four books in the top spots held onto their exact positions from last January. That's to be expected, I suppose, considering the fact that The Goldfinch is everywhere these days, and was also the subject of Claire Cameron's recent Millions piece, "How to Tweet Like Boris from The Goldfinch." Meanwhile, Alice Munro continues to ride her rightfully-deserved wave of post-Nobel Prize publicity, and her Selected Stories held onto her second-place spot in our list as a result. Still, it may behoove some readers to check out Munro's other works in the coming months, and for guidance in that department, look no further than Ben Dolnick's classic, "Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro." In the event that you've exhausted her bibliography, or you're simply bitten by Maple Fever following Canada's hockey sweep in the Sochi Olympics, you might also want to check out Michael Bourne's essential "Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Lit." (The cure for Maple Fever, incidentally, is a serving of Timbits from any Tim Horton's establishment.) Another item of interest for avid Top Ten fans is the recent debut of Paper Monument's Draw it With Your Eyes Closed supplemental website of the same name, which was developed to “expand on the previously published content, allowing a broader range of teachers, students, and artists to access, share, and contribute to the project.” Rounding out this month's near misses is Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, which surely blipped onto some readers' radars after being nominated for the The L.A. Times Book Prize a few weeks back. That Prize will be awarded on April 11. Ozeki's novel was also featured prominently in our recent comparison of U.S. Vs. U.K. book covers. Lastly, I'd like to take this moment to announce that I'll be taking the Top Ten reins from now on. My hope is that I can use my experience with the Curiosities blog to supplement each month's list with as much recent news about the books as possible. See you in a few weeks! Near Misses: The Circle, Eleanor & Park, The Son, The Unwinding, and A Tale for the Time Being. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2014

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. The Goldfinch 4 months 2. 2. Selected Stories 4 months 3. 3. The Flamethrowers 4 months 4. 4. The Luminaries 4 months 5. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 4 months 6. 7. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment 2 months 7. 8. Bleeding Edge 5 months 8. 9. The Lowland 4 months 9. 10. The Interestings 5 months 10. - Just Kids 1 month   Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame in January. We're very proud to bestow the honor on our ebook original The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes. The book, which debuted in July 2013, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you’ll pick it up if you haven't already. Pioneer is joined in the Hall of Fame by another ebook orginal, George Saunders's $0.99 short story Fox 8, which returned to our Top 10 for a seventh month in January after missing the list in December and therefore qualifies for the Hall. Other than that, the list is positively gridlocked with several books staying put, including Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch atop the list. Our lone debut is unexepected: Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. The National Book award-winning title has been popular among our readers for quite a while and was a "Near Miss" for several months on our list as recently as March 2011. The book likely got a boost thanks to Garth's mention in his Year in Reading in December. Incidentally, this also means that with the exception of Thomas Pynchon and the group-authored Draw it With Your Eyes Closed, our list is made up entirely of books by women. Near Misses: The Circle, Eleanor & Park, The Son, Night Film, and Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2013

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. 6. The Goldfinch 3 months 2. 1. Selected Stories 3 months 3. 2. The Flamethrowers 3 months 4. 5. The Luminaries 3 months 5. 3. The Pioneer Detectives 6 months 6. 7. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 3 months 7. - Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment 1 month 8. 9. Bleeding Edge 4 months 9. 10. The Lowland 3 months 10. - The Interestings 4 months   To start the new year, we've made some minor changes to how we calculate our list. Basically, we've added a slight penalty for lower-priced books because we were finding that spikes in sales of cheaper short-format books (e.g. "Kindle Singles") and aggressive promotional pricing of ebooks was skewing the list a bit. The change had no dramatic impact on the December list other than that it knocked George Saunders's $0.99 short story Fox 8 out of our top 10. The rest of the big changes were driven by our 2013 Year in Reading. Some books that were already popular with our readers got a lot of love in the series, including Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch which surged into the top spot after three contributors named the book as a favorite read of 2013. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was also a popular name in the series, and that helped return the book to the Top Ten after a few months off the list. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite in our series for The Flamethrowers, though the book dropped a spot to number three. Our lone debut is a very unusual title. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is a slim collection, the result of several art teachers being asked to contribute the best art assignments they've ever heard of. Hannah Gersen included the book in her list of offbeat gifts for writers last month. Finally, the contentious Taipei by Tao Lin graduates to our Hall of Fame. The book was the subject of a famously negative review here that perhaps not so paradoxically seemed to get a lot of people interested in the book. Near Misses: The Circle, Night Film, Eleanor & Park, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month's list.

