I have a friend—call him Tom—who, like me, is a writer. Tom has written many novels over a long and enviable publishing career, and his novel-writing philosophy, related to me over various drinks at various bars, can be summarized as follows: Write whatever the hell you write, whatever concept or character or situation has burrowed under your skin and must be freed. Forget commerce and forget audience—you write for an audience of one, and if an editor or reader happens to find it interesting, all the better. A bestseller, in Tom’s view, should merely be a happy alignment of the world’s interests with your own, a momentary occupation of a dominant paradigm that is essentially unplannable. Or not something to be planned, at any rate.
Tom’s philosophy holds many advantages. It is pure, uncompromised and uncompromising. It presumably results in the best art, at least if you assume that, in theory, the most adventurous art usually takes money the least into account. And it is easily followed, as well, simply by adhering to its lone Thelemic precept: Do what thou wilt.
It is, finally, a comforting artistic position for an artist to hold vis-à-vis commerce. If you are utterly beholden to your artistic impulses, you cannot be surprised or mind much when a piece of art does not sell. You did not create it to sell. If it does, great, but whether it does or not is a simple matter of luck, of spinning the wheel. Further, it implies a retroactively absolving determinism—if a lifetime of artistic work has sold no paintings, no albums, no books, why fret? After all, you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, and you were never going to do the thing you weren’t going to do, and the thing you did do was never not going to be unpopular, QED.
This may be a philosophically solid position, but is it necessarily true? I began to ask this question after the publication and non-success—the anti-success—of my first novel. I wrote the book, as many first-time novelists do, in a kind of prelapsarian innocence, protected from the practical concerns of publication by ignorance and wonder at the odd fact of writing a novel in the first place. In the beginning, I hadn’t even really intended to write a novel, had simply been working on a short story that kept accumulating pages. In the end, it sold to a trade house, and the whole experience had the hazy quality of a dream, an impression strengthened by the arcane inscrutability of the publishing process.
Preparing to write a second novel, I had no such illusions. I had seen the amount of machinery required to make a book, all the stubborn engines of commerce that must be coaxed to life; I had received the distant publication schedules, the important dates that feel imaginary set nearly two years in the future; most importantly, I had a book come out that didn’t do much of anything besides get some nice reviews. These are lessons that cannot be unlearned, and they come with a circumspection about the projects to which you are willing to commit your time and attention. Suddenly lots of market-related considerations crept in that would never have occurred to me the first time around. I began to wonder, contra Tom: Could a writer set out to write a popular book?
In a largely facetious (though slightly more serious than I’d like to admit) attempt to address this question, I decided to take the most literal possible approach and go through several years of New York Times Best Seller lists. After all, to write a bestseller, it would be helpful to know what has sold best. Making the Times best-seller list may seem like casting a broad net, but only counting literary number ones, I was left with, approximately, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. So I figured hitting the top ten for a week would do it, over the previous five years. Too much further back and you might run into epochal changes of taste, some forgotten mania of the aughts. Also, I didn’t have the time.
An immediate issue this exercise presented, and a question much larger than the scope of this piece, was deciding what qualifies as “literary fiction.” For my purposes, I included almost anything not having to do with worldwide conspiracies, serial killers, werewolves and shapeshifters and rogue triple agents—i.e. anything not obviously genre. And though they invoke the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series—The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, I am not making this up—did not make the final cut.
(Before moving on to actual findings, a couple of notes after having spent many man hours going through nearly 300 or so of these weekly lists. First—and I realize this is the summit of trite publishing observation—but holy shit does James Patterson, or The James Patterson Military Industrial Complex or whatever it is, produce a lot of books. I’m not sure I noticed more than a handful of weeks in the last five years in which some Pattersonian permutation wasn’t on The List. David Baldacci, also. Second, Brad Thor may be the only bestselling genre author with a less plausible name than his protagonist, the relatively mundane “Scott Horvath.” You would think his hero should be named something like Odin Hercules, but no.)
Having compiled a long list of recent literary hits, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, start your title with “The.” Around a third of these bestsellers are “The” books. The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, The Martian, The Interestings, The Vacationers, The Girl on the Train. Granted, “the” is a fairly common word in English usage, but I suspect it also holds some subliminal power for prospective readers, announcing a book as official in subject and purpose—the definite article, so to speak. Just imagine how many more copies All the Light We Cannot See would have sold if it had been titled, for example, The Light We Cannot See (All of It), or The Entirety of Unseen Light.
Another smart move is to be famous already. Ideally, have written To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago, but otherwise, at least be a known quantity. This, of course, introduces another chicken/egg problem, i.e., how did these writers get to be known quantities before they were? At any rate, surprisingly few authors seem to make the list from out of nowhere.
More seriously, write one of two types of books: mysteries or historical fiction, both if possible. In either of these genres, you’re in good shape if you can work in something to do with a famous painting or painter or other noteworthy work of art or artist. Anything to do with marriage and travel to exotic locales, as well. Over and again, a combination of these elements popped up, and the obvious common theme is that of escape: escape into the past, escape into a mystery, escape into aesthetics and culture, escape into imagined relationships, and the literal escape from one’s home to parts unknown. It turns out that the escapist instinct that drives genre fiction sales is alive and well in readers of literary fiction—it simply requires (debatably) better sentences and (usually) less fantastic trappings.
With these guidelines in mind, I came up with a few potential novels that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the list. Here’s one: a historical mystery based on the life and death of Paul Gauguin. But told from the perspective of his estranged wife, Mette-Sophie, via a diary she keeps as she travels the world, investigating her husband’s artistically triumphant and morally bankrupt life after leaving his family. Call it The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin. A synopsis of this ghostly book in the style used to query agents is as follows:
When a previously unknown Paul Gauguin painting is discovered in an abandoned apartment in Chicago, art historian Lena Wexler is assigned the job of tracking its provenance; an investigation back through time, and place—from Chicago to Miami, from Denmark to France, from Tahiti to, finally, The Marquesas, all with the help of The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin.
Does this sound like a book people would buy? I think so. I can very easily imagine this book on the coffee table of my mother-in-law, an omnivorous reader of literary bestsellers, classics, and nonfiction who helms a monthly book club. I’m fairly confident that if I queried 20 agents with this synopsis, one or two would request a read. It sounds like a popular book.
The only problem is that for it to exist, I would have to write it. And it’s not a book I can write. Working through this little thought experiment confirmed what I already knew writing a novel requires: an ineffable, personal spark of interest that catches fire and burns steadily enough to not be extinguished by doubt and creative incapacity; a fire that manifests over time as curiosity about the subject, and the project itself, how it all turns out. Lacking this deep interest, an otherwise valid project—exciting, interesting, and commercial—remains a theoretically good idea, like going to medical school or quitting social media.
Since this essay’s inception, I’ve published another novel and have two more in stages of revision, and I’ve fully accepted Tom’s point of view: You have to write what you want to write, even if what you want to write won’t usually be what people want to read. You can’t spend two to five years on something for a theoretical, external reward. Or I can’t, anyway, but maybe some people can—if so, The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin is all yours.
Image: Flickr/Nabeel H
Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 is the story of Lady, a mother of two recently separated from her husband, Karl. She hires a nanny named S to watch her toddler son while she works on a memoir about raising her teenage son, Seth, who can’t speak. S, who until recently went by Esther, has decided to start acting as she thinks her impulsive, hard-drinking mother would, as an act of performance art. As Lady feels the growing distance from her sons, she becomes close to S, who herself is warming to her put-on personality and finding a friend in Seth. Got that?
Lepucki and I are both staff writers for The Millions. We have collaborated before on pieces about Gillian Flynn and Tana French (both of whom come up in this interview) and casting a Goldfinch movie. I was thrilled to read her insightful, funny, sometimes unsettling book, and get to ask her about it.
We talked about eyebrows and makeup, performing gender and trying to control one’s narrative, secret online lives, and characters with dual identities.
The Millions: It seems to me like in the last few years beauty rituals have come out of the closet. Rather than just taking orders from women’s magazines, we’re all talking about what we do to ourselves to look the way we do. I know you and I are both big fans of the “Beauty Uniform” column on Cup of Jo, and I noticed in the book a lot of the characters describing their beauty rituals, or noticing other people’s. Why do you think we’ve become so upfront about it, and why did you want that in the book?
Edan Lepucki: I like that this is the first question. Well I’ll say first I’ve always been really open about that kind of stuff in my life. It’s easy for me to be naked with people and talk about my body. I think the human body’s really funny. I’ve always gravitated to the other girls and women who are also like that. I’ve always been kind of shocked when someone doesn’t want to communicate about that kind of stuff. I personally find it really fun to share — I color my hair, get my eyebrows down — I think it’s fun to talk about that.
In my book, it’s not like I set out to do that, but I also really wanted to write a book that felt exceptionally contemporary. There’s one point when Lady on Twitter talks about getting a Brazilian. When I thought of it I was so pleased by it but also really embarrassed. It’s so private and ridiculous, but if I put it in the book it feels courageous in this absurd way. One way to make the book feel contemporary was to talk about those things that are super private that are becoming more and more public. The whole book, too, is about representation and the masks we wear and the performance of our identity in all these ways, and obviously that includes gender and the ways that we put on ourselves and put on our femininity, and I wanted to show that.
TM: I sort of think women got to the point where they thought, if I’m gonna go through all this and spend 20 minutes on makeup every morning and have all these expensive appointments, I want you to know why I’m doing it, or that I’m making intelligent decisions about it. People love explaining to you why their products work for them, and by talking about it we’re refusing to let it be trivialized. There’s a line in the book where you say being a woman is a lifelong education, and it’s like it takes so long to get good at this stuff, that once you have a handle on what your beauty identity is going to be, you’re so proud of it.
EL: I think it is a badge of honor. I also think that when I document any beauty rituals I’m saying I’m aware that I’m spending three hours to work on my hair, and the awareness of that oppression sort of liberates me. I’m comfortable with the burdens of my gender.
TM: Lady is also frequently giving spontaneous advice to S about grooming, and thinking about the advice her mom gave her. Like talking about beauty rituals is an intimate form of female communication.
