Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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October kicks off with a mega-dose of new fiction: Ancient Light by John Banville, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson, The Heart Broke In by James Meek, In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, Live by Night by Dennis Lehane, and Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros. And that doesn’t even include debuts Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, That’s Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson, and Safe As Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino. And there’s more: graphic novel master Chris Ware’s Building Stories, The Paris Review’s collection Object Lessons (we interviewed one of the Steins behind the book) and this year’s Best American Short Stories collection. Finally, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is out in a new NYRB Classics edition with an introduction by Keith Gessen.
In the weeks since Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography was released, feminists have enjoyed a rare moment of widespread agreement: This book, without a doubt, is awful.
In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny explained how and why “this sort of excuse for feminism” hurts women. In the New York Review of Books, Zoë Heller was so scathing, a friend of ours who hasn’t read the book said he thought, “This can’t possibly be a fair account of Wolf’s thesis because it would entail — among many other things — that Wolf doesn’t know what the nervous system is.” (It was a fair account.) Jaclyn Friedman declared in The Prospect, “The book collapses under the weight of a breathtaking narcissism: If it doesn’t apply to Naomi, it doesn’t exist.” And at The Nation, Katha Pollitt wondered if “opinion-mongering, black-and-white thinking and relentless TMI are the price of remaining a world-class celebrity feminist.”
Meanwhile, a shady cabal of feminist writers were conducting a week-long roundtable discussion of the book, occasioned by the following e-mail conversation:
Kate Harding: Hello, internet feminist friends. Would you like to join me in a group hate-read of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina?
Roxane Gay: God, yes.
Michelle Dean: Let’s all suffer together!
Jess Zimmerman: I’m good at hating stuff.
Nicole Cliffe: In.
Who Are These People?
Nicole Cliffe is the books editor at The Hairpin, and writes The Awl’s monthly Classic Trash feature. She has a lot to say about Edith Wharton and Doctor Who.
Michelle Dean is a journalist and essayist who lives in New York and writes for a variety of publications including the New Yorker’s Page Turner, Slate, Salon, and The Awl.
Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner, and others.)
Kate Harding has been ranting on the internet since 2005, most notably at now-retired blogs Broadsheet and Shapely Prose. She recently launched a new blog, Don’t Get Raped. She apologizes to Nicole and Jess for cutting a vagina-TARDIS joke below.
Jess Zimmerman writes mostly about science and cute animals at Grist, and yells about feminism on Twitter. She has written about ladybusiness and books (and dogs) for xoJane, and about ladybusiness and Doctor Who for ThinkProgress.
Mostly observing were Feministing Executive Editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Jezebel Deputy Editor Dodai Stewart, and Big Girls Don’t Cry author Rebecca Traister, (who flatly refused to read it from the outset). Exclusively observing were Tomorrow editor and writer Ann Friedman and Amanda Hess, plus Salon’s Irin Carmon. The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club was going to be a lot bigger, but then nobody really wanted to read the fucking thing, basically.
If you’ve read any reviews at all, you already know that Naomi Wolf stopped having toe-curling orgasms, discovered she had an injured pelvic nerve, had surgery to fix it, and set out to tell the world about the little-known “Brain-vagina connection.” You know it contains bad science (a doctor friend tells Naomi he has an unproven hunch that sexual assault survivors have more balance problems than other women, and she turns around and offers his anecdata as Serious Scientific Support for her thesis); downright anti-scientific bullshit (she speaks highly of a “tantric sex master” who offers “yoni massage” to traumatized clients); and a vagina-themed dinner party (where pasta was referred to as “cuntini”) that so offended Wolf’s delicate yoni, it wouldn’t let her write for six months.
You should also read at least Pollitt’s first paragraph, which covers Wolf’s public transformation from author of The Beauty Myth to the kind of person who A) has visions of herself as “a teenage boy who saw Jesus,” and B) has repeatedly used her status as an internationally known feminist and self-styled rape expert to cast doubt on the Swedish women who’ve accused Julian Assange of sexual assault. Among other things.
Oh, and here’s a fact-check on the science.
The Part Where We Make Vagina Jokes
Zimmerman: There should be a prize for the person who can work the most puns into her review. Don’t muff this opportunity, you eager beavers!