A Year in Reading: Elliott Holt

I read a lot of great books this year, including George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. And I reread three of my favorite Alice Munro collections: The Beggar Maid, Open Secrets, and The Love of a Good Woman. (She’s my favorite living writer, so I was thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize). But it was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) that most consoled me. My father used to say that my mother had “no sense of mortality.” When my mother regaled us with stories of jumping onto moving trains in Kenya, say, or being shot at in Sudan, he just shook his head. “No sense of mortality.” The irony is that it was my mother, who’d spent her life oblivious of death, who died of cancer at the age of 60. My father, now 78, continues to ruminate about mortality. And I am clearly his child: I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about death. My paternal grandfather died in our house when I was 10. My grandmother died there nine years later, and then, when I was 31, my mother died there. I actually felt the warmth go out of my mother’s body while she turned into a corpse. I bring up this morbid history only because it may explain why Knausgaard’s My Struggle -- a book defined by its sense of mortality -- resonates so much with me.[1] Book 1 is narrated by the 39-year-old Knausgaard, and I am 39 now. (Generation X will recognize themselves here: Knausgaard may be Norwegian, but he grew up on the same pop culture as a lot of his contemporaries in the States.) As a writer facing her mortality, how could I resist a novel about a writer facing his mortality? Reading Book 1 of My Struggle proved to be one of those serendipitous experiences: the right book at exactly the right time in my life. A few months ago, my father sold the house in which my sisters and I grew up. And this fall, we had to clear out the place, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to sell. The process was daunting because the house was crammed with stuff, collected by my mother, father, and both sets of grandparents. We were burdened by history, and eager to get rid of things, but it was emotionally draining to watch our childhood get priced for an estate sale. I felt like we were saying good-bye to our mother all over again. And while my siblings and I were clearing out our father’s house, I was reading a book about adult siblings cleaning their father’s house. In the first book, Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, go home to Kristiansand to the house where their father recently drank himself to death. The house is in a terrible state when they arrive: it reeks of urine, there is excrement smeared on the sofa, and the floors are littered with empty bottles. While describing the downstairs bathroom, a place that scared him as a child because it seemed haunted, Knausgaard writes: This particular evening, however, my unease with it rose again because my grandfather had collapsed here and because Dad had died upstairs in the living room yesterday, so the deadness of these non-beings combined with the deadness of the two of them, of my father and his father. So how could I keep this feeling at arm’s length? Oh, all I had to do was clean. Scour and scrub and rub and wipe. See how each tile became clean and shiny. Imagine that all that had been destroyed here would be restored. The Knausgaard brothers get to work cleaning the whole house. They are not daunted by smeared excrement or rotting food. It’s easier to confront shit, with its stench of life, than the abstractly terrifying “deadness.” And as a writer, Knausgaard hopes to leave more than shit behind when he dies: he wants to write something great before his time runs out. And so the thorough cleaning -- so vividly rendered, in every mundane detail -- is not just an attempt to grapple with grief. Knausgaard is trying to restore not only his grandmother’s house, but his own legacy. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “By the time [the book] is over, we have cleaned that house with these brothers; the experience is extraordinarily vivid and visceral and moving.” The efficient way that Knausgaard and his brother tackle the cleaning struck me as very Norwegian. My family has enough Norwegian friends for me to conclude that when you have a tough job, you need a Norwegian man to do it. In fact, a Norwegian friend helped us with all the heavy lifting as we packed up our family house. My sisters and I couldn’t have finished the monumental task without him. But Knausgaard’s sense of mortality -- and his exhaustive cataloguing of it -- is universal, and the book is compulsively readable. Knausgaard’s consciousness is so lucid on the page that his book feels fully inhabited and alive (no “deadness”). Yet we never forget that this is a text, aware of itself not just as a novel, but as a bid for its author’s literary immortality. [1] I also recommend Zadie Smith’s recent essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in The New York Review of Books. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2013

