I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Michael Cunningham has long since established himself as a prolific novelist. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1998 novel The Hours while others received critical acclaim as well as a loyal fan base. His last novel, 2014’s The Snow Queen, was influenced by a fairy tale, which led him into his latest project.
A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a short collection of folklore set in the modern world, retelling classic stories “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White,” among many others. The tales offer the same thematic warnings that those classics of the 19th century provided.
The author spoke over the phone from his writing space in New York City just before the release of the novel to discuss why he chose to write his first story collection and his writing habits.
The Millions: After writing numerous successful novels, why write your first story collection at this point in your career?
Michael Cunningham: You know, this one came about in a slightly funny way. Penguin did a collection a few years ago with the incredibly odd title My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. They asked 40 different writers to write fairy tales. I obligingly did and I wrote my own version of “The Wild Swan” by Hans Christian Andersen, which is different in my own collection than the Penguin collection.
It was fun. I got a kick out of it. In the years since…Well, sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you get stuck. It happens to everybody. You don’t know what to do next and I have learned just to let it sit for awhile. Don’t panic, don’t force it, just let it go until it starts to suggest its next step to you. But you don’t want to just not write, so I started writing these little fairy tales for fun. Believe me, I don’t often write for just fun. After about five or six [of these stories] throughout the years, I thought that maybe this was sort of a collection.
I wrote a few more and, poof, suddenly it’s November of 2015 and there’s this collection that is coming out. It’s the only book I’ve ever written without really expecting to write a book at all.
TM: You alluded to not writing for fun, but writing as a job. What does a normal writing day look like for you?
MC: I am very regular in my writing habits. I need to be. I get up in the morning. I get up, get dressed, and come to my [writing space] just like a regular citizen with a regular job. Then I get to it. Some days are better than others. I sit here for at least four hours. Sometimes there are five pages, sometimes there is one lame sentence. I always sit here for at least four hours. On a good day, when I’m really cranking, I can go for about six hours. Then I’m done; my brain has turned to mush.
Always in the mornings, first thing. It’s five or six days a week. It’s a little unglamorous, but it works for me.
TM: What’s unglamorous? The space where you write? Is it bare bones or filled with inspiration?
MC: I have a lot of stuff. I have 10,000 books. It’s sort of an object sanctuary. It’s souvenirs and talismans and all kinds of things. My desk faces a wall with a window. Every new project, I sort of put different things on the wall. It’s very intuitive; it’s sort of whatever objects I think I should be looking at while I’m working on whatever I’m working on.
Like right now I’m staring at the wall. There’s a cow’s skull, there’s a little paper rocket ship I made when I was a kid, there’s a picture of the moon, there is a little strand of rosary beads. I couldn’t tell you why those objects, but it just felt right.
TM: Speaking of what feels right: why did these specific fairy tales feel right to interpret?
MC: There was no real organizing principle. There are certainly the ones I love the most as a kid. I asked myself why did I love these more than others. I realized a couple of things. I liked the stories that don’t have rigid, Christian morals like some of them do. I never liked those stories. I like the ones that are a little less finger wagging. I also realized that when I was a kid I was a story junkie. I always had questions about the stories [my parents] read. One persistent one was when we got to the “happily ever after” ending. I would look at my mother or father, whoever was on story duty that night, and ask them to finish the story. They would say that’s the end: that they lived happily ever after. No! What was castle life like? What were their lives like? Happily ever after isn’t enough.
One of the ideas behind this collection, some of them anyway, was what happens after “happily ever after.” The other question that I never tired asking my parents was why would the characters do that. Like in “Rumpelstiltskin” the daughter was forced by the king to spin three looms full of straw to get gold, and if she didn’t do it she would be executed. As a reward, he marries her. I remember at the age of six asking my mother why the character would marry someone who would murder her if she didn’t do this impossible thing.
It was this underlying theme of these reconsidered fairy tales about what happened after they got to the castle and why would the characters do what they do.
TM: Did you want your writing style to mirror that of these traditional fairy tales?
CM: It just depended on what the story needed. In the original fairy tales, there isn’t much dialogue. I used this new slangy dialogue, but I wanted to be faithful to the original. They’re meant as homages. They’re not this wise-ass reconsidering of silly little stories. I took these stories seriously. I wanted to honor their forms to some degree.
