Well, folks, it’s happened. The mainstream media has finally discovered the Internet’s sordid underbelly. According to an article in last Monday’s New York Times, a growing number of online outlets have begun reviewing products for reasons other than the simple joy of content production. Advertisers in search of buzz are plying them with freebies, and sometimes even (gasp!) paying for advertising. Naturally, such cosy relationships raise eyebrows. Writes the Times:Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers’ opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.Regular readers of this site are probably aware that a portion of our small operating budget comes from an association with Amazon.com. Click through The Millions and buy any product, regardless of whether or how we have covered it, and we get a small cut of the purchase price. You’re also no doubt aware that we run advertisements. Still, the Times has inspired me, as it so often does, to look inward. And so, in the interest of fuller disclosure, here is a comprehensive list of the other potential conflicts of interest we’ve encountered here at The Millions:John McPhee shares an opthalmologist with Millions founder C. Max Magee.Gerald Durrell once recorded an outgoing voicemail message for Lydia Kiesling, who writes our Modern Library Revue column.David Simon, creator of The Wire, smuggled our contributor Noah Deutsch into the exclusive 2007 HBO Christmas party in a scheme involving an oversized trenchcoat.The trenchcoat had arrived in a holiday “swag bag” from NYRB Classics, embossed with the likeness of Edwin Frank.FSG, not to be outdone, included a diamond-encrusted coke spoon in its press kit for Clancy Martin’s How to Sell.Our contributor Anne K. Yoder was married, briefly, to Philip Roth.Prior to our defense of the “Mom Book,” Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout personally courted Millions contributor Edan Lepucki with a relentless muffin-basket campaign. Guess we know how she got that Pulitzer.Nam Le, author of The Boat, won his “Year in Reading” spot in a poker game with Richard Ford.All posts attributed to Andrew Saikali are actually written by Ben Dooley.All posts attributed to Ben Dooley are actually written by Haruki Murakami.A complimentary Junot Díaz beer coosy is currently keeping my Brief, Wondrous Lager of Oscar Wao a smooth, drinkable 52 degrees.As you can see, the world of lit-blogging is a seductive and glamorous one; temptation lurks at every turn. Nonetheless, I am pleased to report that none of of these potential conflicts has affected our coverage. I am also pleased to report that Oscar Wao is the greatest novel of all time.[Image Credit: stopnlook]
Charles D’Ambrosio is the the author of The Point and Other Stories; Orphans, a collection of essays; and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. He recently received a Lannan Fellowship.One of the best books I read this year won’t be published until next year but I think it’s insanely great so here goes: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. It’s a kind of chrestomathy that seems to come from one author but in fact is a compendium of quoted passages from writers, rockers, poets and whatnot, all of it traversing the disputed terrain of the real. It’s got a cranky, manifesto feel, its generous, serious, ridiculous, subtle, its ambitious but with a nonchalant throw-away feel like a Lou Reed lyric, its parts are so tightly strung together that you can’t pick a single thread without involving yourself in the whole shivering web. Anybody who writes or thinks or breathes is already living inside the questions raised by Reality Hunger. This book will drive me nuts for years. I think it’s destined to become a classic.Along those lines, my friend Chris Offutt recommended that I read Jonathan Ames’ graphic novel, entitled The Alcoholic. It features a main character named Jonathan A., but after reading the Shields book my mind’s too blown to offer a solid opinion on the autobiographical content, nor do I feel entirely convinced that I should care anymore. The book moved me, perhaps in part because of its inherent simplicity: the black-and-white drawings in those little boxes and the tiny speech bubbles forced the narrative into a directness that was disarming and stabbed right into me. That Jonathan A. is a fucked up guy, but I came away from the book wanting to be a better human being, by renewing my sympathy for all people, starting with my own fucked up self.Continuing along the line of problem selves, I just read Slash’s memoir, which, according the cover, “redefines sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Memoir is a fairly hifalutin word for the stupefying heroin binge recounted in the book, which doesn’t so much redefine sexdrugsrocknroll as attempt to push the limits of it in a world already without limits. The drug stuff gets old – there’s only so wasted you can get, so that element turns repetitious – but when he’s talking about playing guitar or writing songs or being in a band the whole thing comes to life. It’s like suddenly this immoral, pathological, cruel, cold, blind, very limited, supremely indifferent person is replaced by a really intelligent, sensitive, ambitious, subtle, singularly focused, deeply soulful guy with gravitas and integrity. Clearly people achieve things partly because they have a greatness in them but part of that greatness owes something to their severe limitations. Slash cared only about his band. It was a replacement universe. And inside that universe, he was a human being. Outside – a fucking animal!And finally, last but no way least, there’s Nam Le’s book of stories, The Boat, which plays brilliantly along the edges of something that appears to have concerned me all year, the creation of a new self, the difficulty of identity, the hard task of making reality real. I won’t bend that great book to my own small thematic purposes but couldn’t let this year go by without nodding to it. On its own terms, which are spun out sentence by sentence, The Boat is a terrific collection of stories.