EL: I think one of the main qualities of Lady is that she is carrying a lot of resentment towards her mother. She believes her mother damaged her, and she’s carrying that damage into all her other relationships. She’s sort of playing out the same relationship with S that she had with her mother, so I was really interested in how she’s repeating those cycles. It’s sort of the only way she knows how to be. She’s totally barred, she won’t really let anyone in, and at the same time she’s critical of everyone else. It’s especially heightened with other women, because she lived with a mother who criticized.
TM: The main reason I’m obsessed with the performative femininity in the book is that Lady and S and Kit (Lady’s sister-in-law) all ostensibly have artistic projects that they’re focused on, and this is what they would tell you is their work, but in Lady and S’s cases it’s faltering. Meanwhile how they’re performing their womanhood is speaking so much more loudly. They’re trying to express themselves through these specific projects, but they’re really expressing themselves so much more clearly through the roles they play.
EL: I think you’re right. Lady in particular — her artistic project is a story of her motherhood, and it’s a story of connection and triumph, and it’s not the narrative that is true. It makes sense that the way that she’s actually coming through is not through that story, but through every day you see in the novel. Her story is really everything she’s trying to avoid.
S is interesting because the question for me while I was writing was “who is S?” She’s so young and it allows her to be really reckless in what she does and she’s not fully formed, she’s like a ball of clay. At the beginning of the book she talks about how she’s a girly girl, but you never see that in the novel. She’s very ordered in her life, and then she tries to enact her mother’s version of motherhood, which, besides being drunk all the time, means that she doesn’t wear make up and doesn’t care what people think. As I was writing I realized that there were a lot of ways in which S wanted to be like her mother — these qualities that she did not have herself — and by becoming her mother she was able to become this different kind of woman, one who can say what she means, the first thing on her mind, and I think she gets a thrill from that. I don’t know if the disconnect between who she is and who she’s playing is causing a tension in her.
TM: This is something I also ask authors who have a character who’s very secretive or is hiding something. With S, most of the time she’s a person pretending to be a different kind of person. It’s like in movies where somebody is acting like they’re a bad actor. As the author, how well do you have to know Esther, S’s “natural self,” before you can layer S on top of her?
EL: It’s a similar question to how do you write a repressed character — how do you write a character who is unable to think certain things when you as the author know what’s motivating them. Esther to me was really slippery, as she is in the book. I have a real sort of love for her. Her core for me is a real longing — firstly, for her to have something with her mother that she doesn’t have. Immediately I could feel that from her. And secondly her heartbreak — what really sets her off on this whole thing is that she’s getting over her dumb boyfriend. Describing her boyfriend Everett’s art projects, I could feel S — even if she was writing them off — I could tell that she really admired Everett. That also felt very true to her. And her relationship to her father — every time she was talking to her dad, immediately I could lock in to S. But at other moments I was like, there isn’t a real S. I did reread The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a book I love, because I wanted to read those moments when Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf, and those moments when he locks into the next persona. I love those descriptions and I used them as a model. There is a blankness to S, but part of me thinks that’s just because she’s so young. Is part of that because her parents are divorced and don’t communicate and are so different that she’s had to be two different people already? That’s something that I identify with personally. My parents divorced before I was 5 and I went from one house to the next and they never spoke to each other, and I really did have two different lives with them, so I wonder what part of that slipperiness or blankness of her will always be there. I do think there’s a vulnerability to her that I sort of get, and maybe that makes me more compassionate to her than other people.
TM: The characters in the book are frequently expressing themselves in different modes. With Seth it’s so literal because speech is a form of expression that’s cut off from him, and so he gets so good at communicating with facial expressions or condensing a conversation into three sentences. Do you feel like everybody in the book is doing that in their own way? Nobody else has an avenue cut off from them in such a literal way, but they’re finding ways around what they’re unable to communicate.
EL: When you’re writing a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. I personally try to avoid any understanding of the themes of the book until I’m done, but then you stop and go, oh I see, the whole book is about communication and representation, feinting and dodging. Seth is such a literal version of that, he cannot speak so he has to express himself in these very specific ways. He can’t communicate and yet he’s so adept at communicating, whereas other people can talk and talk and not say anything that’s really true.
Somebody who read the book pointed out that everybody is using either art of the Internet to either hide or emerge. Lady is definitely hiding in her memoir, yet weirdly with @muffinbuffin41 (her Twitter handle) she’s kind of emerging. There’s this sneaky self of hers that’s true that’s online. Esther is literally hiding behind S, but there are moments when she doesn’t know if it’s S or Esther who’s feeling something, so the attraction to Seth is really fraught because she knows she’s crossing a boundary, but she knows her mother would be really into it. Everyone is either jumping right into something — whether a photograph or the Internet — or they’re completely using that to shield themselves. The trick is to figure out when they’re being real and when they aren’t.
TM: As soon as she decided to have a secret Twitter account, I was like, oh no that never works.
EL: [Laughs.] Do you speak from experience, Janet?
TM: Not personally, but in college we found a teammate’s secret LiveJournal, which she used to talk about all of us. A secret Twitter account is like a gun in the first act, somebody’s reading it by the end of the book. But what was Lady’s motivation to start a secret Twitter — is it as simple as being lonely?
EL: When I was done writing California, I was like, the next book I write is going to have technology. I want to have technology be a part of not only the everyday life of the characters, but be thematically important. My goal was to have it be part of the plot. If I was going to have Twitter in the novel, things had to be revealed in Twitter. There’s so many novels that take place in the ’90s because nobody wants to deal with the Internet issue. It’s hard to write anticipation and romance and spontaneity with the Internet. I thought, I need to put this into my novel and use it to the benefit, like how does the Internet amplify all our issues, and make things more suspenseful? And one of those ways is making your Internet presence a secret.
TM: Seth is diagnosed with selective mutism. Is that a common condition?
EL: It’s not a perfect diagnosis. I once read Gillian Flynn or Tana French talking about doing research with homicide detectives, and she said, I don’t need this to be common, it just has to be plausible. That’s sort of how I thought about Seth’s disability. In my story he just doesn’t speak, that’s the end of it. The way he has it, I don’t know if it’s possible. I wanted to emphasize his humanity in all ways while also emphasizing that there is something he cannot do and that affects his life. I didn’t want to be like it’s not a big deal, and I also didn’t want to make him only his disability. As he tells S, he’s not a metaphor. I wanted to make him a full human character. That was one of the biggest struggles of the book: how do you write Seth? How do you write a scene with someone who doesn’t speak, how do you write dialogue with someone who doesn’t speak? How do you look head on at disability and also recognize that its not his story, it’s two people who don’t have his disability talking about his disability? So they’re going to get things wrong, they’re not going to represent him properly, they’re not going to see him full at all points. The failures of that was what I was interested in.
TM: Your first book was titled California, but this book is also definitely a California novel.
EL: It was such a relief to be able to describe the world as it is now. I had not been able to do that for years when I was working on California (a post-apocalyptic novel). It was almost as if I had been writing a sestina for a long time and then suddenly I got to write free verse again. I didn’t feel constrained, there was no speculation going on. I just got to look outside and describe what I see.
ZZ Packer donned a judge’s robe and banged the gavel for a trial argument-themed reading inside an old federal courthouse. Later, Miranda July read aloud the sexual fantasies of 30 women in her audience. And before each of those, Luís Alberto Urrea shared psalms about his Tijuana childhood as hummingbirds bobbed, a coyote yipped, and the sun fell behind sandstone bluffs at Red Rock Canyon, where the first reading took place.
The “American Dreams” festival on April 21 to 22 in Las Vegas was as quirky, earnest, and sprawling an occasion as you’d expect from a happening co-organized by The Believer magazine and Black Mountain Institute (BMI), the literary center based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Jim James from My Morning Jacket performed. And Dave Eggers interviewed Carrie Brownstein about her serial reinventions as a rock star, writer, actor, director, and wedding officiator. Young talents from UNLV’s creative writing program and McSweeney’s 826 workshops took the stage. The inaugural event was a welcome twist on the staid book-fest format. But it was the weekend’s nuptial vibe that left me, and other local and visiting writers, most intrigued for what’s yet to come.
After 14 years in the McSweeney’s family The Believer is moving to Las Vegas to be edited and published at BMI. Joshua Wolf Shenk, the institute’s executive director, joked during “American Dreams” that the two had started dating during the festival planning process, and this being the wedding capital of the world, they’ve decided to elope. The magazine’s founders, Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits, will act as consultants while Shenk — author of Lincoln’s Melancholy and Powers of Two — will serve as editor. The Believer was on a printing hiatus in 2016 but will re-launch in that form on August 1. As before, its contributors will be based around the U.S., but BMI is seeking a managing editor to work from Las Vegas.
To recap for those who are skeptical: Yes, a national arts and culture magazine that prides itself on earnestness will be headquartered in Sin City. Indeed, Las Vegas has a thriving literary community (which, ahem, also includes the lit journal I help edit, Witness). The fact that there’s a “Man Bites Dog” newsyness to some of this is precisely why it has transformative potential.
The vows columns might note that The Believer and Las Vegas share a certain weirdness, both being colorful products that were designed to spite the landscapes that bore them. A wedding toast might say that bringing indie culture to the ultimate resort town is a great McSweeneyian adventure. But who cares about that? I’m excited for it because Las Vegas is always troubled, always relevant, and so an ideal place for the literati to set-up a magazine bureau.
Julavits, The Believer’s founding editor, said during a pop-up reading on the eve of “American Dreams” that Las Vegas was already the magazine’s spiritual home. One of its most-heralded (or depending on your view of fact-checking, notorious) essays was John D’Agata’s “What Happens There” about a Las Vegas teen suicide and the affecting, tawdry details that surrounded it. That essay’s title nicely deleted Sin City’s promise to keep all misdeeds local, and the book adaptation, About A Mountain, followed suit with a collage of facts and interviews that evoke stark human truths about Southern Nevada. The region’s economic woes, toxic policies, social isolation, and impending environmental crises have rarely been so poetically aggregated. But that book came out in 2010. Here are some 2016-2017 facts about Nevada’s national standing that deserve a fresh look: third highest unemployment rate in the U.S., number one in underemployment, sixth in home foreclosures, third highest drug overdose and suicide rates, number one in gambling addiction, 51st in public education.
