If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
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Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.
That said, the truth is that no matter how tough you think you are and how accustomed you are to the terrain, ugly reviews are never easy to read. I’ve published two novels, which has meant that twice in the past two years I’ve sold a book to a publisher and gone through the edits, and then the publication date is scheduled, the lead-up begins, and the first pre-publication reviews trickle in. It’s a nervous, hectic, mostly pleasant time, filled with anticipation and exclamation-point laden emails from booksellers and publicists, and then Publishers Weekly weighs in. By “weighs in”, I mean that Google Alerts delivers the literary equivalent of unexploded ordnance into my inbox. The next few hours are always a little rough.
A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.
But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.
The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.
Vanity Fair, January 2007. Norman Mailer’s Proust Questionnaire:
Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her.
Whenever a writer brings up the subject of bad reviews, a chorus inevitably pops up to point out the obvious: that bad reviews just go with the territory. Sure, and we all knew that going in. Speaking in sweeping generalizations, we are aware of how lucky we are to be in this position at all. Most of us aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from the slings and arrows of our chosen profession, or if we are, we learn how to hide it in public.
But it’s hard to read a take-down of a work you loved, isn’t it? Let alone a work you actually wrote. I encountered proof of this a few months back, when I had the fascinating experience of watching a group of presumably reasonable adults fall to pieces over a negative review of a series of books that they hadn’t even written.
I’m referring, of course, to my Millions colleague Janet Potter’s piece on Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. The piece has accumulated more than eighty comments to date, more or less evenly split between people who agree with her and thin-skinned Larsson fans who seem just about ready to come after her with torches:
“Well said. You have aptly made your point that we, the unwashed masses, are unabashadly attracted to escapist drivel. And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”
“Laughable review. I do enjoy Literature Snobbery.”
“I’ll have to defend Stieg by point out the many ways in which this review sucks”
All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.
I think sometimes about the increasingly blurred lines between writer and critic. Those who can, write, the worn-out cliché goes. Those who can’t, review.
It’s a convenient phrase to hide behind when either your ego or your favorite Swedish crime novel is getting bruised, but the economic realities of being a writer have long since rendered this obsolete, if indeed it was ever particularly accurate. There are dedicated book critics, but we’re reviewed quite frequently by a jury of our peers. It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books. (There are interesting implications for book criticism in this, I think, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)
Jennifer Egan, whose fiction has been praised effusively on this website and just about everywhere else, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The New York Times. Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was recently reviewed in The Times by Jennifer Gilmore, whose Something Red was one of my favorite novels of last year. Something Red was reviewed in the same paper by the novelist Susann Cokal.
Suggesting that any of these people are reviewing because they can’t write would be demented. The 21st century update, then, goes something like this:
Those who can, write.
Those who can write but who don’t happen to be among the 1% of novelists who manage to subsist on their fiction alone, also review. We’re just trying to pay our rent here.
A much-celebrated performer of my acquaintance received an unfortunate review in a major paper last year. Let’s say that this performer is an actress, in Toronto, and let’s say it was the Toronto Star. I found the review unfair—my personal opinion was that her show was brilliant—but I was stunned by her response. A day or two after the review came out, she sent the Star reviewer a long email.
She told the reviewer he was “full of shit”, made various vague statements that a reasonable person might interpret as a threat (“I guess I was due for a hatchet job from the Star given all the praise I’ve received over the years, going all the way back to my debut solo show ‘Toronto Star Theatre Critic Found at Bottom of River’”), suggested that the reviewer was racist—it happened that the actress and critic were of different races—hit send, and then forwarded it to her email list. Fortunately for her career, no one sent it to Gawker.
The day after the most recent and more vicious of my Publisher’s Weekly reviews came out, I fell into a conversation with a writer friend about this actress and her rebuttal. I’d found it appalling; my friend, who’s also had to deal with a bad review or two in his time, had liked it. I said something about how I understood how hurt she had been and I understood the temptation to respond, but that the actress had pretty much confirmed my long-held suspicion that arguing with bad reviews is a truly terrible idea.
“But why,” my friend asked, “should the reviewers always have the last word?”
Because they’re entitled to their opinions, and they’re allowed to not like your book. Because if they’ve given you a nasty review, you diminish yourself by getting into a figurative fistfight with them. Because their reviews, except insofar as they impact sales, don’t really concern you: we switch jobs all the time—see above, section no. 4—but at the moment of the review, your job is to write books and their job is to write about them.
But most markedly because given the emotions involved, given all the years you spent writing your book or composing your music or perfecting your play before someone came along and spat on it, it’s extraordinarily difficult to respond to a bad review with grace.
This, at least, is as close as I’ve come to a coherent position on the matter. The question of how and if to respond remains troubling: I spent a long time writing and rewriting a letter to a major Canadian publication a few months ago, when I came across a lukewarm review whose reservations seemed based on such a complete misreading of the plot that I seriously questioned whether the reviewer had actually read the book. I didn’t really mind that the review was lukewarm, but I did mind that the reviewer had made two or three fairly major factual misstatements about what I’d actually written.
In the end I didn’t send it, because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to word it that didn’t come across as sour grapes. Better, I thought, not to respond at all. Better to ignore the review than to be graceless. This may possibly be cowardice on my part.