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories, The Boat, was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award. It was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Le is currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.It might seem unadventurous to nominate a book recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, but in fact, when the list came out, some people may remember that an immediate, insidious backlash began against the winner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (accusing it, among other things, of being the obvious and politically correct choice), and I’ll confess that I, too, found it all too easy to get swept along – especially given my one-eyed barracking for two of the runners-up, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Due to no fault of its own, the book – which I’d last read in high school – sank in my sheeplike (and sheepish) estimation. Then, this year, more than two years later, I finally returned to it. What I rediscovered stunned me: Beloved was a work of incomparable moral and aesthetic focus, in which structure, the actualised “intricate patterning” toward which Fitzgerald strove all his life, had elevated itself into ethical argument; in which memory-play, slippage and narrative deferral guided the reader – as all great books do – to a new mode of reading. It was a book planted deep in dirt and human muck, in a history where nothing – not feeling, nor language – remained uncompromised. And yet – and yet – it contained the sternness of heart and steadiness of will and stoutness of authority to claim this piece of history and completely possess it – to render it into testimony and prophecy both. Truly, I realised, Beloved was one of those rare works that remakes the whole enterprise; that marks, with one cruel stroke, beginning and epitome.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of Fimoculous.com.Elizabeth McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of Salon.com author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Garth’s review, Beautiful Children Goes Free, Beautiful Children: The Numbers)A Better Angel by Chris Adrien (a most anticipated book)The Boat by Nam Le (Edan’s interview with Le)Breath by Tim Winton (a most anticipated book)Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (Mark Sarvas’ pick for a Year in Reading)His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (Garth’s review)Home by Marilynne Robinson (a most anticipated book, a National Book Award finalist)Indignation by Philip Roth (a most anticipated book)A Mercy by Toni Morrison (a most anticipated book)My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru (Garth’s Inter Alia #9: The Aquarian Age is All the Rage)Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (Garth’s review, Kevin’s review)Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (a most anticipated book)Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (a National Book Award finalist)2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Why Bolaño Matters, Arriving 658 Years Ahead of Schedule…, Bolaño’s Big Book Makes Landfall)Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (a most anticipated book)When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (a most anticipated book)The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike (a most anticipated book)
Chall writes in with this question:Any National Book Award predictions?Awards season is upon us. The Booker shortlist is out, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced in the next week or so, and the National Book Award finalists will be named on October 15th. Chall’s question gives us an excuse to engage in a bit of speculation, though we’ll stick with fiction for the most part. Offering up some guesses at who might make the NBA cut are Garth and Edan, our two contributors most plugged in to the latest in contemporary fiction.Edan: (some of whose guesses were “completely pulled from thin air, for no reason.”)The Boat by Nam Le (see Edan’s interview with Nam)America, America by Ethan CaninFine Just the Way It Is by Annie ProulxIndignation by Phillip RothThe Good Thief by Hannah TintiEdan also likes An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston in non-fiction.Garth: (“Edan’s got some good stuff going on with her picks. I think there will be at least one debut author and one book of short stories, and The Boat is a good call. The Canin is interesting, too, as he’s well-regarded and this book hasn’t gotten as much ink as it might have. For the sake of doing something different, I’m going to go another way”)Home by Marilynne RobinsonThe Lazarus Project by Aleksandar HemonAtmospheric Disturbances by Rivka GalchenA Better Angel by Chris AdrianLush Life by Richard Price (a “sleeper” pick)Incidentally, both also wanted to pick Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which was recently snubbed by the Booker. But I don’t think O’Neill is a U.S. citizen, and that would disqualify him from the NBA. And here are a few of my guesses:Max:Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa LahiriThe Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffPeople of the Book by Geraldine BrooksCity of Thieves by David BenioffHome by Marilynne RobinsonShare your picks in the comments below. Name up to five books, and the whoever is closest will get bragging rights. Remember: only books with “scheduled publication dates between December 1, 2007 and November 30, 2008” are eligible. And the author must be a U.S. citizen.