Hopes are that while The Believer will remain unfettered in its scope, Las Vegas will influence its creative and moral urgencies if not directly inspire another essay or two. More than 75 percent of the state’s population lives in the Las Vegas Valley, where there’s obviously much to glean about the American experience. Nevada also has the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the nation, a tense urban-rural divide, public lands fights, and a water shortage attributed to climate change. During his savage journey into this desert Hunter S. Thompson stated that the American dream resides “somewhere in the Las Vegas area” — not somewhere on the strip. Yet when it comes fiction, festival participant Laura McBride’s debut book We Are Called to Rise, Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch are the only recent novels I can think of that captured this city as more than a row of shimmeringtowers packed with gamblers and prostitutes.
At a bar in the El Cortez, Las Vegas’s oldest and most-revered budget casino, right before the pop-up reading on the festival’s eve, I listened to the local poet and festival reader Angelo Ligori riff about the way people describe the building’s smell. “It’s always like cigarette ash and broken dreams,” he said, “carpet cleaner and addiction, perfume and sadness — a specific detail and like a grim takeaway.” I laughed, knowing I’m guilty of those myself. Yet I prefer former BMI fellow Timothy O’Grady’s assessment that casinos are “like morgues for the half-dead,” my own footnote being that thanks to a few strong unions, the resorts also allow tens of thousands of low-skill workers to enjoy middle-class lives. While Vegas is known as a “last chance city for last chance people,” it’s a place, too, where a cocktail waitress can provide her kids with good healthcare and purchase a home.
Locals are keen for Vegas stories that show more depth and nuance, and which look beyond the stip. At the El Cortez event the readers had to compete with slot machine bells and jackpot music every time a door opened to the room, which encapsulated the challenge writers face in breaking through the cacophony of noise and lights that leave anyone curious about this city googly-eyed. Taking instead a bird’s-eye view reveals how pernicious that distraction can be. Both Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, the Republican National Committee’s finance chair, have their names written in gold letters on the skyline, and Nevada’s largest newspaper was purchased in 2016 by their ally, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. A local first-amendment lawyer once told me this is the last American oligarchy; anyone interested in exploring that issue should fly out. But, to ride the bird-eye metaphor to its grave, it’s also a place where light pollution kills. Birds come here to feed on moths and end up smacking into reflective glass.
Fortunately, “American Dreams” wasn’t devoid of politics. At the courthouse reading ZZ Packer delivered a farcical New York Times bestseller list for the Trump era in which books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting Political Change and To Russia with Love made the cut. At the Red Rock Canyon reading, Heidi Julavits shared a madcap sex dream involving the 45th president, and then when a helicopter flew overhead, she yelled, “Oh f—, here he comes!” There were immigration stories and lyrical calls for resistance. By turns poignant and gonzo, it offered the boost of idealism, humor, and anger that Southern Nevada has been desperate for.
At one point Brownstein said, “Las Vegas is a good place to cry alone in your car.” That joke rubbed some locals the wrong way. But if, when The Believer settles in, it turns its gaze on this landscape, with more how and why to go with that quickie gross impression, perhaps the same locals will shed a few cathartic tears.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As the year winds down, it’s a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most-read pieces from The Millions during the year. We’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2016.
2. An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70: Christian Kriticos brought our attention to the 70th anniversary of a watershed moment in 20th-century journalism, the New Yorker’s devotion of an entire issue to John Hersey’s powerful recounting of what happened in Hiroshima on the day the bomb fell. “In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that ‘Hiroshima’ is as relevant as ever.”
3. Dear Any Soldier: Vonnegut during Wartime: Odie Lindsey penned a powerful reflection on discovering fiction — becoming a reader in a war zone — through a box of Kurt Vonnegut novels shipped in an “Any Soldier” care package to Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
4. Are you a planner or a pantser? Akilesh Ayyar broke down the two ways to write a novel: plot it all out meticulously or fly by the seat of your pants. Virginia Woolf? Planner. Mark Twain? Pantser. Vladimir Nabokov? Planner. James Joyce? Pantser of course.
5. In July, the literary set was buzzing about (and rolling their eyes over) The New York Times T Magazine’s publication of a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer. Our own Jacob Lambert then uncovered Portman’s correspondence with none other than Cormac McCarthy.
6. Somehow, your typical summer escapist reading didn’t feel right for 2016. Our own Claire Cameron took stock of things – and some great new books on offer – and crafted A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery. (Spoiler alert: this list works any time of year, as it turns out.)
7. Attention all poetry haters: Our own Nick Ripatrazone made this list just for you.
8. Ernest Hemingway: Middlebrow Revolutionary: Our own Michael Bourne penned a compelling and provocative reconsideration of Papa Hemingway that feels even more relevant today. “Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor.”
9. Infinite Jest in the Age of Addiction: We continue to plumb the depths of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In July, Mike Broida wrote about Wallace’s masterpiece as a “grand overture on humans and addiction.”
10. The Private Library: What Books Reveal About Their Readers: As Millions readers surely know, there is little more illuminating about a person than that person’s library. With that in mind, Andrew Pippos looked for treasures in the libraries of history’s greatest literary minds, from Gustave Flaubert to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Flannery O’Connor.
11. Only partway done as I compile this list, our star-studded Year in Reading has been a big hit across the internet.
12. In February, Gerald Howard, vice president and executive editor of Doubleday, took us into the halls and history of New York publishing. In this clubby world, much has changed since Alfred Knopf published Thomas Mann. But there are constants: ego, insecurity, irrational exuberance…
13. An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times: E. Thomas Finan’s piece is one I have returned to more than once since we published it in September. “Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.”
14. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Amateur Auction Theorist: In this curious bit of history, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan relate how Goethe invented a new kind of auction to avoid being swindled by his publisher. Alas, Goethe’s agent had other plans.
15. You can call yourself a planner or a pantser (see above), but the fact remains that there is no handbook for being a writer. In June, Marcia DeSanctis tried to make sense of the unbounded but messy life of the writer.
16. Books Should Send Us Into Therapy: On The Paradox of Bibliotherapy: Books are often recommended for therapeutic purposes: Read this book and it will help you solve this problem. In November, James McWilliams argued that instead, “We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.”
17. Do you notice what characters are wearing in novels? Do you notice how often authors get this wrong? Rosa Lyster does.
18. Look, it probably wasn’t you who wiped boogers on Jacob Lambert’s library book, but we can’t be sure, right? Just read this.
19. “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it,” writes Drew Nellins Smith. And yet authors keep churning out sex scenes.
20. I’ll be de’ed. In What the Deuce: The Curse Words of Charles Dickens, Brian Kozlowski instructs on how the giant of the Victorian era was able to channel his more impolitic urges with a clever — and uniquely Dickensian — array of invented epithets.
Next we’ll look at a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2016 but continued to find new readers.
1. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.
2. The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball: Lawrence Tabak’s lovely longform on the basketball variant that was once an Iowa obsession.
3. Readers of Laurent Binet’s HHhH have been turning up to read the story of the section he excised from the novel as well as the missing pages themselves, which we published exclusively.
4. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.
5. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett’s roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.
6. A Year in Reading 2015: 2015’s series stayed popular in 2016.
7. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It’s a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand in the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to “shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales” and other oddities.
8. How To Introduce an Author: We’ve all seen them — awkward, long-winded, irrelevant. Bad author introductions mar readings every day in this great country of ours. For four years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter’s guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts.
9. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.
10. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.
By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone’s else’s misery?
On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with — I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over…what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish.
Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer:
–The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row.
–I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day.
–I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine — this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate.
–And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay.
So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches…Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down…” If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out.
Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald
It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination.
Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real:
Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they’ve been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller’s eyes. I stop and stare but can’t stay because men always think I’m selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn’t look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all.
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go.
A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul’s best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy — a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast…
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.
I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.
Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.
Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.
Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.
The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?
Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.
But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.
TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?
PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.
TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?
PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.
There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.
TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?
PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.
Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.
TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?
PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!
The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.
They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.
TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?
PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?
I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.
TM: What is a “big book?”
PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.
I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.
We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”
TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?
PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.
I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.
That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.
Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.
TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?
PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.
I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)
Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.
TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?
PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.
Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!
I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.
The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!
TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?
PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.
In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.
TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?
PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
Kelly Link and I go back a long way. We met in the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro when I arrived there in 1994, and soon found out that we were kindred spirits in terms of fiction — we were both working somewhat outside the bounds of realism at a time when realism held sway, and we sometimes shared material outside of workshop to get one another’s opinion. We continued our friendship after leaving the program. Kelly has twice been a visiting writer at Clemson University, where I now teach, and we’ve done readings together and a panel at last year’s AWP conference (along with the fabulous Danielle Evans). With my novel Travelers Rest just out from Little, Brown, and Kelly working on her first novel and looking forward to the paperback publication of her latest story collection, Get In Trouble, we thought it might be a fun time to sit down and chat (via e-mail) about the writing process, the novel vs. short story dilemma, dreams, haunted houses, and whether it’s a good idea to have a beer while working.
Kelly Link: I guess first I’ll start off by saying how much I love Travelers Rest. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by you, let’s be clear, but the ending of Travelers Rest just about killed me. Did you know the end when you sat down and wrote the first page? I ask because I almost always know the ending of a short story when I start it.
Keith Lee Morris: First, thank you. I’m happy especially that you liked the ending. And I’m surprised to hear you say that you almost always know the ending to your stories, which I’ll get back to in a minute. I usually know the endings, too — in fact I’ve blamed myself in the past for being too rigid about maintaining my initial story structures. I started writing stories based on dreams as a result — I would take a piece of an actual dream and then start weaving a story around it without thinking about where it might be going — and that’s the method I used when I started writing Travelers Rest. So, no, I didn’t know the ending until more than halfway through. What’s funny, though, is that once I knew the ending, I was right. With my previous two novels, I thought I knew the ending the whole time and then I turned out to be wrong. Characters sometimes do things and say things that you don’t expect and then the story can’t go back to being what it was before, the way you’d conceived it. But I would never have suspected that you’re the type of writer who plans out stories ahead of time. Or maybe that’s not true — in some of your stories, like “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” or “Vanishing Act” (which you know I’ve always loved), there’s a kind of architecture in place that, if you took it apart carefully, you could probably see as something that was intricately planned. But other stories — “The Summer People” and “Stone Animals” and “Travels With the Snow Queen,” for instance — seem kind of enviably “free” to me, loose and comfortable in a way that shows the author is confident enough not to have to know where she’s headed. Or I guess maybe they just give that impression.