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. Selected Stories 2 months 2. 2. The Flamethrowers 2 months 3. 3. The Pioneer Detectives 5 months 4. 4. Taipei 6 months 5. 5. The Luminaries 2 months 6. 8. The Goldfinch 2 months 7. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 2 months 8. 7. Fox 8 5 months 9. 9. Bleeding Edge 3 months 10. - The Lowland 2 months   There wasn't much action on our list November as the top 5 stayed unchanged. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was the big mover, jumping from the eighth spot to the sixth. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson graduates to our illustrious Hall of Fame after a six-month run on the list that was initially spurred by the book's Pulitzer win earlier this year. That departure makes room for the return of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland Near Misses: Night Film, Visitation Street, The Interestings, MaddAddam and Dear Life. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2013

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. - Selected Stories 1 month 2. - The Flamethrowers 1 month 3. 1. The Pioneer Detectives 4 months 4. 2. Taipei 5 months 5. - The Luminaries 1 month 6. - The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 1 month 7. 3. Fox 8 4 months 8. - The Goldfinch 1 month 9. 5. Bleeding Edge 2 months 10. 4. The Orphan Master's Son 6 months   In October, we were in the thick of book prize season, and the announcements sent readers running to new books, resulting in a big shake-up on our list, led by new Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Within minutes of the announcement, readers were finding our "Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro", penned by Ben Dolnick, author of Shelf-Love, an ebook original about Munro. Dolnick called Munro's Selected Stories "the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one" and he singled out The Beggar Maid as "the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album." Many readers took his advice and the former landed atop our list, while the latter ended up in the sixth spot. Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers continued to win fans (here at The Millions, for example; we also interviewed her), but it was the book's landing on the National Book Award shortlist that rocketed it to the second spot on our list. There was also the Booker Prize. Fresh off a rave review here at The Millions, Eleanor Catton took home the Booker, and her big novel landed at #5 on our list. And the last of our several debuts is Donna Tartt's long-awaited The Goldfinch. No surprise there. All these new books bumped five names from our list, collected here as this month's Near Misses: Night Film, The Lowland, The Interestings, Visitation Street and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month's list.

Alice Munro, First Nobel Laureate of the MFA Program

Alice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class.  (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop. When I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love. We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves. As a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction: Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things.  Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people.  Think, he told her.  What is the important thing?  What do you want us to pay attention to?  Think. Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it.  Georgia herself thought it was a fake.  She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story.  The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out. Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point. As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories.  If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty. In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place. Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.

Canadian Short Story Master Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Alice Munro, called by the Nobel committee "Master of the contemporary short story," has won the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature. Munro, 82, is the first Canadian to take the prize. She told a National Post reporter earlier this year that she's retiring from writing. Those looking for an in depth introduction to Munro's work should read Ben Dolnick's "A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro," which he introduces thus: Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache. Munro is perhaps best represented by the various short story compilations collecting her best works: Selected Stories (1996) Vintage Munro (2004) Carried Away: A Selection of Stories (2006) Munro has published a number of books over her long career: Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) Lives of Girls and Women (1971) Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You (1974) The Beggar Maid (1978) (As close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel) The Moons of Jupiter (1982) The Progress of Love (1986) Friend of My Youth (1990) Open Secrets (1994) The Love of a Good Woman (1998) Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) (#9 on our Best Books of the Millennium List) Runaway (2004) The View from Castle Rock (2006) Too Much Happiness (2009) Dear Life (2012) (Our review)