The National Book Foundation announced the young writers that it will be honoring with its annual “5 Under 35” selections, which the Foundation calls “a celebration of bright new voices.”Mostly I wanted to bring this up because two of the five have recently been featured at The Millions in posts arranged/conducted by Edan. Nam Le, whose book The Boat has been garnering much praise, was the subject of a highly entertaining interview last month. And Sana Krasikov, author of the equally praised One More Year, recently penned a guest post for us about reading Andre Dubus in Iowa.Also on the list is Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, who once made an appearance in the only all out comment war ever to transpire at The Millions. Rounding out the five are Matthew Eck who wrote The Farther Shore and Fiona Maazel who wrote Last Last Chance.
Nam Le is the author of the debut short story collection, The Boat, which Junot Diaz calls, “an extraordinary performance.” Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote that Le’s “sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power.” I agree. I went to graduate school with Nam, and in our first week, he called to me from across the bar: “I read your story… you animal!” It felt like a real creative writing buddy moment. It’s been great fun seeing him gain all of this much-deserved acclaim.The Millions: Although you capture a wide range of voices and locales in these stories, the prose in this collection feels distinctly yours, from the well-placed sentence fragment to the descriptions of light. Can you talk a little bit about how you craft sentences, and how language creates the worlds you’re exploring?Nam Le: There are so many ways to think and talk about this (you’re basically asking for my ars poetica!) Here’s how I’ve been thinking about it of late: every sentence carries within it a certain set of charges, vibrations, shapes – and what I try to do is chase down a state that’s maximally charged, or shapely. Sometimes that state is more visually concerned – how a word looks – fits – into a sentence, and sometimes more aural; sometimes it treats more with images, other times abstractions. This is what I mean by a text’s organic imperatives: these “states” can’t be pinned down on a pulled-back level; they’re not conformable, in isolation, to describable tendencies (long or short, cerebral or sensory, complex or simple). They have to be dealt with on their own terms, within their own contexts. Of course the effect this has on a technical level is pretty disheartening: it suggests that every sentence that is, on first go, serviceable, efficient – even competent – can almost always be improved, can be brought to a fuller communicability.TM: How long did you work on the stories in this collection, and what was the revision process like, especially once you conceived of these stories as a book?NL: I worked on this book about four years all up. It’s tough to divvy up the time because the whole process can be so lurching and spasmodic: basically the first versions of these stories were written over two years, then they were rewritten and revised pretty intensely for the next year (those that got placed in magazines in collaboration with the respective editors), then again, for another year – at times from the ground up – with my U.S. editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, and, to a lesser extent, my Australian editor at Penguin, Meredith Rose – both tough, sensitive and superb editors. As tough as they were, though, inevitably I was my own toughest critic. I wanted to discharge what I knew to be the insane privilege of getting published with the personal undertaking to myself that every word, every choice, would be weighed, tested, spoken for. I wanted to be able to stand behind each story (even if only, at the end, to boot them out of the room).Revision’s hard, of course. There’s none of the typical pay-off of plowing new turf, it’s a constant challenge to fence with different sensibilities as well as to gauge the slippery sensibility of that hypothetical reader, and maybe worst of all, the whole thing’s potentially endless. Time and time again you have to convince yourself you’re completely done with something – then time shows you again and again you’re not. A case in point: “Halflead Bay” arose out of the germ of another story, “The Keeper,” the former clocking in at about 20,000 words, the latter 16,000. Not a single sentence made it from “The Keeper” into “Halflead Bay” – that despite the fact that I was at one time convinced (at the end of many drafts) that “The Keeper” was absolutely done. This sort of anticipatory second-guessing can make it hard to knock off a story, let alone a collection of stories (where by the time you’re done with one story, you’ve got all the others to re-contend with as well).TM: In “Meeting Elise”, the narrator receives a painful colon exam. Have you ever received this kind of treatment, and if not, how did you go about writing about such a subject? How far will you go in the name of research?NL: I know your game, Edan – you want me to deny this so that later, when I refuse to deny something else, you can infer it’s true! Did I undergo a painful colon exam? I’m certainly not going to answer this kind of question and the answer is certainly no.That said, I’m not averse to going as deep as possible in the name of research. In this case, for example, I consulted doctor buddies, looked up medical sites and blogs and checked out photos and videos (which in themselves were plenty painful for me). Generally speaking, nothing’s off-limits when it comes to research – it’s just a case of from how far into the rough you like to putt.TM: I know that you repeatedly watched the pilot to the television show “Friday Night Lights”, at one point charting the various plot points introduced. Why – was it more than mere curiosity? Do you look to other forms of storytelling (television being one example) to help you with your own work?NL: Wow, it’s like we’re friends or something – like you actually know me! (Either that or you have a hidden recorder on my TV set, which is something I’d rather not think about…) Look, if there’s one thing we literateurs like to lament even more than the inferiority of TV to books, it’s the implied inferiority – aesthetic, intellectual – hell, political and cultural too – of TV-watchers vis-a-vis book-readers. There’s overlap between the groups, obviously, but it’s not exactly subversive to suggest that TV, more than literature, caters to society’s lowest common denominator. I don’t disagree with this, but I do think this lowest common denominator might be higher than we give it credit for. For me, TV (and yes, other forms of storytelling too) can provide instruction in a lot of particulars, but perhaps, especially, in the art of narrative manipulation. Watching the pilot of “Friday Night Lights” – a network, not cable, show, mind you – makes me newly sick with envy of the brutal economy of film. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, how to calculate the worth of a thousand pictures, stitched together to convey continuous real-time motion, and then underlaid with sound?) When it’s well done (and in “Friday Night Lights” I think it is) TV serves to remind us how sophisticated even the “commonest” audience is – how many narratives it’s capable of holding at any given time, how deftly it can unpack story and character ramifications based on the scantest of cues, how easily it can calibrate plots and sub-plots working at parallel- and cross-purposes. Of course there’s massive shorthand at work, and the recognitions evoked are typically shallower, more familiar, less textured, than arise out of literature – but in truth I find the narrative structures of “cheap” TV shows more adventurous and formally emboldened than those of “literary” fiction. Plus TV’s often more fun – and I’m sure a large chunk of my own fiction could probably use a primer there too.TM: You were a fellow at Provincetown – a place that would certainly terrify me in the winter, especially if all I had to do was write. What did you do with your time there? Does your writing process change with any of these moves in locale?NL: Provincetown during the winter is a magical place. The most beautiful thing about it is how it coheres with the mood of your work; that feeling you usually have to spend time and energy and luck chasing down before being granted access, that feeling that, in the real world, is constantly short-circuited – by the real world. In P-town, it’s as though your creative sensibility is never shut down, is left on permanent standby, and you’re always writing, even when you’re walking, or watching TV, or cooking, or clamming, or playing ping-pong. On top of that, P-town brings together three elements which make me feel more fully alive – the beach, big weather, and a community of artists not limited to just writers. There was only one downside. I lived in the A-framed top floor of a barn and the toilet was tucked into one of the vertices; I half-sprained my back every time I took a piss.TM: What’s your impression of the American literary scene, now that you’ve had a book published and been on book tour?NL: So far as I can tell: in terms of clout, cash, influence, reach, interconnectedness, and, to my mind, aesthetic ambition and distinction (in all senses of the word), it’s still the biggest game in town. I don’t mean that as provocative statement (I’m writing this from Australia) but as a surmise based on my limited personal observation. Big is both good and bad. Looked at from a mainstream vantage, the American literary scene can seem oligarchic, self-sustaining, incestuous – the same conglomerations publish the prohibitive majority of books sold and given serious attention – and, too, soulless and numbers-driven. Yes, it’s a machine. But now I’ve been chewed up and spat out by it, I can report that it’s a machine with many moving parts, many points of input, potential jams, and built-in redundancies. It’s a machine still largely fueled by aesthetic passion and enormously dependent on voodoo, timing, and serendipity. It’s a machine still tended by human beings working in something close to a state of faith (or, in another way of thinking, professional negative capability) – because, amazingly, no-one yet knows how exactly the machine works – or how exactly to work it.From a more inside-baseball perspective, the literary scene can actually seem quite decentralised and diverse. This is particularly true on the emerging end, where MFAs teem and thrive alongside literary presses, magazines, journals, zines, blogs, etc, as well as – all the way up the spectrum – festivals, readings and reading series, book clubs and groups, independent stores, and various reviewing and lit crit forums. There’s a lot of news about literary culture currently being under siege – and a lot of truth to that – but having felt the community and energy out there I can’t help but wonder whether this might be, in fact, the ideal condition for literature.TM: What was the last great book you read?NL: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Olsson’s, a small chain that was an old standby among Washington D.C. independent bookstores, is likely to file for bankruptcy. It was the stores’ ample music sections and gentrification that contributed most to its downfall. “‘The book business is getting a little soft. It’s not selling as much as it used to,’ Olsson said. ‘Our music sales went from 50 percent of our business to maybe 15. We lost a lot of revenue, and at the same time rents went up and real estate taxes went up. I don’t know what we would have done differently. It’s a killer.'”The linguistic capabilities of modern world leaders. Well done, Pope, well done.For those whose fantasies involve real estate: Private Islands for SaleAnd a pair of audio items:Nam Le’s The Boat is getting rave reviews. Here he visits The Leonard Lopate Show.Garth covered the PEN World Voices Tribute to Robert Walser. Interested readers can now listen to the entire event.