KL: Well, if I know what the ending of a story should be, then the beginning is often the most difficult piece to write — and I’d describe writing the middle, actually, as pretty loose and comfortable. Or at least flexible in terms of play. There’s a lot of play in the middle and I mean that in both senses of the word play. Because I often know what the ending is going to be, I spend a great deal of time trying to lay false trails that feel plausible and engrossing to the reader so that they won’t see where we’re headed. It’s funny: I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a novel — a series of novels, maybe, and within a couple of days of thinking about the premise, I knew how I would want to end one book, and then a second book, and then the ending of the last book. It seems like a big project, but I’d really like to get to all of those endings.
Oh, and I remember your dream stories! I didn’t know that’s how you started Travelers Rest. What was the dream? And which character was the biggest surprise to you?
KLM: The dream that it started from was completely different from the novel it turned out to be. The dream was actually about a beach house we go to each summer in St. Simons Island, Ga., and all it involved was a window seen from outside the house that I knew wasn’t anywhere inside the house, and two people, a man and a woman, talking in this nonexistent window. The whole thing morphed weirdly from there. I don’t know which character in the novel was the biggest surprise, but I know what moment regarding the characters was the most surprising. It was [spoiler alert] when I found out that Stephanie was Hugh’s sister. I didn’t know until Hugh literally opened his mouth and said it. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned that — characters doing things I didn’t expect them to or want them to, completely without warning, and ruining all my plans. Sometimes writing is almost like raising teenagers. What about you? Does that ever happen to you? Can you remember a character who suddenly got unruly and started acting out without your permission?
KL: I love Stephanie so much! Let’s see. Unruly characters. I think the most surprising thing a character ever did was in a story called “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The central character, called Soap most of the time, ends up in a bed with a girl at a party. She falls asleep and it turns out that her little brother is hiding under the bed — I didn’t know until I got to that point that there was a little brother and that he’d be under the bed. Soap leaves the house and the party and he takes the little brother with him. As soon as I thought of it, I knew that was how the story ended. I was on a plane on the way to a workshop when I finished that story — a friend of mine was heading out to the same workshop and he was also finishing up his story. We’d walk by each other in the aisle of the plane and say: Have you finished your story yet? No. You?
KLM: I’ve gotta throw in here that my favorite all-time character(s) of yours are the Loolies in “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”–lumpy, soft, hairless, babyish undead creatures who subsist entirely on a diet of marshmallows, if I’m remembering correctly. Love those Loolies.
KL: Thank you! I still remember meeting you in the MFA program at UNC-G — specifically a conversation we had with our friend Margaret Muirhead. We were talking about writing and you mentioned that you did a lot of writing in bars. I was really thrown by that — I couldn’t imagine working in a room with other people. And now, of course, I work in cafes and restaurants and in other people’s houses, preferably with as many other writers as possible. It turns out I get more done when there’s a lot of stuff going on around me. Anyway: do you still work that way now?
KLM: Apparently we switched places in that regard — I now write almost exclusively at home in my little windowless office, although I will occasionally still have a beer while I’m in the process. But I’ve always loved writing in bars — all the noises just drown one another out and I don’t hear a thing after a while. Of course that could also be the beer.
In the interest of informing our readers, we should probably say that we both attended the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, Kelly one year ahead of me (although I’m infinitely older, let me make it clear). Looking back on that time now, what are your favorite memories of being an MFA student? And what do you regret, if anything?
KL: I don’t do it often, but I love to have one or two beers while I’m writing. I don’t even have an office at home. I work on the dining room table, which we only use for eating on a couple times a year. Mostly it’s just a stack of books and manuscripts. As for UNC-G, my favorite thing was working on The Greensboro Review. Margaret Muirhead was the fiction editor and I was the assistant fiction editor. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published. One person would read the story out loud, including the punctuation marks, and the other would sight read the proofs to make sure everything was clean. Oh, and reading Tristram Shandy. I guess my biggest regret was that I lived about a mile off campus — everyone else seemed to live all on one street near campus. I missed a lot of spontaneous parties and a lot of conversations. You?
KLM: Bartlebying! That’s what Jim Clark [Greensboro Review editor] called the kind of proofreading you’re talking about. I wonder if that’s an actual term or if Jim just made it up: it makes sense — that’s what Bartleby did (or was supposed to do), after all, make exact copies of things, and the goal was to make sure that the manuscript and the page proof were exactly the same — but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term used after that. Speaking of Jim Clark, he was one of my favorite things about the program — he made it fun to come in to work every day. I loved the people in the program — we were a really tight-knit group. Like you, I lived kind of away from the action (close to you, actually), but I had a wife and a two-year-old. I think being in an MFA program was absolutely crucial for my development at the time — I needed both that kind of structure and the opportunity it afforded. Do you think you would be the same writer you are now if you hadn’t attended an MFA program? And I’m interested in hearing whether your recollection is the same as mine — to me, at the time, you and I were both writing weird, absurd stuff that left everyone else kind of scratching their heads. Almost everyone was writing more or less straight realism at the time. I sometimes went that route, but I was playing around with a lot of different modes of storytelling. You seemed to have already had your mind pretty firmly made up in terms of the direction you were headed.
KL: Jim Clark is a marvel; UNC-G always felt like a family because of him. I was waitlisted when I applied. He called and said that he liked my stories, but that I was young and unformed and ought to get married and divorced a couple of times and maybe do a stint in jail before I went to an MFA program. So I sent him a picture of me dangling from a rope over a bridge — bungee jumping — like a literal depiction, I guess, of The Fool on the Tarot card — and Jim was so tickled by this that he let me into the program.
I hadn’t written a lot before UNC-G. Maybe four stories in all. Every story that I wrote for workshop at UNC-G, I would think: Am I allowed to do this? Will this work? I think the first of those stories was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back.” I’d applied to UNC-G because I hoped it would be okay to write weird stuff there (Fred Chappell taught there and I knew his fantastic Lovecraftian story “The Adder” and Orson Scott Card had gone for a little while, so there was at least a tinge of genre.) But yes, everyone else wrote realism and then you would turn in these weird gem-like pieces and stories, and I did whatever I was doing. I only wanted to write stories that were, more or less fantasy, science fiction, ghost stories. I couldn’t think of a story that I wanted to tell that didn’t tend in that direction. What UNC-G taught me as a writer was that I loved workshop. I loved hearing people argue about, and take apart, and defend stories — hearing writers talk about language and the architecture of narrative, and what they anticipated in stories, and what surprised them.
When I teach, I always ask my students: What do you read that you love and admire? And what do you read that you love but you don’t know why? What do you read that you love that embarrasses you, just a little? Because all of that is useful to you, especially the things that you love where maybe you don’t understand why you love it — that you love in spite of feeling that other people might not understand or approve.
You’ve been at Clemson for a long time now. I have a couple of questions about that — what do you read and love that is farthest from the kind of fiction that you write? What kind of stories or narratives? (For example: one of my students a while back ago, when I asked, said he read D&D manuals. He’s a poet. Greg Purcell.) And what do you like about teaching? What don’t you like? And do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
KLM: Hmm…what do I love to read that’s furthest from what I write? I guess the easy answer to that would be the sports page. I spend a lot of time every day perusing basketball statistics and the outcome of tennis matches on ESPN.com. My father was a football and baseball coach and sports are pretty deeply ingrained in my system, even though I was never that great an athlete. That probably explains in part why I gave 10-year-old Dewey in Travelers Rest outstanding athletic ability along with his curious existential angst — it was something I always wished I had. You know how people always ask what superpower you would choose if you could? I would choose to be able to drain 30-foot three-pointers at will. Another answer would be that I love big, sprawling, ambitious 19th-century novels — I wish there were a way to write Middlemarch or War and Peace or Germinal today. Some writers try to match the scope, the structure, even the laconic pacing — Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt come to mind as authors who’ve done so successfully — but even The Goldfinch is still a very different novel from Great Expectations or Sentimental Education. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country right now. It’s probably not one of her better books, but the feeling I get when I start reading is something that I really miss in most contemporary literature — the feeling that neither of us, the author or myself, is in any kind of hurry. There’s so much emphasis on getting in an early “hook” now, something dramatic and captivating at the beginning of the story. That’s nice, of course, to be able to draw the reader in from the outset, but it also gives you less room to expand, less opportunity to create something that keeps building and building momentum until the tension becomes almost unbearable — the adrenaline rush is already there from the start a lot of times now. With Travelers Rest, I probably pushed my affinity for the slow burn about as far as I felt I was able to. And yes, I love teaching but I don’t like grading. And despite all the years I’ve spent in the South (including being born in Mississippi), I still don’t feel I know the South well enough to call myself a Southern writer. I mostly stick with the Pacific Northwest.
KL: What a useful conversation this is for me, here in the early throes of novel-writing. I take your point about pacing and scope. One of my favorite novels is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which signals right from the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — that it’s going to be about domestic concerns, but also about the strange accommodations and bargains that everyday life and relationships require. I Capture the Castle isn’t necessarily long, but it feels expansive. In the same way that you feel big, ambitious, contemporary novels don’t quite have the same enveloping appeal as Middlemarch, I will always feel a vague sense of disappointment in how much of contemporary realistic fiction works and instead yearn for strangeness, whether it’s the lurid flourishes of Gothic novels, the worldbuilding of science fiction or fantasy, the irresolution of ghost stories, or the peculiar and elliptical language and structure that you get in Kathryn Davis’s novels.
In other words, there are so many novelistic modes that I do like that I’m finding it very hard to make the most basic decisions about the way to tackle a novel. There are so many appealing options! I’m drawn to all of them! I’ve spent over 10 years now working with novelists as an editor and it’s become increasingly easier for me to see the questions that I can usefully ask a novelist during the revision process. But I can’t do that for myself. What’s revision like for you? Did Travelers Rest go through multiple drafts? Are there alternate ghostly versions (which seems appropriate for this particular book — the writer Howard Waldrop says that every book or story works as a metaphor for the way in which that writer wrote their book, by the way)? Do you save the versions as you go? And finally, I’ve heard any number of novelists say that figuring out how to write one novel doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to write the next one. That each book is its own set of problems. Has this been true for you?