A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro

This November, Knopf recently announced, Alice Munro will publish Dear Life: Stories, her 13th book of shorts and second since her announced “retirement” in 2006. For Alice Munro fanatics -- a group in which I proudly include myself -- this is, of course, wonderful news. It’s also an excuse, as if we needed one, to revisit her previous work, and to push her books on the world’s non-Munroviacs. Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances -- and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache. Herewith, a partial guide: The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one: Selected Stories The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album: The Beggar Maid. Published in 1977, The Beggar Maid is as close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel, but it actually does a better job than just about any novel I know of getting an entire, living human being onto the page. The book follows a woman named Rose all the way from her early childhood to her middle age, and never feels stretched. It’s an extraordinarily high-grade steak that just happens to be served in slices. Best story, in the category of autobiographical-seeming stories about love: “Bardon Bus,” which contains some of the most convincingly rendered emotional agony I’ve ever read. Best story, in the category of historical drama: “A Wilderness Station,” which should, with its many voices and bizarre, dramatic happenings, put to rest any notion of Munro as a predictable dispenser of affair/epiphany-type fiction. Best story, all categories: “The Beggar Maid,” which showcases, among other things, her remarkable deftness in telling stories that leap around in time. Story featuring most implausible twist: “Tricks.” A woman falls in love with a man, meets him again and is puzzled by his coldness. Turns out, the cold one was an identical twin. She acknowledges the silliness within the story, but still. Stories featuring drownings or near-drownings: “Miles City, Montana,” “Changes and Ceremonies,” “Gravel,” “Walking on Water,” “Love of a Good Woman,” “Pictures of the Ice,” “Child’s Play.” Stories featuring murders or near-murders: “Open Secrets,” “Fits,” “Dimension,” “Free Radicals.” Story whose plot, after three or four readings, I’m still not sure I understand: “Open Secrets.” Most depressing story that will somehow leave you uplifted: “Dulse,” in which a woman spends a few days thinking gloomy thoughts in New Brunswick in the wake of a devastating breakup. The brilliant little breakfast scene with the Willa-Cather-obsessed man is a joy. Most uplifting story that will somehow leave you depressed: “The Turkey Season,” in which the narrator cheerfully remembers the winter she spent working in a turkey barn. A sense of never-quite-resolved unease hovers over this story like a snowstorm. Authors to read once you’ve finally gotten your fill of Munro: William Maxwell (who’s Munro’s favorite writer), Eudora Welty (whose story, “A Worn Path,” Munro has called the most perfect story ever written), and George Saunders (whose stories, despite very much not being set in rural Canada, are as moving and smart and humane as Munro’s). Appendix: Lives of Girls and Women: “Changes and Ceremonies” Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: “Walking on Water” The Progress of Love: “Miles City, Montana,” “Fits” Friend of My Youth: “Pictures of the Ice” Open Secrets: “A Wilderness Station,” “Open Secrets” Love of a Good Woman: “Love of a Good Woman” The Moons of Jupiter: “Turkey Season,” “Bardon Bus” Runaway: “Tricks” Too Much Happiness: “Free Radicals,” “Dimension,” “Child’s Play”