Cliffe: Oooh, I’m going all Shakespearean and seeding it with references to “country manners.”
Dean: But if we put too many vagina-insulting puns in, we may find that we cunt write anymore.
Harding: Look, I’m not going to pussyfoot around the subject or clam up just because of this theory — obviously full of gaping holes — that invoking its name might snatch my ability to write. Come, now.
Zimmerman: Gee, spot the crotchety one!
Dean: Y’all, this is getting heated. Here, have a biscuit.
Gay: The folds of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina are very slick, which is to say the book was waiting at my apartment when I got home from work. The most important question, really, is, what is our girl Naomi smoking and why won’t she share? I mean!
Harding: And how long has she been smoking it? Did she dive off the rails at some point when I wasn’t looking, or was she always this bad?
I’m 37 now, and I was 16 when The Beauty Myth came out. Shameful confession: Despite being a body image activist, I never read the whole thing. (I did read Promiscuities and Misconceptions at the time they came out, and liked both.) If I went back and read those old books, would they hold up, or would I cringe as hard as I do at my own high school journals?
Traister: I am of the school that believes she was only ever really a feminist thinker by chance and accident, in that her narcissism intersected with feminism for The Beauty Myth (and MAYBE Promiscuities) but that essentially her thinking and writing has mostly been downright anti-feminist (insofar as it’s only self-interested and exhibits no regard for other women and their issues, priorities, or perspectives).
Harding: I do recall being amazed and a little furious at the way she talked about pregnancy making her no longer hot in Misconceptions. “I was suddenly both fat and obviously another man’s property, so no one hit on me anymore. IT WAS HORRIBLE. This is the unspoken feminist issue of our time!” (I paraphrase.) I was like, “Didn’t you write The Beauty Myth? And wasn’t that about… really not this?”
Gay: She’s really one of those magical thinking writers who wants you to forget her previous body of work with each new book. Fascinating.
Cliffe: I re-read The Beauty Myth recently, and it’s still okay, although dated, and then I re-read Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and it’s just as great as ever. She came to talk at my college reunion, and instead of being “hey, ladies, look how much better things are now!” she was this hardcore “your feminism must be intersectional and we need to talk about poverty and debt relief in the developing world” force, and totally bitched everyone out. It was great.
Dean: Gloria Steinem came to my law firm and she hugged me and compared me to Portia.
Naomi Wolf came to my law firm and began reciting 9/11 conspiracy theory.
Gay: I love what they did with the back cover, vaguely alluding to Wolf’s “work” because they couldn’t get great review clips for this book. Adorable!
Dean: Nah, Freud eventually abandoned the seduction thesis and as such ended up disconnecting from the body, no? Isn’t that what In the Freud Archives is all about?
Gay: I don’t know. I’m not well read on Freud. It just sounded fancy.
Dean: I am not either, just on JANET GODDAMN MALCOLM.
Gay: Fannie Flagg was all about the vagina goddessness well before Wolf came to it.
Dean: I was thinking the book sounds like Naomi Wolf’s version of the Matrix, where the Matrix plugs into our pelvic nerve. Yeah?
All Right, Let’s Read the Damned Thing
Zimmerman: I’ve been mostly avoiding reviews, so I didn’t fully realize that Wolf doesn’t just reduce female sexuality to the vagina — she reduces the entire female experience to the vagina. To be a fully-realized woman in any area of your life, you need world-changing orgasms provided by attentive men who lick your ass while you eat chocolate, or whatever (I haven’t gotten to the specifics of the “Goddess Array” yet). All of which is presented with a heavy salting of “I know it’s not PC to say women only reach their full potential when they’re getting really good orgasms from solicitous men, but I am a TRUTH-TELLER and this is SCIENCE.” Which works a lot better when you don’t ignore major scientific facts such as everything we know about the brain.
Gay: We also need to talk about the overwhelmingly heterosexual stance she takes, practically erasing queer women. It’s really quite something.
Zimmerman: Right, vaginas are only properly activated by penises, by means of some kind of cervical toggle switch.