KLM: I agree that the sense of freedom you experience when starting out on a novel can be daunting. The field seems so wide open, and yet you realize that if you make poor decisions you could be wasting months, even years of your time (and I’ve got a “drawer novel” to prove it). At the same time, the process can feel more restrictive. I found that I had to do some things I normally wouldn’t do in writing short stories — make an outline, for instance, write character sketches in order to try to maintain consistency, especially with characters’ backstories. And yes, each novel feels like a completely different excursion, so that the lessons you learn one time don’t necessarily offer you any assistance the next. But even though Travelers Rest was a much different kind of novel in some ways than the ones I’d written before, I did find that there was a substantial amount of carryover. My previous novel, The Dart League King, employed a rotating third-person POV, and I used the same technique in Travelers, which made things seem more familiar even though the story itself was very strange and difficult to navigate. And regarding your question about multiple drafts, I wouldn’t say that there were a whole lot of drafts but a single draft that kept constantly shifting and flowing and resettling itself into new shapes and formations. Chapters moved around, scenes expanded and contracted, narrative sequences popped up out of nowhere while others disappeared. It was kind of like a pot set at a rolling boil. My editor, Ben George, really put me through my paces on every level, and the novel is much better because of his efforts. Here’s something I’m interested in asking you. First, Get in Trouble is your fourth short story collection — do you see any clear differences between your early stories and the stories in this book? And, now that you’re working on a novel, do you see it as an entirely new endeavor or a simple extension of the ideas you’ve already been working with in your short fiction?
KL: I’m not the best judge of my own stories. There are a couple in Get in Trouble that I like as much as anything that I’ve ever written, and I truly hope that they don’t feel like I’ve been treading water. My Israeli translator, Debbie Eylon, who is much smarter than I am, said that these were harder stories to translate because in the earlier collections, the metaphorical language was more loosely attached to the characters and ideas and descriptions. This time around, she said that it was more of a pain to figure out replacements when there was no exact match in Hebrew for a particular word or phrase, because the relationship of the metaphorical language to the matter of the story was more enchained. She seemed pleased by this, although it meant a lot more work for her. As for the novel, I’m of two minds. With a story, I usually come up with a piece of structure or misdirection that seems difficult to pull off successfully, and most of the fun in writing comes from achieving something that I wasn’t sure how to do before I sat down to do it. For example, I wrote “The Lesson” from the ending backwards for about three or four pages because I was curious about whether or not I did know the ends of my stories before I began — and because it seemed to me that it would change the way I wrote the beginning. With a novel, though, the thing that I would most like to achieve is a long-form narrative that has a conventional and pleasurable shape in which the reader gets to spend a couple of days with interesting people. I have no idea whether or not I can pull that off.
KLM: What do you mean by “writing from the ending backwards for about three or four pages”? I’m fascinated. Please explain.
KL: I wrote the last sentence of the story first, and then the next to last sentence, and so on for as long as I could — maybe I could have done it all the way back, but at a certain point I got really interested in figuring out how it started.
KLM: [Deep, deep sigh.] I can’t even bend my mind around that. I’m not even going to try. It sounds like an impressive thing to be able to do on a level at which I would be completely incapacitated.
KL: Let me ask you a couple more related questions before we wrap this up — you can do both things. Short stories and novels. Are you more drawn to one than the other? When you get an idea, do you know if it’s a short story or a novel idea? And what are you working on at the moment?
KLM: As I get older, I’m increasingly drawn to novels. I like waking up every day and knowing that I’m working on the same thing I was the day before, and it almost makes me sad when I get to the end of a draft. For that reason, I think, my ideas these days tend to take the shape of novels. I almost have to force myself to think in terms of short stories, and I write short stories now, mostly, as a way to fill up the time in between book projects. That said, I still find short stories really satisfying — I just finished one called “Sleigh Bells for the Hayride” that I feel very good about. And I’m not working on anything new as far as novels go — I like to let one thing completely play out before I start on another. One last question for you — do you want to tell us anything about the novel you’re working on, give us readers a sneak peek?
KL: Well, I had been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years and hadn’t figured out any other way to write it. Furthermore, this ending wasn’t a plot driven ending, more of an emotional capstone. And what a persuasive argument to make for the novel. I’ve been married for 15 years now. I’ve lived in the same house for almost a decade. I like the same thing for breakfast every morning, so maybe it will be comfortable to settle into a novel and stay for a while. I’d been wistfully thinking about how science fiction writers in the pulp era used to knock out a novel in a couple of weeks, and wouldn’t that be fun to try? But already I think I’ve spent too much time wrestling with this book. So far it has a bunch of ghosts in it and a high school music room. I badly want to put some haunted houses in it too — not the real kind, but the fake kind that you pay a lot of money to be chased through.
KLM: Haunted houses are fun, real or fake. I guess part of the fascination is with that time in our lives when we can’t tell the difference. I remember going into the haunted house at Disneyland with my sister when we were kids. I saw my dad buy the tickets, but that didn’t convince me I wasn’t about to die. I suppose that was the impulse behind Travelers Rest, too — I wanted to put an average, everyday family in an old, abandoned hotel and see what happened to them. So I hope you find a place to include the haunted houses, and I’ll look forward to reading the book.
As the year winds down, it’s a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from The Millions during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2015:
2. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.
3. Our own Nick Ripatrazone wrote, “Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season.” Many readers followed along; bookmark this for 2016.
4. It’s hard enough to write a book, but then they expect you to come up with a title. Our own Janet Potter came up with a sure-fire, never-fail strategy to title your next masterpiece and the one after that too.
5. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It’s a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand in the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to “shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales” and other oddities.
6. The Art of the Chapter: Jonathan Russell Clark authored a series of essays for us exploring each element that makes up a book from the epigraph to the final sentence. His piece on chapters dove deep into the choices authors make in how they divide up their books.
7. Scenes From Our Unproduced Screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’: “It’s ‘whom,’ motherfucker.” Juliana Gray and Erica Dawson penned a screenplay for grammar lovers.
8. Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received: An illuminating round-up from Sarah Anne Johnson. “I recently spoke with a range of authors who shared the best piece of writing advice they ever received. Some answers were brief and memorizable, some were longer and drew me into the author’s world and creative process.”
9. The Audacity of Prose: Booker Prize shortlister Chigozie Obioma penned a forceful and convincing defense of the idea that when it comes to writing, “more is more.”
10. To Fall in Love with a Reader, Do This: From our own Hannah Gersen, “Several months ago, The New York Times published an essay about a 36-question interview devised to make strangers fall in love. The questions presented here are designed with a more modest goal: to have an interesting conversation about books.”
11. The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels: Meredith Turits invited six authors to look back on their first novels, and they gave us a delightful mixture of nostalgia, awe and confusion.
12. How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing.: Gina Fattore wondered if the wrong “day job” can erase the career of a would-be successful novelist before it even starts.
13. It’s Not You, It’s Us: Apartment Hunting in Brooklyn: In maybe the funniest piece we ran all year, David Staller tries to find an affordable apartment in Brooklyn without getting murdered, or worse.
14. The Admiral in the Library: The Millions Interviews James Stavridis: The Millions ran dozens of interviews with leading literary lights in 2015. Who would have guessed that our most popular sit-down was to be with a remarkably well read and introspective retired admiral. Marcia DeSanctis was our intrepid interviewer for this fascinating conversation.
15. Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read: Our own Michael Bourne guides you past the neckties to find the book that will delight your literary pop.
16. Dispatches From the Content Factory: On the Rise and Fall of the New Creative Class: All those tech unicorns need writers – sometimes a lot of them. Irene Keliher gave us a chilling firsthand account of the tech economy’s creative underclass.
17. The Joy of Crewnecks: Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’: Marie Kondo’s call to clear out your closets became something of a cultural phenomenon this year. Janet Potter clued us in early.
18. The Millions 2015 Gift Guide for Readers, Writers and the People Who Love Them: I bet you had no idea that a squirrel in underpants is the perfect gift for the literary critic in your life.
19: Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: US Vs. Netherlands: Our own Claire Cameron pointed out some very cool book covers happening in the Netherlands.
20: A Future for Books Online: Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club: Our own Elizabeth Minkel introduced us to a vibrant community of readers congregating on tumblr.
There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2015 but continued to find new readers.
1. The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball: Lawrence Tabak’s piece on the basketball variant that was once an Iowa obsession.
2. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: Ah clickbait, those snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious… and terrifying.
3. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.
4. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.
5. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.
6. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett’s roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.
7. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: “All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade.” Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English.
8. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.
9. A Year in Reading 2014: 2014’s series stayed popular in 2015.
10. How To Introduce an Author: We’ve all seen them – awkward, long-winded, irrelevant – bad author introductions mar readings every day in this great country of ours. For three years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter’s guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts.
Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2015:
I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loved it, but more I needed to talk about it.
I sent out a few emails, but the dedicated readers in my life hadn’t yet read A Little Life, so I went on offensive by gifting a few copies. I posted tweets about the book to fish around for conversation. I identified and emailed soft targets, like the luring message I sent to my Donna Tartt-loving friend, “almost like The Goldfinch as far as epic reads go.”
While I waited for my book seeding to take, I posted a photo of the book cover on Instagram that got an immediate reaction: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” said one. “My heart was in my throat the whole time,” said another.
My agent and I started pecking out messages about the novel on our phones. To her, reading the book felt like an addiction. She questioned such impossible success in a group of friends, which prompted a conversation about the first part of the novel. To me, the set up felt like it was of the Manhattan ensemble genre, a distant cousin to The Age of Innocence or an episode of Friends. The brilliance lay in how Yanagihara set that tone and twisted it.
One of the copies I’d planted under the guise of a birthday gift gave back in a big way. My friend, who lives in Colorado, finished the book and emailed right away. We sent reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker back and forth. We broke down each one. Was it the great gay novel? Maybe and maybe not, though there was no doubt that Yanagihara wrote across difference in a way that was refreshing and modern. In the next moment we compared the book to Great Expectations and Bleak House. “I keep thinking of Jane Eyre,” she wrote. “It’s the best kind of old-fashioned melodrama.”
At that point, a friend’s husband sent a message. He wondered if the book was any easier to read than it was to love someone who was reading it? I wrote back: “No.” That was the only brief conversation I had about the book.