There are cautionary tales. Alice Hoffman’s 2009 Twitter meltdown has been immortalized for all time on Gawker. Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the admirable Joanna Smith-Rakoff, who told me at a writer’s festival last year that she doesn’t read her reviews. Any of them. Positive or negative. She seemed, I couldn’t help but notice, considerably more serene than most writers of my acquaintance.
I wonder sometimes what Mailer would have said to Kakutani, if by some horrible slip of social planning they’d ever ended up in the same room. What do you say to the person who wrote terrible things about your work? It’s an awkward question. On the one hand, Richard Ford again: he waited two years before he encountered the fellow novelist who’d published a negative review of one of his books, and then spat on him at a party. (This is exactly the kind of behavior, incidentally, that leads to what marketing consultants refer to as brand damage: every time I hear Richard Ford’s name I think “guy who spat on other guy at party” first, “writer” second.) On the other hand, it might be oddly satisfying to remain impeccably polite.
But then, what if one were deserted by the power of speech? It’s a concern. I know I said in the first section that bad reviews are usually not particularly hurtful once the initial sting wears off, but the key word here is usually. There are some that get under your skin—either because they’re violently stupid, or so viciously personal that you find yourself Googling the reviewer just to see if maybe you inadvertently stole her boyfriend in high school, or both—and these are difficult to shake. If I ever encounter the lit blogger who gave me my first and so far thankfully only non-PW takedown, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to breathe. I certainly couldn’t for the first few minutes after I read what she wrote about my first novel. Speaking might be entirely out of the question.
I did meet her editor. He turned out to be lovely. I was standing at my publisher’s booth at Book Expo America last spring when a man approached, holding a copy of my second novel. I glanced at his nametag, and I’ll confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the name of the blog he edited. The blog’s name always makes me think of old-school Usenet flame wars, partly because of the name of the site and partly because of the tone of the review they gave me.
“Emily, hi, I edit [redacted because name of blog gives me unpleasant flashbacks].com,” he said. “We reviewed your first novel.”
“I remember,” I said, as sweetly as possible.
“Uh oh,” he said.
Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani.
“It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”
Mailer understood that negativity draws public interest, in the same way that blood in the water draws sharks. We’re naturally drawn to vicious reviews, to train-wreck actresses, to personal catastrophes and public feuds. His letter was scathing, but not intended for public attention: “I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet,” he wrote. “Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.”
I think bad reviews do matter, if only from a financial standpoint. I think we have to ignore them anyway. Kakutani’s habitual hatchet jobs on Mailer’s work were more memorable than the countless good reviews he received, but above all of this towers the body of work. He spent a certain amount of time doing battle with his most relentless critic, but he spent far more time perfecting the writing.
(Image: Broken Glass Shards Urban Exploration April 19, 20101 from stevendepolo’s photostream)
Contemporary fiction is full of disappearing girls. I’m in no position to suggest that this is in any way a bad thing—I’m guilty of a fictional disappearing girl myself—but the basic plot is so well-worn at this point that it’s difficult to find a new path through the territory. In her elegant debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard defies the odds; she takes a story we’ve all read before—a girl disappears, the lives of those left behind are changed forever in the aftermath—and manages to create something entirely original.
Her narrative centers around the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell, who fails to return home on a Halloween night in a mid-Atlantic suburb. The day after Halloween a few of the boys she left behind gather in one of their basements, schoolmates and friends, lingering until the last possible moment before curfew, dissecting the mystery:
As it turned out, we’d all seen Nora the day before, but seen her in different places doing different things—we’d seen her at the swing sets, at the riverbank, in the shopping mall. We’d seen her making phone calls in the telephone booth outside the liquor store, inside the train station, behind the dollar store.
Pittard writes in the first-person plural and the effect is delicate and sublime, an examination of collective memory and collective obsession that manages to be both piercing and dreamlike. They’d all seen Nora the day before: two of them claim to have seen her at the bus station; one claims he saw her get into a Catalina, but his description of the driver and the car keeps changing. A boy says he saw her at the airport in Houston, where she told him she was en route to Arizona, and a flight attendant does in fact report seeing a schoolgirl who matches Nora’s description on an airplane. Nora got into a Catalina, or didn’t get into a Catalina, or flew to Arizona, or didn’t. She was dead within hours of her disappearance, or she lived for years. She may or may not have been photographed in Mumbai.
The years pass and the boys acquire jobs and wives and daughters of their own, but Nora’s disappearance was the defining event of their shared adolescence and in the decades that follow that night they remain drawn to the mystery. They fall in and out of love, they experience the death and calamity and joy that comes with ever-increasing years spent on earth, and through it all they wonder what became of her. They project their own loves and fears onto her, they speculate about her, they tell and retell the story of the disappearance, they are drawn to Nora’s little sister. There are possible sightings, never confirmed. Nora is part of what holds them together. They cling to Nora, and in doing so they cling to their shared past.
The Fates Will Find Their Way is about a disappearance, but it’s also about the difficulty of growing up, of moving into adulthood and letting go. It’s a brilliant and beautifully written work.