TM: And how much of it was your choice to put these stories in this specific sequence?
CM: It’s entirely my choice. I’m open to suggestions. I rearranged these stories several times. I wanted tonal shifts. I finally came up with what felt like the proper order. The only one that isn’t a fairy tale, the one I made up, was the one with a really happy ending. That was always going to be the last one. I kept tinkering with it, but that was always in.
TM: I think the opening was perfect. “Dis. Enchant.” just really struck a chord with me. You write “Most of us are safe…” and relate it to the idea that the average person isn’t what fairy tales happen to.
CM: It was something I realized as I reread the fairy tales. I mean, the forces of evil never bother with ordinary citizens. It’s always maidens and princesses and the well favored. Those are who attract the attention of the forces of evil.
TM: It’s why these stories are so intriguing. It’s about the what happens “ever after” when they are just average again.
TM: You briefly mentioned rereading these. Was there a lot of research involved?
CM: I absolutely went back and reread all of them. I wanted to be familiar with the originals. In a few cases there is more than one version kicking around, so I read both. Yeah, I wanted to be thoroughly familiar with the originals, but once I reread them I put them away. I didn’t go back looking at my version and then checking back to the original. I worked from memory.
TM: A version of “A Wild Swan” was what kicked this whole thing off, but what was the final piece written for this collection?
CM: It was the Snow White one, “Poisoned.”
TM: And what was the most challenging for you?
CM: The most challenging was the “Steadfast; Tin.” It’s difficult to say why. I really wanted to do that one right. It took more drafts than the other ones did. I wanted to find a way to retell the story but stay close to the spirit of the story. That was the toughest part.
TM: Let’s shift away from A Wild Swan to not spoil it for those who haven’t read it and talk about writing in general. A few authors have mentioned to me that they don’t necessarily care about plot, but how it’s delivered. More importantly they care about the characters. What’s your take on this?
CM: It’s always about the characters. One of the things I’ve learned, and, I teach in spring semester, it’s something I always tell my students, it’s that you have fully imagined characters. You know not only what their lives are like, but what they want and what’s getting in the way of what they want. They always, always will produce a story. If you do it in reverse where you have a plot and insert characters into it, it tends to be a little wooden or artificial. The characters don’t feel like real people, but instead employees of the plot.
TM: So what excites you about writing or reading literature today? What are some things you like to see or that you try to include in your works?
CM: It’s a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. It’s never been entirely clear to me. The fundamental composition; the idea of taking ink and paper and the words in the dictionary that are available to everybody, and somehow using those elements to produce something that feels like life is endlessly interesting to me. It was from the moment I started writing. I’ve come to suspect that what we call talent is a little hard to distinguish from this other thing that is this bottomless interest by the problems posed by paint or astrophysics or whatever it is.
I was in an MFA program and there were tremendous writers there. One difference I noticed was that I would sit in a chair and write a sentence thirty or forty times until it seemed less bad.
TM: Do you normally get sparked by a specific sentence? Or are you working on a 1,000 ideas and hope one sticks?
CM: I’ll get an idea: a character or a situation or a vague notion of what people might do and where their lives might take them. I have a number of ideas, not tons and tons of them. What normally happens is that I’ll walk around for a couple of months with these people and their situation, and if they still seem compelling to me after several weeks, I’ll figure that these are my next people for my next book.
TM: Do you have that next idea now?
CM: Oh yeah. I’m about 100 pages into a new one.
TM: What’s the idea?
CM: I’m afraid I can’t [talk about it]. I don’t mean to be coy, but I found it’s never a good idea to talk about a novel at this point of it.
TM: It is a novel and not short stories though?
CM: Oh yeah, it’s a novel. The fairy tales were sort of a fluke for me. I love short stories and I read them all of the time, but I don’t ordinarily write them. It’s difficult for me to make something happen in 15 to 20 pages. I need the bigger arc that the novel provides. Even the short stories of mine that have been published have been chapters from novels.
TM: Let’s move on and talk about Hollywood for a bit. You’ve had a few experiences with it. What’s your overall experience with it?