A writer who lives in the U.K. posted on Facebook that she had read an early copy and needed to talk. I dove right in. We had both read about how Yanagihara had been
In 1986, six years before the publication of The Secret History, Donna Tartt was chosen as the student speaker of her graduating class at Bennington College. A typewritten copy of the speech was recently unearthed, in which she looks back upon her education and the college campus that inspired her first novel. Pair with this comprehensive list of the artworks in Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Proposed: Despite our love of football, we can no longer support the corrupt, morally bankrupt corporate gorgon that is NFL. In order to pass the hours, weeks, and months formerly spent watching football and agonizing over our teams, we’ve decided to start a book club. The five of us are quitting the NFL cold turkey — and books are going to be our methadone.
1. The Important Stuff
We need to talk. This isn’t easy for me. It’s just not working anymore. I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.
No. Strike that.
It’s not me, it’s definitely you.
Let me put it gently: You’re the worst. And, to be honest, I think I’ve always known — deep down in some sad, stubborn corner of my soul — that you are the worst. But, the fact that a person’s favorite sport is basically a corrupt, greedy, unconscionable, morally bankrupt shitshow isn’t something he is eager to admit.
Don’t look at me like that. I know we’ve had some good times. The ’85 Bears. That time Frank Reich and the Bills came back from a 32-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Oilers. That time the Giants ruined the Patriots’ perfect season. That other time the Giants ruined the Patriots’ season. But that’s not the point. The football was always good. The football was never the problem. The problem is everything else.
No, I’m not talking about Thursday night games. Although, now that you bring it up, yes, Thursday night games are a problem because (a) they’re clearly just a cash grab by the league and (b) players don’t get enough time to rest between games if they play on a Sunday and then on a Thursday. But we’re getting off track. Yes, Thursday night games are an issue. Just like the cheerleaders and the constant commercials and the stadium-sized American flags and the incessant tinkering with the rules — now extra points are taken from the 15-yard line, now we’re playing games in London, now this is a catch, now this isn’t a catch, now we can replay the game clock — are issues. But the real problem is the big stuff. The important stuff.
Don’t roll your eyes at me. These things matter. These are significant things. We’re talking about ethics and values here. We’re talking about things that should be — that have to be — more important than a game:A CT scan of a human head years after a traumatic brain injury showing an empty space where the damage occurred.
2. A Preponderance of Evidence
Head Injuries: You can’t say you didn’t see this one coming. And — for reasons of space — I’m not going to reiterate the details, facts, and figures of the debacle that is now commonly referred to as the NFL’s Concussion Crisis. I will, however, remind you about Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher and Dave Duerson. I will remind you how Chris Borland, fearful of a similar fate, left the sport after a promising rookie season. I will remind you that the symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, depression, aggression, suicide, and dementia. I know you’re going to say what you always say: “We implemented a concussion policy and changed the rules so that helmet-to-helmet hits are illegal now.” Bullshit. Right now, the medical community (the real medical community, not the medical community bought and paid for by the NFL) says that the real danger to football players isn’t from concussive blows — it’s actually from the accumulation of smaller, sub-concussive hits. The ones that can happen on every play.
Fake Science: Here’s a fun fact: In 1994 then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue — who, by the way, didn’t think concussions were a problem — created a bogus research organization called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which was headed by Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist (rheumatologists, for the record, study diseases that affect joints and the immune system, not the brain) who worked for the New York Jets and was Tagliabue’s personal physician. The MTBI Committee then had its members publish 16 papers — all of which said concussions were no big deal for NFL players — in Neurosurgery, a medical journal edited by…wait for it…a consultant for the New York Giants.
Roger Goodell: Admittedly, I have no actual evidence to back this up, but there’s just something about Roger Goodell — maybe it’s that smarmy smile or his greasy orange hair or his insanely high salary or the way he fucks up every single disciplinary case that comes his way — that makes me think he’s is the sleaziest, most incompetent, most evil person in the National Football League. I’m not sure you could tell me anything so despicable, so foul, so terrible and unholy about Roger Goodell — he shanked Andrea Kremer at the Pro Bowl just to watcher her die, he runs a human-trafficking ring out of the Carolina Panthers’ training camp, his favorite movie is a tie between the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard and Human Centipede — that I wouldn’t believe.
I definitely lack the financial acumen/math skills to adequately explain all the ways the NFL is getting rich by screwing over taxpayers. But if you add up nonprofit status, publicly-funded stadiums, and antitrust exemptions, you get a situation like the one in Minnesota, which Gregg Easterbrook detailed in The Atlantic:
The Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didn’t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team, covering roughly half the cost of the new facility. Some legislators argued that the Vikings should reveal their finances: privately held, the team is not required to disclose operating data, despite the public subsidies it receives. In the end, the Minnesota legislature folded, giving away public money without the Vikings’ disclosing information in return. The team’s principal owner, Zygmunt Wilf, had a 2011 net worth estimated at $322 million; with the new stadium deal, the Vikings’ value rose about $200 million, by Forbes’s estimate, further enriching Wilf and his family. They will make a token annual payment of $13 million to use the stadium, keeping the lion’s share of all NFL ticket, concession, parking, and, most important, television revenues.
Jim McMahon: The “punky QB know as McMahon” is the reason I’m a Bears fan, the reason I’m a football fan. And as much as I loved him for the weird headbands and leading Chicago to victory in Super Bowl XX, what my friends and I really admired about Jim McMahon was how tough he was. It seemed like he was always getting injured and he was always playing hurt. I’ll never forget the 1991 season: he was backing up Randall Cunningham in Philadelphia by then — and when Cunningham tore his ACL during the first game of the season, it was Jim McMahon who stepped in and filled the void for the Eagles. And, as the season wore on, my best friend and I marveled at how Jim McMahon just kept getting injured and just kept playing football. Fast forward a couple decades and all those hits and injuries have taken their toll. Jim McMahon is leaving home and forgetting how to get back, he is in constant pain, he is suing the NFL for concussion-related dementia and brain trauma, he even contemplated suicide. Today, Jim McMahon is pretty much living proof of everything the NFL doesn’t want you to believe about football and head injuries.
No, I don’t hate football. And, yes, of course, there are things I still love about the game: a quarterback scrambling out of the pocket and launching the ball down the field; teams playing in the snow or freezing cold; any time any team runs a flea flicker, any time the Patriots lose; Soldier Field; goal-line stands; onside kicks…I could go on and on, but what’s the point?
3. Football Book Club
We’re done. It’s over. I’m canceling the FiOS Sports Pass. No more Monday Night Football. No more NFL Classics circa 1985. But I’m keeping that VHS recording of Chicago winning Super Bowl XX. And all the Bears merchandise: the shirts and hats and scarves and that puffy Starter jacket with the hood I got back in 1992.
What’s that: I’ll come crawling back? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I can find something better to do with the 10 to 12 hours a week I spend watching football. And I’m not alone here. I’m not the only person who realizes you’re the worst and wants nothing to do with you. In fact, some of us are getting together. We’re forming a support group of sorts. And we’re going to find a more meaningful way to spend our Sundays.
Instead of watching the NFL, we’re launching Football Book Club. And you know what: No one ever got concussed reading The Goldfinch. No one ever suffered a career-ending cervical spine injury curling up with his Kindle. No one’s mind was every slowly destroyed by books — the effect is really quite the opposite — despite what some social conservatives would have you believe. And, best of all: There is no way Roger Goodell can ruin this — he’s not even invited.
Every week, we’re exchanging one love for another: Instead of turning on the TV, we’ll read a new book — great works of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and graphic novels — and then we’ll share our thoughts about the current title and what our lives are like without the NFL.
I’m pretty sure we’ll be just fine without you.
Image Credits: Matthea Harvey; Wikimedia Commons.
Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, a priceless piece of art has found more fame since the publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The actual piece of art The Goldfinch eclipses the other artworks mentioned in the novel, but Tartt’s novel is not just about Fabritius’ painting. The entire art world falls under Tartt’s gaze: criticism, heists, trades, valuations, appreciation. Tartt mentions dozens of paintings, adding depth and richness to her text.
So I present: a definitive list of the artworks in The Goldfinch. (At times, Tartt only provides a loose description, so I have done my best guesswork. Also, when the novel mentions the artist but not the name of the painting, I have chosen the closest example.)
A winter landscape with peasants skating and playing kolf on a frozen river, a town beyond, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1621
An Estuary with Row and Sail Boats, Jan van Goyen, late 1640
“I spent an unreasonable amount of time scrutinizing a tiny pair of gilt-framed oils hanging over the bureau, one of peasants skating on an ice-pond by a church, the other a sailboat flouncing on a choppy winter sea… I studied them as if they held, encrypted, some key to the secret heart of the old Flemish masters.”
The Jolly Toper, Frans Hals, ca. 1630
Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse, Frans Hals, 1664
Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse, Frans Hals, 1664
“I hate to race through like this,” she was saying as I caught up with her at the top of the stairs, “but then again it’s the kind of show where you need to come two or three times. There’s The Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer’s teacher. Greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of. The Frans Hals paintings are a big deal, too. You know Hals, don’t you? The Jolly Toper? And the almshouse governors?”
“Right,” I said tentatively. Of the paintings she’d mentioned, The Anatomy Lesson was the only one I knew. A detail from it was featured on the poster for the exhibition: livid flesh, multiple shades of black, alcoholic-looking surgeons with bloodshot eyes and red noses.
Three Medlars with a Butterfly, Adriaen Coorte, 1705
“I like this one too,” whispered my mother, coming up alongside me at a smallish and particularly haunting still life: a white butterfly against a dark ground, floating over some red fruit. The background—a rich chocolate black—had a complicated warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of time.
“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters—ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit’s perfect but it won’t last, it’s about to go. And see here especially,” she said, reaching over my shoulder to trace in the air with her finger, “this passage—the butterfly.” The underwing was so powdery and delicate it looked as if the color would smear if she touched it. “How beautifully he plays it. Stillness with a tremble of movement.”
“How long did it take him to paint that?”
My mother, who’d been standing a bit too close, stepped back to regard the painting—oblivious to the gum-chewing security guard whose attention she’d attracted, who was staring fixedly at her back.
“Well, the Dutch invented the microscope,” she said. “They were jewelers, grinders of lenses. They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something. Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life—a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple—the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last—it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer—there it is.”
I leaned down to read the note, printed in discreet letters on the wall, which informed me that the painter—Adriaen Coorte, dates of birth and death uncertain—had been unknown in his own lifetime and his work unrecognized until the 1950s.