Dean: I think that all of this is a function of the essential narcissism of work like this. I want to be hard on Wolf and will be hard on Wolf, but the truth is, the way she universalizes and politicizes her personal experience here as that of “women” is of a piece with the rise of a lot of personal essaying on sexuality among young hetero white women I see right now, and it would be unfortunate to me to critique her for this without mentioning she’s hardly outside the mainstream in doing so.
Zimmerman: It makes me embarrassed on Wolf’s behalf. If it weren’t legitimized by being 300 pages with endnotes and published by HarperCollins, a lot of Vagina would basically read like stoned dorm-room revelations.
“Dude, my vagina is huge.”
Gay: I agree with Michelle about this trend of young, straight white women essaying on sexuality as one or more of the following: self-expression, fast attention, “internet fame,” etc. and it often seems like these young women think this is the only way to move through the world as a writer.
In Vagina, Wolf takes this to the extreme. She also makes it seem like if you’re not having vaginal orgasms that open up your world, thinking, soul, pores, and whatnot, you’re doing it wrong. It’s really disconcerting.
Harding: Roxane, you were saying on Twitter that this book is actually not just ridiculous and snarkworthy, but dangerous?
Gay: I do think this book is shamefully irresponsible. Once I calm down from saying, “What the fucking fuck in all fuckity is this bullshit,” I will have deeper thoughts.
Harding: What keeps striking me is that Wolf seems not to have read any new feminist thinkers since herself. It’s like her big revelation is, “Second-wave feminism didn’t get everything right!” — and she has no idea that she is the last putative feminist intellectual on earth to discover this. (“If you liked this, you’ll love Wolf’s next book: WHITE FEMINISTS ARE PRETTY RACIST SOMETIMES.”)
For instance, page 100: “So is all rape about sexual aggression or male neurosis? Or can the sustained cultural presence of rape also or even instead, at times, be about reprogramming women…to be less brave, less secure, less robust in other ways, and to go through the rest of their lives, potentially with a less stable sense of self?”
What I omitted there was the phrase “at a core physical level.” Because if you remove her bizarre vagina über alles theory, the rest of it demands no response more elaborate or eloquent than “Doy.” (Well, and “No” to the first question.)
I mean, she actually writes, regarding rape as a tool of warfare, “There was nothing about the rapes, with these injuries, that seemed sexual to me…” Wait, you mean rape might not be all about sex? Go on!
(Of course, she also admits she’s “basing part of [her] argument” on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, from 1902. So maybe I should just be happy she’s not using pre-suffrage literature to build her feminist straw womyn.)
Zimmerman: That’s for sure one of the dorm room moments — “oh my god, you guys, what if rape is NOT JUST ABOUT SEX?” Well hallelujah, Naomi, you have just solved the problem all feminists struggle with until they’re about 22 and read some books.
And where this gets dangerous, instead of just gross, is when Wolf looks at the psychological damage from rape, and speculates that it’s worse than the psychological damage from any other injury because of some magical property of the vagina, the key to a woman’s soul. But I’d hazard that it’s worse because it is psychologically damaging to be treated as though you are nothing but a vagina. Ahem.
Harding: I also can’t get over the way she spews woo and science (however dubious) in the same breath, over and over, assigning equal credibility to OB/GYNS, neurologists, “energy healers,” and Tantric sex masters.
Actual quote: “The female sexual organ… is being proved by new science to be far more complex and far more magical than the utilitarian thrusting totted up by Masters and Johnson can account for…”
PROVED BY SCIENCE TO BE MAGICAL. That is basically the deranged thesis of this whole book, right there.
Dean: I had to stop reading here:
Apparently the only way to retrieve one’s rape from one’s vagina is to hire a strange man to massage it and refer to it as a yoni. Hmm, all these years of rape counseling and psychological research, wasted, because we won’t succumb to the charms of the nicest former investment banker in the world.
Gay: That’s actually where I stopped too. “Rape stays in the vagina,” is so… infuriating. I threw the book and stared at it angrily for quite. some. time.
I do not understand how a book like this is allowed to be published. The broad, dismissive statements she makes about rape victims are so offensive. The section on the women of Sierra Leone is patronizing in that way certain white women love to patronize as if by simply conjuring the African continent, they are demonstrating their global awareness.
She also seems to project a great deal. When she’s talking about the women in Sierra Leone, she makes a lot of assumptions, based on the narrowness of her mind, about the look in their eyes, their general outlook, and the motivations of their rapists.