The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide

1. I’m just not a short-story writer, a few fiction writers have said to me recently, young authors who’ve written one or two novels.  I’m struck by the statement, because I wonder often about this – the difference between long form and short form, process-wise – and have been tempted to make the declaration (to myself, at least) as well.  At this point, I empathize with the statement, but am not quite ready to go there. I wrote short stories earlier in my writing life because, well, that’s what They told us to do. And They were right.  You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter.  Of course you can practice and develop all these by writing a novel; but it will take you much much longer.  Consider how many story drafts get partially or completely tossed into the literal and/or virtual garbage as you figure out what you are really writing about; how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale. But I never felt like I hit my stride with short stories.  I published several, and even won some awards, but of all the stories I’ve written, I’m probably proud of one, maybe two of them.  One story, which won a fairly prestigious award, was so bad in my opinion, that I completely destroyed it – hard copy and digital.  (I recently contacted the publication that sponsored the award, and they too have no record of it; poof! – I am not a short-story writer.) When I happened upon the novel that would become Long for This World, it was liberating and exhilarating.  All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view.  The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea.  This is my medium, I started to think; this is how I experience life – big and messy – what existence means to me.  I am a kitchen-sink writer: throw it all in, everything you care about in one, interconnected world, glorious heterogeneity; then shape something out of it. But look: I’ve written one novel (and a second monster of a novel draft), and I’m not even 40 yet.  Is it really time to decide what kind of writer I am?  Developing as a writer is indeed so much about knowing thyself; about riding the tailwinds of your strengths, not spinning your wheels trying to be a different kind of writer than what you are.  David Means said recently in a New Yorker podcast, referring to Raymond Carver, “Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do […] around things you can’t deal with.”  Barry Hannah said, “Be master of such as you have.” On the other hand, the sculptor Henry Moore said that contentment is having an impossible goal, the absorbedness (Donald Hall’s word) of pursuing it.   To me, the short story is this miraculously compressed form, elegant and complex, small in shape but large and deep in meaning; it has the capacity for perfection in a way that the novel does not.  Many writers work their way “up” to writing a novel; perhaps my artistic trajectory will be to work my way “down” to writing gorgeous, perfect short stories.  Who knows?  I look forward to finding out. 2. In the meantime, I am lately obsessed with the form we refer to as “linked” stories.   Sometimes these are called “story cycles” or “a collection of tales about _____.”  As a reader and developing writer, I cannot get enough of this form: compression and vast heterogeneity in one!  The stories in this sort of collection may vary widely in style, voice, point-of-view, scope.  Often they are held together by a single character, or perhaps a place/culture; or both. The “link” can be strong or weak, explicit or implicit.  From where this writer sits – aesthetically, developmentally – the linked collection is a potential new “home” for development of craft.  If 20 pages never quite feels like enough; if you and your world /your character have more business to tend to at the end of this particular narrative arc; or if that minor character got cut from a story but is still breathing and pulsing and waiting to go on stage; well then off you go to the next story in the “cycle.”  At the same time, you can work within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity.  Ah, the joy, the absorbedness, of the impossible goal. 3. Some of my favorite linked collections: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – short “tales” of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Winesburg.  We get to know many different characters, and all the stories reveal the essential (and ironic) loneliness of living in a place where everybody knows your name.  Haunting, romantic, a masterpiece of the achingly grotesque inner lives of human beings. Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber – both form and content are stunning in this National Book Award finalist.  The collection is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and indeed they are meant to be read in sequence; a minor mention or character in one story becomes the heart of the next (and we start and end with a contemporary character named Alice). In between we traverse centuries and continents, along with the timeless experiences of faith and passion, each story novelistic in scope. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely,” and there is that delicate, not-quite-taut sense of wholeness in Silber’s work. Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal and unforgiving place, but not one that we can’t all on some level relate to: you may not be a rodeo bull-rider, but you probably know what it is to feel wounded and constrained by your parents’ flaws; you may not be a gay cowboy, but you may know the pain and dangers of hiding (and revealing) your deepest passions in a hostile environment.  I particularly love the diversity of form within the collection; stories range from two to 40 pages long, from sharply humorous flash fictions to vast, novelistic canvasses. Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant – like many devotees of Gallant, I don't know what took me so long to get to her.  Her stories I suppose are difficult, in the sense that the prose is dense, intelligent, original.  This is not “summer reading.”  The series of five Linnet Muir stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed most and exemplify exactly what I love about linked stories; each story stands alone, but together they sing.  I recommend them for anyone who is weary of mopey-smart-girl stories but wants to be inspired by excellent mopey-smart-girl stories. Stories by Leonard Michaels -- I love the stories about a character named (Phillip) Leibowitz, as both a youth and an adult, including “Murderers,” “City Boy,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Reflections of a Wild Kid.”  The character may not be exactly the same character in all the stories, but again that’s the beauty of the form; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Michaels didn’t assemble these stories to form a collection, he used the linked form more liberally.  Before he died in 2008, Michaels was also working on a series of stories about a mathematician named Nachmann. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson  -- the nameless through-line narrator of these stories is an excellent study in compelling unlikeability.  He sees the world so vividly, and ecstatically; though only when he’s high or experiencing some kind of violence or brutality.   The reader lives in that uncomfortable tension throughout, and enjoys it.  By the final story, our anti-hero settles down a bit, though (we find ourselves hoping) not too much. Fidelity by Wendell Berry – in these five stories, Berry revisits the world of Port William, Kentucky, the territory for all his fiction, and even some of our favorite characters like Andy Catlett, Berry’s presumed fictional persona.   Berry’s fiction is both warm and harsh, in the way that perhaps only a farmer-poet-essayist-fictionwriter-activist can be. Stories by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov’s stories are not linked, per se, but as I wrote in a previous essay here at The Millions on the good doctor, there is something to be said for reading them in groups, in succession – as if together they make up his Great Novel, his population of characters all really aspects of One Universal Character.  To my mind, the stories are linked by Chekhov’s acute vision of humanity – as flabby and flawed, yet earnestly suspended in perpetual longing.  As readers, we recognize that longing, its tragedy and vitality. Lastly, it’s been many years since I’ve read either of these, but The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Dubliners by James Joyce are two widely acclaimed and beloved linked-story collections that are worth mentioning here.  John Gardner wrote about the former, which revolves around two characters, Flo and her stepdaughter Rose: "Whether [it] is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I'm not quite sure, but whatever it is, it's wonderful.” The latter, of course, is Joyce’s searing portrait of his home city in the early 20th century, captured in 15 stories, one of which, “The Dead,” is considered by some the greatest short story ever written. 4. Art is long, as they say.  Writing well, in any form or genre, is a marathon, not a sprint.  Far in the distance, many training miles ahead, I see that perfect gem of a story, those immortal 5,000 words that will leave the hundreds of thousands of others I’ve scribbled and typed, maybe even published, in the dust. 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