The Banquet of the Officers of the St Adrian Militia Company in 1627, Frans Hals, 1627
(“Now, Hals. He’s so corny sometimes with all these tipplers and wenches but when he’s on, he’s on. None of this fussiness and precision, he’s working wet-on-wet, slash, slash, it’s all so fast. The faces and hands—rendered really finely, he knows that’s what the eye is drawn to but look at the clothes—so loose—almost sketched. Look how open and modern the brushwork is!”). We spent some time in front of a Hals portrait of a boy holding a skull (“Don’t be mad, Theo, but who do you think he looks like? Somebody”—tugging the back of my hair—“who could use a haircut?”)—and, also, two big Hals portraits of banqueting officers, which she told me were very, very famous and a gigantic influence on Rembrandt. (“Van Gogh loved Hals too. Somewhere, he’s writing about Hals and he says: Frans Hals has no less than twenty-nine shades of black! Or was it twenty-seven?”)
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt, 1632
“Now, Rembrandt,” my mother said. “Everybody always says this painting is about reason and enlightenment, the dawn of scientific inquiry, all that, but to me it’s creepy how polite and formal they are, milling around the slab like a buffet at a cocktail party. Although—” she pointed—“see those two puzzled guys in the back there? They’re not looking at the body—they’re looking at us. You and me. Like they see us standing here in front of them—two people from the future. Startled. ‘What are you doing here?’ Very naturalistic. But then”—she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger—“the body isn’t painted in any very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it—make it jump out at us. And here”—she pointed to the flayed hand—“see how he calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand—we see it immediately, something very wrong—but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”
The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654
“This is just about the first painting I ever really loved,” my mother was saying. “You’ll never believe it, but it was in a book I used to take out of the library when I was a kid. I used to sit on the floor by my bed and stare at it for hours, completely fascinated—that little guy! And, I mean, actually it’s incredible how much you can learn about a painting by spending a lot of time with a reproduction, even not a very good reproduction. I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted.” She laughed. “The Anatomy Lesson was in the same book actually, but it scared the pants off me. I used to slam the book shut when I opened it to that page by mistake.”
The girl and the old man had come up next to us. Self-consciously, I leaned forward and looked at the painting. It was a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.
“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them—that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from. Of course, I didn’t know or care about any of that when I was a kid, the historical significance. But it’s there.”
I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself—its brightness, its alert watchful expression—made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.
“Well, Egbert was Fabritius’s neighbor, he sort of lost his mind after the powder explosion, at least that’s how it looks to me, but Fabritius was killed and his studio was destroyed. Along with almost all his paintings, except this one.” She seemed to be waiting for me to say something, but when I didn’t, she continued: “He was one of the greatest painters of his day, in one of the greatest ages of painting. Very very famous in his time. It’s sad though, because maybe only five or six paintings survived, of all his work. All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did.”
“Anyway, if you ask me,” my mother was saying, “this is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him—not even Rembrandt.”
Very softly—so softly I could barely hear her—I heard the girl whisper: “It had to live its whole life like that?”
I’d been wondering the same thing; the shackled foot, the chain was terrible; her grandfather murmured some reply but my mother (who seemed totally unaware of them, even though they were right next to us) stepped back and said: “Such a mysterious picture, so simple. Really tender—invites you to stand close, you know? All those dead pheasants back there and then this little living creature.”
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”
View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, Egbert van der Poel, 1654
The Explosion of the Delft Magazine, Egbert van der Poel, 1654
A View of Delft with the Explosion of 1654, Egbert van der Poel, 1654
“It was a famous tragedy in Dutch history,” my mother was saying. “A huge part of the town was destroyed.”
“The disaster at Delft. That killed Fabritius. Did you hear the teacher back there telling the children about it?”
I had. There had been a trio of ghastly landscapes, by a painter named Egbert van der Poel, different views of the same smouldering wasteland: burnt ruined houses, a windmill with tattered sails, crows wheeling in smoky skies. An official looking lady had been explaining loudly to a group of middle-school kids that a gunpowder factory exploded at Delft in the 1600s, that the painter had been so haunted and obsessed by the destruction of his city that he painted it over and over.
Two people stand over the bloody aftermath of the US Civil War battle of Antietam in September, Matthew Brady, 1862
“We had a set of Mathew Brady photographs come through the shop a few years ago — Civil War stuff, so gruesome we had a hard time selling it. … I also knew about Brady’s photographs of the dead at Antietam: I’d seen the pictures online, pin-eyed boys black with blood at the nose and mouth.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Plate 11: The Death-Fires Danced at Night, Gustave Doré, 1878
When I was a kid—’Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ those Doré illustrations—no, the ocean gives me the shivers…
Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Edward Lear, 1858-9
“they were across the room fussing over some Edward Lear watercolors”
Wernerus Köhne met zijn knecht Jan Bosch, Wybrand Hendriks, 1787
The Jewish Bride, Rembrandt, 1667
Police, acting on a tip, had recovered three paintings – a George van der Mijn; a Wybrand Hendriks; and a Rembrandt, all missing from the museum since the explosion – from a Bronx home.
Christ washing the feet of his disciples, Rembrandt, 1665
There was a tiny pen-and-brown-ink of Christ washing the feet of St. Peter that was so deftly done (the weary slump and drape of Christ’s back; the blank, complicated sadness on St. Peter’s face) it might have been from Rembrandt’s own hand.
Brace’s Rock, Eastern Point, Gloucester, Fitz Henry Lane, 1864
Still Life with Cake, Raphaelle Peale, ca. 1822
Portrait of Mary Clarke, John Singleton Copley, late 1700s
“when you were a child, I used to catch you in the hallway studying my paintings. You’d always go straight to the best ones. The Frederic Church landscape, my Fitz Henry Lane and my Raphaelle Peale, or the John Singleton Copley — you know, the oval portrait, the tiny one, girl in the bonnet?”
Still Life of Flowers, Fruit, Shells, and Insects by Balthasar van der Ast, 1629, p.498
I’d taken great comfort in the fact that most people assumed that whoever had made off with the van der Asts from Galleries 29 and 30 had stolen my painting, too.
The Hundred Guilder Print, Rembrandt, 1646-50
I knew the work, one of the great stormy drypoints at the Morgan, the Hundred Guilder Print as it was called: the price that Rembrandt himself, according to legend, had been forced to pay to buy it back.
Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1625
Italian Landscape with Mountain Plateau, Nicolaes Berchem, 1655
Across the room, I’d noticed several other paintings propped on the wainscoting: a still life, a couple of small landscapes.
“Go look, if you want.” It was Horst. “The Lépine is fake. But the Claesz and the Berchem are for sale if you’re interested.”
Boris laughed and reached for one of Horst’s cigarettes. “He’s not in the market.”
“No?” said Horst genially. “I can give him a good price on the pair. The seller needs to get rid of them.”
I stepped in to look: still life, candle and half-empty wineglass. “Claesz-Heda?”
“No—Pieter. Although—” Horst put the box aside, then stood beside me and lifted the desk lamp on the cord, washing both paintings in a harsh, formal glare—“this bit—” traced mid-air with the curve of a finger—“the reflection of the flame here? and the edge of the table, the drapery? Could almost be Heda on a bad day.”
“Yes. Beautiful of its type.” Up close he smelled unwashed and raunchy, with a strong, dusty import-shop odor like the inside of a Chinese box. “A bit prosaic to the modern taste. The classicizing manner.
Much too staged. Still, the Berchem is very good.”
“Lot of fake Berchems out there,” I said neutrally.
“Yes—” the light from the upheld lamp on the landscape painting was bluish, eerie—“but this is lovely… Italy, 1655‥… the ochres beautiful, no? The Claesz not so good I think, very early, though the provenance is impeccable on both. Would be nice to keep them together… they have never been apart, these two. Father and son. Came down together in an old Dutch family, ended up in Austria after the war. Pieter Claesz…” Horst held the light higher. “Claesz was so uneven, honestly. Wonderful technique, wonderful surface, but something a bit off with this one, don’t you agree? The composition doesn’t hold together. Incoherent somehow. Also—” indicating with the flat of his thumb the too-bright shine coming off the canvas: overly varnished.
A Scene on the Ice Near Dordrecht, Jan van Goyen, 1642
I much prefer the van Goyen there. Sadly not for sale.”
“Van Goyen? I would have sworn that was a Corot.”
“From here, yes, you might.” He was pleased at the comparison. “Very similar painters—Vincent himself remarked it—you know that letter? ‘The Corot of the Dutch’? Same tenderness of mist, that openness in fog, do you know what I mean?”
“Where—” I’d been about to ask the typical dealer’s question, where did you get it, before catching myself.
“Marvelous painter. Very prolific. And this is a particularly beautiful example,” he said, with all a collector’s pride. “Many amusing details up close—tiny hunter, barking dog. Also—quite typical—signed on the stern of the boat. Quite charming…
“I must say, I’ve grown so fond of it, I’ll hate to see it go. He dealt paintings himself, van Goyen. A lot of the Dutch masters did. Jan Steen. Vermeer. Rembrandt. But Jan van Goyen—” he smiled—“was like our friend Boris here. A hand in everything. Paintings, real estate, tulip futures.”
White Duck, Jean Baptiste Oudry, 1753, stolen in 1992
Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633, stolen in 1990
A Lady and Gentleman in Black, Rembrandt, 1633, stolen in the same heist as the seascape in 1990
Strand von Scheveningen bei stürmischen Wetter, Vincent Van Gogh, 1882, stolen in 2002
“You know what, Theo? Know what? Guess! Guess how lucky we were! Not only do they have your bird in there, but—who would have guessed it? Many other stolen pictures!”
“Two dozens, or more! Missing for many years, some of them! And—not all of them are as lovely or beautiful as yours, in fact most of them are not. This is my own personal opinion. But there are big rewards out on four or five of them all the same—bigger than for yours. And even some of the not-so-famous ones—dead duck, boring picture of fat-faced man you don’t know—even these have smaller rewards—fifty thousand, hundred thousand here and there. Who would think? ‘Information leading to recovery of.’ It adds up. And I hope,” he said, with some austerity, “that maybe you can forgive me for that?”“What?”
“Because—they are saying, ‘one of great art recoveries of history.’ And this is the part I hoped would please you—maybe not, who knows, but I hoped. Museum masterworks, returned to public ownership! Stewardship of cultural treasure! Great joy! All the angels are singing! But it would never have happened, if not for you.”