I cannot pretend to understand what goes through the mind of men who use rape as a weapon of war but she wants to turn their motivations into some mystical bullshit because for her, women’s lives are centered around their vagina. She’s no better than… a misogynist! I simply cannot understand how this book exists.
Zimmerman: Oh man, combining this fucking chapter with Wolf’s comments about Assange just gave me a really skin-crawly image of a Naomi Wolf-led Rape Legitimacy Panel, which would evaluate your rape claims based on eye light, soullessness, ability to stay standing when pushed, and generally whether you still have some rape stuck in your vagina or not.
Harding: I was also just getting to that point of wondering how a book like this makes it all the way through the publishing process. I’m having way less fun laughing at it than I thought I would, because it’s so fucking shameful.
The line about sexual assault survivors in Sierra Leone having “soulless” eyes stopped me cold. That is just not something a white American ever needs to say about African people, even if it’s only to illustrate that their vaginas are broken. By systematic rapes.
Also, her whole theory of the real tragedy of rape being a traumatized vagina suggests that rape victims who don’t have vaginas should be A-OK…?
Gay: And she suggests that once a woman has been raped, she is essentially mentally damaged.
I will not deny that rape has very lasting effects for many women but it’s like she wants to think of women who have been raped strictly as victims. She gives the impression that women (and men) who are raped cannot transcend their victimhood and this is something both feminism and the mental health industry have worked against for like the past thirty years.
This is the yoni massage guy, btw. By whom I am so utterly disgusted, I am shaking right now.
I mean, the thought of telling rape survivors they should pay a shady-as-fuck professional fingerer to cure their broken vaginas is bad enough, but here he is describing a typical “healing” session:
Once they feel safe enough to move from “freeze” to “fight or flight,” they are likely to be moving also from numbness to pain or masking orgasms, absolute rage — they may start yelling at that point, or revisit the trauma, but this time with a different outcome. They might shout, this time, “Get your fucking hands off me!” Memories may surface. They move into “flight”: sometimes the legs will involuntarily start kicking.
Sometimes the legs will involuntarily start kicking.
But wait! “Eventually intimacy doesn’t retraumatize them.” OH, GOOD.
(Update: And as Katha Pollitt points out in The Nation, “It is unclear what separates Lousada from the Victorian doctors Wolf disapproves of, who genitally massaged their frustrated women patients to orgasm.”)
Gay: I will tell you this. I think this yoni massage is total bullshit. He is a male escort and there’s no shame in that but trying to dress that in new age healing is absurd.
I also know that if I had to choose between some creepy ass vaginal massage as a means of healing from trauma given by this guy with a 1986 haircut and, say, death, well, I have lived a good life.
Dean: I just showed his picture to Maura Johnston and she started to sing “Kiss from a Rose,” FYI. #icant
Harding: Also: HE SAW THE VIRGIN MARY IN A CROTCH. (p. 123)
Dean: About publishing, I think perhaps people have too exalted a view of the mainstream publishing process. The risk, contractually and industry-culture-wise, is on the writer as far as accuracy and thoroughness of the information goes. Editors give writers fairly healthy leeway from what little I know; it’s not like they read the studies themselves, or even really test the arguments against logic in most places. It obviously depends on the editor and the type of book. But one assumes everyone knows what they are getting with Wolf at this point, and sort of leave her to her own devices.
Cliffe: Having returned from my plunge into the book, and in firm agreement with the political objections and criticisms above, I would like to add that the vagina is completely unimportant as A Concept, which, oddly enough, I had not internalized until I read an entire book about it. Two, if you count The Vagina Monologues, which I did not particularly enjoy, but could appreciate as a series of personal narratives, you can have a compelling personal narrative about your vagina. You can have a compelling personal narrative about having been born a woman without a vagina. I fully support the rights of women who were born without vaginas to decide that it is fundamentally important to their well-being to acquire one surgically.
I am not an evo-psych person, not even a little bit, but I AM an atheist who is reasonably relaxed about The Void We Stare Across (zerooooo pun intended), and as a result, this book just made me want to grab her and say: it is a fucking gap in your body which evolved to vent menstrual fluid and infants and to give you enough physical pleasure so you might get conned into the latter.
I’m not a vagina/brain scientist (and this article suggests Wolf is not either) but it is not A Concept, it’s more like your armpit than it is like your soul, and I think if one MUST write a cultural history of a body part (I await the Sack Chronicles with bated breath), it does not follow that you need to say, unblinkingly, a series of made-up things and wave your hands and say GOSH SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE! IS IT A POMEGRANATE OF DELIGHT OR A CAVE OF DESPAIR?
So much woo.
Dean: I just want to note I’m having trouble getting through this, post the Terrible Rape Chapter. An editor should have stepped in and made this later stuff more narratively-driven. I wonder if some of these chapters aren’t chapters of her D.Phil thesis or something. They’re written in another voice altogether.
Harding: Oh, I’d bet money that’s exactly what the endless Victorian lit part is.
In other news, Sady Doyle reviewed it for In These Times, and her angle (besides “Boooorrrrring”) is that we’re all freaking out too much and trying to kick Wolf out of feminism because 1) Assange and 2) Impossible standards for feminist perfection. Or something.
I’m sympathetic to the basic argument — I don’t think one book should necessarily undo a history of good books, and we don’t want to be chucking people out of feminism willy-nilly — but I really think she picked the wrong peg for it.
First, as far as I can gather from my own reading and your comments, Wolf really only has one good book and a bunch of pretty crappy ones. Second: There is some fucked-up, retrograde, anti-woman, unscientific shit in here, and as with Sarah Palin, when you promote fucked-up, retrograde, anti-woman, unscientific shit, you actually do lose the right to call yourself a feminist, on grounds of “words mean things.”
Gay: I must say my response to this book has nothing to do with Assange (which I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about until recently). As for impossible standards, if a desire for coherence, ethical discussions of rape, non-essentialist discussions about women that don’t reduce them to a body part, and cultural histories that sidestep flagrant narcissism are impossible standards for perfection, I am absolutely fine with that.
The critical response to Vagina has interested me a great deal. If you haven’t read the book, the criticism and the glee with which it has been offered seems a bit like a pile on.
Then you read the book.
Cliffe: I paid more attention to the Assange-based character played by Ryan Phillippe in the last season of Damages, but that’s probably because I now select news stories based on what my yoni wants.
Harding: Do I have to be the one who speculates that perhaps Naomi Wolf’s yoni wants Julian Assange?
Zimmerman: We should probably all be wearing these while we read.
Stewart, suddenly moved to speak: omfg
Harding: I was born via c-section. Where’s THAT t-shirt?
Stewart: Hole in the market, heh.
Cliffe: I had a natural birth, which is 90% for suckers, 10% great (of which, 8% is bragging rights and 2% is effective pushing and rapid recovery for some people, not others), and I’m hearing a lot of echoes with the ridiculous nonsense about the wisdom of the female body that you have to put up with during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.
Zimmerman: The incredibly boring/facile “My Summer Reading, by Naomi, Age 15” section totally lulled me into letting my guard down, but I should have known it was going to get bad again because I hadn’t yet gotten to the famed “cuntini” scene.
As it turned out, that part was way less ridiculous and more offensive than I’d been prepared for. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was ridiculous! Obviously! But it’s one thing to complain about someone giving you a nice meal that you interpret as being improperly laden with metaphor, and it’s another thing to follow that up by saying “I felt… that I had been punished for ‘going somewhere’ that women are not supposed to go” and then DESCRIBING FEMALE PROTESTORS DURING THE ARAB SPRING GETTING FORCED VAGINAL EXAMS FROM THE ARMY. WHAT THE FUCK. WHAT THE FUCK. “I was being punished for speaking up, and while we’re on the subject, here are some other women who had a similar experience! Truly do I understand their pain at being sexually assaulted by the military, for I was once served fish shortly after someone called pasta an off-color name.”
Traister: I am not sure I’ve ever felt more affirmed in a decision NOT to read something than I do right now.
Harding: OK, so, final thoughts. Did you make it to the end of the book, or give up? If you made it, is there anything really important that we’ve missed?
Zimmerman: Well, we haven’t yet gotten to the specifics of the Goddess Array! Thoughts:
– It is in a crazy order! “Don’t Be Scary” comes AFTER “Find Her ‘Sacred Spot,’ Then Hang Out There Far Longer Than You Think Reasonable.” NO. Don’t be scary FIRST.