I sat in silent amazement.
“Other paintings they recovered. Not just mine.”
“Yes, did you not just hear me say—?”
“What other paintings?”
“Oh, some very celebrated and famous ones! Missing for years!”
Boris made an irritated sound. “Oh, I do not know the names, you know not to ask me that. Few modern things—very important and expensive, everyone very excited although I will be frank, I do not understand why the big deal on some of them. Why does it cost so much, a thing like from kindergarten class? ‘Ugly Blob.’ ‘Black Stick with Tangles.’ But then too—multiple works of historic greatness. One was a Rembrandt.”
“Not a seascape?”
“No—people in a dark room. Little bit boring. Nice van Gogh, though, of a sea shore. And then… oh, I don’t know… usual thing, Mary, Jesus, many angels. Some sculptures even. And Asian artworks too. They looked to me worth nothing but I guess they were a lot.”
Silk on linen sampler by Martha (Patty) Coggeshall, American, 1780-1797
“Okay,” I said, wondering why he hadn’t mentioned his gift: a child’s needlework sampler, vine-curled alphabet and numerals, stylized farm animals worked in crewel, Marry Sturtevant Her Sample-r Aged 11 1779. Hadn’t he opened it? I’d unearthed it in a box of polyester granny pants at the flea market—not cheap for the flea market, four hundred bucks, but I’d seen comparable pieces sell at Americana auctions for ten times as much. In silence I watched him pottering around the kitchen on autopilot—wandering in circles a bit, opening the refrigerator door, closing it without getting anything out, filling the kettle for tea, and all the time wrapped in his cocoon and refusing to look at me.
Roses in a Glass Vase, Edouard Manet, 1883
The Trials and Calling of Moses (detail), Sistine Chapel, Botticelli, 1481-1482
“No, no. Wait here. I want to show you something.”
He got up and creaked into the parlor. He was gone a while. And—when he came back—it was with a falling-to-pieces photo album. He sat down. He leafed through it for several pages. And—when he got to a certain page—he pushed it across the table to me. “There,” he said.
Faded snapshot. A tiny, beaky, birdlike boy smiled at a piano in a palmy Belle Époque room: not Parisian, not quite, but Cairene. Twinned jardinières, many French bronzes, many small paintings. One—flowers in a glass—I dimly recognized as a Manet. But my eye tripped and stopped at the twin of a much more familiar image, one or two frames above.
It was, of course, a reproduction. But even in the tarnished old photograph, it glowed in its own isolated and oddly modern light.
“Artist’s copy,” said Hobie. “The Manet too. Nothing special but—” folding his hands on the table—“those paintings were a huge part of his childhood, the happiest part, before he was ill—only child, petted and spoiled by the servants—figs and tangerines and jasmine blossoms on the balcony—he spoke Arabic, as well as French, you knew that, right? And—” Hobie crossed his arms tight, and tapped his lips with a forefinger—“he used to speak of how with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost, even through copies. Even Proust—there’s a famous passage where Odette opens the door with a cold, she’s sulky, her hair is loose and undone, her skin is patchy, and Swann, who has never cared about her until that moment, falls in love with her because she looks like a Botticelli girl from a slightly damaged fresco. Which Proust himself only knew from a reproduction. He never saw the original, in the Sistine Chapel. But even so—the whole novel is in some ways about that moment. And the damage is part of the attraction, the painting’s blotchy cheeks. Even through a copy Proust was able to re-dream that image, re-shape reality with it, pull something all his own from it into the world. Because—the line of beauty is the line of beauty. It doesn’t matter if it’s been through the Xerox machine a hundred times.”
Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt—as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe orLaura Hillenbrand’sUnbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
>As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
At a wedding last summer, a guy seated at my table told me he hadn’t read a book in four years. I can’t remember the title of the traumatic work that occasioned his renunciation—perhaps it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses—but I distinctly recall panicking when asked by this prodigal reader to recommend something. Which magical text would show him the folly of his non-reading ways?
I entertained suggesting something patently inappropriate. Maybe one of those erotic French tales put out by Grove Press would get him back on track, something like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Guillaume Apollinaire’s incest-laden The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehall or Régine Deforges’s The Storm, the rawest of the lot. Or I could just say The Goldfinch and get it over with. However, with this tantalizing blank slate offered up before me, I froze.
“Let me think about it.”
I was mercifully saved by the start of a merciless best-man speech.
Ann Patchett would have turned that young man around. In a Washington Post article titled “Owning a Bookstore Means You Always Get to Tell People What to Read,” Patchett writes:
When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.
There are many differences between Ann Patchett and me. She is a successful novelist and businessperson — I am most definitely not — but more important, I have a lifelong phobia of forcing books on people.
Patchett continues on the joys of hand-selling: “[Customers] just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.” The very thought nearly stops my heart, cursed as I am with the neurotic inability to look into the smiling, trusting, and curious eyes of would-be readers and give them what they want.
One could charitably ascribe my hesitancy to recommend books an excessive respect for other people’s time: who am I to tell you how to spend so many hours? But that’s not really it. Reading is an investment, but unlike stock tips, there is profit to be had in even the most dubious recommendations. Nor does it have to do with the fear that the suggested title will reflect on my own aesthetic or moral deficiencies.
And still, as a recent encounter with a new neighbor made painfully clear, I just can’t not make a mess of things.
I first met him as he was pedaling by my house, bicycle-riding twins in tow. When I mentioned that I reviewed books, he naturally asked: “Oh, got any good ones to recommend?” For me, the equivalent of a politician’s “gotcha” question.
The usual reaction occurred: a rush of blood to the face, followed by blubbering equivocations and panicked attempts to stall for time as I cycled through every book I’d read over the last weeks, months, years, then all the books I hadn’t read over that same time. Given what I had gleaned about him in our brief chat, which of these hundreds of titles would be best?
Nothing was coming to mind. The helmeted twins glared at me, justifiably resentful that my deliberations were cutting into their playtime.
Come on, champ. Anything. Erik Larson has a new book about the Lusitania. Too many syllables? Anthony Doerr just won the Pulitzer. Or Phil Klay. Iraq, and all that powerful stuff.
But for some reason known only to my maker, I was seized by an almost Tourettic desire to scream out The Epic of Gilgamesh. I held it in, though as I squirmed I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye. He was wondering, I imagine, whether I had ever read, let alone reviewed, a book. Had a spy moved in next door, using the shaky cover of a freelance writer/editor? The twins grew more antsy, doing circles on the quiet street as they waited for their father to conclude with this stammering yutz.
Inspiration! I’d just read a Kindle Single, Jeff Wise’s The Plane That Wasn’t There, which put forth a rather fanciful account of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alas, it didn’t seem like the best time to explain how the plane had been diverted to an airfield in Kazakhstan as a Russian-sent warning for NATO to stop meddling in Ukraine. I would save that for a summer barbecue when I had him good and cornered.
Good god, man, spit it out!
A book about neighborly quarrels could be fun, like James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Blanca. No, too arch. Or perhaps he could lose himself in some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? That ought to keep him busy.
The light declining, I finally decided to put myself out of my misery.
“Let me think about it.”
The family pedaled off, fated to rely on more articulate acquaintances or Amazon’s algorithm for recommendations.
Perhaps because of my book-recommending block, I respect those with the courage to impose their reading will on others. Take my friend’s boss, who stopped him in the hall and “suggested” he buy a 600-page, dry-as-dust tome called Successful Executive’s Handbook, never to indicate any relevant sections or even mention it again. That’s a power move worthy of a successful executive.
Another good friend loved Norman Mailer’s massive CIA epic, Harlot’s Ghost, so much that for a period of six months he pressed it on people he met on the street, baristas, girlfriends, soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, and me. There was no dithering about whether you liked fiction or nonfiction, bios or memoir, character-driven or plot-heavy novels. You even hinted that you were looking for a book recommendation and the next thing you knew, there’d be a 1,400-page brick on your nightstand.
A few weeks after loaning me his copy of the Mailer, which I didn’t dive into quickly enough, he snatched it back to give to someone else. The new recipient trudged through 1,399 pages, hating every minute of it, before seeing “To Be Continued” at the bottom of the last page. This proved too cruel a joke. Released from her self-imposed burden, she refused to read the final paragraph as a matter of principle.
A few days later, when we were having coffee, my friend offered Harlot’s Ghost back to me if I promised to read it promptly this time.
“Let me think about it.”
Image Credit: Flickr/ginnerobot.
In an effort to merge two loves of mine — writing and photography — I recently began this photo series that pairs snippets of novels with fun visuals that expand upon their cover art. To see more of the ongoing series and the prose captions that accompany each image, please follow @lifeserial and check out my #lifeserialreads tag on Instagram.
Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
California, by Edan Lepucki
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Reunion, by Hannah Pittard
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer
As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books. “Have you read it?” she asks. “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.” It’s on the nightstand. That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority. Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next. Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.
That is, until recently.
You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed. The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t. I wanted a nightstand.
And so, an end table was repurposed. Finally, I have an actual nightstand.
What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract. Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand? In what order will they be stacked?
Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.
“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates? We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”
Off-line conversations ensued. Professor H came back with an idea:
“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore. Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.
As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute. Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature. School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.
And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms. An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished. By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these. You. At this moment in time.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.
Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run. I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while. I pick it up and start reading. Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)? Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down? Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse. I lay them out side-by-side. I stare at them. Which one should get the trial run first? I stare some more. I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material. I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason. I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction. Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins). When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay. Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks? Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate? Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll. I stand in front of my bookshelves. Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else. I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization. Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind. At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section. But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section. The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too. I want more of that buzzing, but differently. The last book did X so well, so interestingly. I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat. I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X. I want more and more and more of X. I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas. Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out. More, more, more. Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly. Or, I used to. When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read. Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring. With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists. It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet. And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself: Vasily Aksyonov? Dorothy Day? Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them. What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray. I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch. Well, maybe. I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out. It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it. So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party? Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it. There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books. I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E). In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H. Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories. It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste. That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine. It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives. (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
My shameless plug. When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table. Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black. And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure. Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep. As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale. Endorphins or something? But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk. Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves. Read 10 pages aloud. Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want. If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.
Image Credit: Flickr/seanfreese.