– Apparently I am supposed to get a “vaginal thump” when my husband does things like buy cat food or talk to my grandma. Basically, this book makes me feel like I might be asexual.
– There is a subsection in the Goddess Array chapter labeled “Do Whatever She Likes To Her Nipples.” That seems like it’s on the right track! Inexplicably, though, the other sections are not titled things like “Talk To Her However She Likes” and “Do Activities You Enjoy Together.”
– The secret life of the male armpit. THE SECRET LIFE OF THE MALE ARMPIT.
Honestly, what the hell is this book. It’s like a Tantric yoga pamphlet fucked a seminar paper which fucked a self-help book which fucked an MRA forum, and then they all had a joyous vaginal birth.
clitoronomy is beautiful!! am reading “VAGINA” by @naomirwolf if you haven’t read it yet, read it, then send it to all the men you know!
— Courtney Love Cobain (@Courtney) September 16, 2012
its very tantric , very scientific , NOT some scree by a crazed feminist its just shit any sexual man should know. Perfect stocking stuffer!
— Courtney Love Cobain (@Courtney) September 16, 2012
Zimmerman: Hey, at least now they’ll have some blurbs for the paperback edition that are actually about this book. “Naomi Wolf’s Vagina is a perfect stocking stuffer.” — Courtney Love
Dean: I’ve been thinking about Sady’s piece and here is where I am with her: I think the New Agey-ness of this all is so easily mocked, but though I made those jokes too I’d actually be fine with a book that took these tropes seriously and discussed them seriously. I’m not an atheist, like Nicole, but even if I was, I think I would feel this way. I’m interested in the way people find meaning in their lives, and if there are women out there who really think their yoni (or whatever) is it, fine. I’m listening. I can be open-minded about that. And I think it would be wrong — and dare I say “anti-feminist,” though more on that in a minute — for me to just mock it emptily.
That said, this is not a book that takes this stuff seriously either. It is lightly researched not just scientifically, but also where the religious/meaning aspect is concerned. It doesn’t move out of the realm of very bare self-help. It doesn’t feel particularly raw or honest, either. The tone is weirdly arm’s length even in the sections where she talks about her own orgasms, which seem more like abstractions, in the text, than things that actually happened to her. The more I think about it, her ability to easily place her orgasms in a descriptive category is a bit… bizarre to begin with, but it’s the maneuver on which the whole book is founded.
It’s the terrible lightness of this book, in the end, that makes it so… bad, to me. And, though I guess I use the term loosely here, “anti-feminist.” I used to be rather programmatic about feminism, used to think it ought to contain certain base prescriptive rules. But what I found most frustrating on the level of lady-politics was that such a badly-edited, poorly-written, and indifferently-researched book was being wielded as a consumer tool to sell “feminism” as the “Naomi Wolf” brand. Katha Pollitt had that line in her piece about this being the cost of a “celebrity feminist” being a lot of TMI, but I would add “TME” — too much ego.
Increasingly, I don’t write explicitly as a “feminist” anymore, and that’s largely because it feels like it would be aligning myself with this kind of cynical claptrap.
Gay: I went into this book with a fairly open mind (really). I’ve only read The Beauty Myth so I still had a bit of goodness in my heart as I considered Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. I don’t mind that she has an alternative, vaginally-based spirituality or that she has vaginal orgasms that open up her creativity and generosity of spirit.
As I read Vagina, I went from bemusement to irritation to anger.
One of the biggest problems feminism faces is how all too often, the movement’s mission is defined by the public feminists with the loudest voices and furthest reach. The way feminism will be mischaracterized by the content of this book concerns me a great deal.
Vagina is part memoir, part literature review, part inflammatory nonsense, part spiritual treatise instead of a biography or cultural history. I love cultural histories about niche topics. One of my favorite books remains Taking the Waters by Alev Lyle Croutier, about the history of bathing. I’ve read books about salt and dinner and breasts. I’m down with the genre.
There is very little resemblance to a cultural history in Vagina. One of the biggest weaknesses in the book is the sheer scope of the solipsism. Most of Wolf’s observations are dictated solely by her personal experiences and the kinds of orgasms she prefers. She makes loose associations with questionable science as if this might endow her with some kind of authority when it doesn’t actually work like that.
The thing about the vagina, at least in my experience, is that no two are alike. As such, writing a cultural history of the vagina is quite a daunting task. The female body is as complex as it is simple. I am fairly certain my vagina doesn’t do a fraction of the things Wolf’s is capable of, and I’m fine with that but I do think it shows how the subjectivity of desire and pleasure mean that it is inadvisable to make blanket, overly generalized statements about the vagina. I remain deeply skeptical about the vagina-brain connection. The thinking behind the vaginal pulse throbbing when men are considerate is the same kind of thinking that leads to 0% fat yogurt and women dancing in commercials about cleaning products and this pervasive cultural notion that when a man watches his own child, he is babysitting while when a woman watches her child, she is parenting. On page 275, Wolf offers some examples of when women felt this magical vaginal pulse which included a father teaching his son to ride a bike, a husband giving up his pillow while camping, a phone call to a grandmother, and driving well on a rainy road. Apparently basic human decency will get a woman revved right up.
It is also troubling that so much of womanhood is reduced to the vagina and it’s intersection with virile men. One of the many things feminism tries to work against is the objectification of the female body but that’s just what Wolf does for more than three hundred pages.
I cannot pretend to understand the vagaries of publishing but it says something that a book like this, one that is so essentialist and dismissive of too many women’s experiences, was published.
And then there’s Chapter 6. I admittedly have a bit of a blind spot in this regard but Wolf’s biggest problem throughout Vagina, and particularly in Chapter 6, is that she was not careful. A couple years ago I wrote this essay called “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” and it was an initial attempt to think through how we write about sexual violence both in fiction and nonfiction. How do we write about sexual violence without exploiting the experiences of people who have been violated in this way? The questions are still on my mind, but I keep coming back to the idea that we need to take care in the words we use and the why of the words we use. I was struck, throughout Chapter 6, and at other points in the book, with the utter lack of care Wolf used in writing about women, bodies, and sexual violence. Her approach was very much a surface approach, a very dated approach, and one that made some really sweeping assumptions about victims of sexual violence. I don’t think that kid gloves need to be worn but I do think serious consideration and smart language needs to be used. I do think there is an ethic that must be followed when framing the experiences of victims of sexual violence in ways that are meant to support a broader argument.
At this point, people are spending more time talking about the critical reaction to the book than the book itself and that says something rather disheartening about Vagina. I really wanted to have a lively discussion about Vagina. I hoped we could find some merit in the book even as we giggled and made some clever vaginal jokes. Instead, I found the book not only careless but infuriating and irresponsible and at times, just fucking silly. This is a cynical, cynical book and feminism and the vagina both deserve a better figurehead.
Zimmerman: Obviously this is all amazing, but because I can’t shut up about this book (seriously, ranting about Vagina has become my new party trick), I wanted to respond to one small part: Personally, I’m not in the least bit skeptical about the brain-vagina connection — of course your brain is connected to your vagina! It’s just that it is also connected to every other part of your body. The only thing that makes the brain-vagina connection more special is that Naomi Wolf has decided that it’s more special.
I’m anti-woo and would never deliberately read a book about spiritual vaginas and whatnot, but I wouldn’t really have a problem with such a book existing. But that’s not the book Wolf thinks she’s writing — she believes, or wants us to believe, that she’s writing a knock-down scientific argument backed up by firm evidence. And yet what she presents is isolated facts that she’s layered with her own a priori interpretation, then labeled as “data.” It’s like chipping some rocks off the coastline, setting them adrift in the ocean, stapling together some kind of ramshackle network of scaffolding between them, and saying you live in America. And furthermore that you want Congressional representation.
Cliffe: Exactly, exactly! It’s woo disguised as neuroscience, and it’s chock-full of pointless biological determinism, and it is frivolous on the topic of sexual violence. I wouldn’t buy a woo book about the vagina, but I also would feel zero need to criticize it in a public forum, or even to give it more than a second glance on my way to the cash register at Barnes & Noble.
Harding: Nothing to add. Thank you so much, everyone! You guys are tits.
Image via base2wave/Flickr