CM: There have been experiences with it that have been great, and there have been experiences that have been less great. I wouldn’t want to name names, but it’s very different. It’s a business. Publishing is a business, but not on the same level. Publishers are very happy to produce a huge bestseller, but it’s not required. Your editor knows that most books don’t sell a lot of copies. Whereas a movie producer or a TV producer wants to do something good, but they also want it to be a hit. There’s not much interest, at least not with studios, in producing some little oddity that hardly anyone is going to want to see. You’re just working in a more popular form which I get kind of a kick out of.
I always going running back to fiction where the expectations are different. It’s kind of a kick to every now and then to write something that will speak to a broader audience. I especially love TV right now. It’s just an amazing period in television.
TM: How much do you want to spend working in television then?
CM: I’m taking cracks in television. I wrote one episode of Masters of Sex. That was kind of a fluke. They don’t usually invite [outside writers in]. I sold a pilot to Showtime, which I don’t think they are going to make. One thing if you want to write for movies and TV is that most things don’t get made. It’s a gamble. I’ve got a couple of pilots currently in the works, and fingers crossed. You just can’t tell if it’s going to go somewhere or not.
Image courtesy of Michael Cunningham.
If you like to read, we’ve got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, “Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year,” you might say, “Wow, it’s going to be a great year for books.” Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we’re highlighting that month). This year, you’ll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no book preview could be — but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch — better known to generations of readers as Scout — returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, “We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.” Publishers Weekly’s review dispensed with any coyness, saying, “This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.” (Anne)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author’s epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)
Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play ‘World of Warcraft” uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on “No Man’s Sky,” a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in “Diablo III’s” online marketplace than I did from writing in ’12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.)
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories — whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill)
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams’s previous book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians — a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams’s tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer’s book deal with Cousin Luther’s Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man’s quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan)
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami’s first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami’s behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories — connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the ’80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser’s notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne)
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess)
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth)
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review — “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” — and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya)
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne)
Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water…Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.)
Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: “I am a Catholic.” So begins Iredell’s book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell’s unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass’s On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell’s range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book’s heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected — a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan)
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, “The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013.” (Claire)
The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called “case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success.” In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation’s Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire)
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event — as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt)
Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent ’30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill)
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story — Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia — The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into — and back out of — crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael)
The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss — what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill)
The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie)
This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire)
Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill)
The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth)
Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff — which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah)
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)
The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.)
Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you’ve read before — not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of…America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya)
Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the ’90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne)
Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer — and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics — he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn’t happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in “9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis,” which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we’re in for something special. (Lydia)
Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet)
M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working — from the general assembly to the security council — his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet)
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk’s beloved home. (Hannah)
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess)
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan)
Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom)
Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a “melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender.” In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles (“Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” or “Slouching towards Mecca”). (Lydia)
Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael)
Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)
The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing…” (Edan)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet)
The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.)
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause — “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” — but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya)
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth)
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry — who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions — follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan — until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent — at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends — is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya)
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service — but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess)
Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature — open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.)
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized — Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie)
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy’s bete noire — Benito Mussolini — in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings — three sisters and their brother — return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well — the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different — but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)
Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It’s a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan)
More from The Millions:
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key — if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized — when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact — that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.
Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way — imperfectly — through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.
Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance — when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up — not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.
Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die — think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”
Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.
Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops — and kills — his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.
Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our — limited — notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them — tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young — or eat them.”
Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book, Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self — you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here — and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either — just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years — what a fundamental fear.”
This fear belongs primarily — and primally — to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware — however hard we may try to ignore it — of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”
It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on — and ultimately comforts herself — with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.
A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”
And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.
I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us — the kids, and the books, and me (me!) — grow strong, and a little wild.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so.
The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today.
When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw.
In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point.
It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise.
When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion.
Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored.
Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different.
Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end.
Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required.
I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women.
I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.
The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”
Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.
The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”
I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?
There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”
This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”
The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.
But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.
Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).
So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Year in Reading logo and graphics by Michael Barbetta
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.
Aside from being a fellow contributor to The Millions, Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World, a beautiful book that focuses on the small but complicated negotiations of a family, and larger, global questions of identity, art, and happiness. Sonya and I met for the first time last fall, and I was excited but nervous to read her novel. What if I didn’t like it? To my relief–and joy–I loved it. It’s so gracefully told, and rich–not to mention riveting. Of the book, author Kate Walbert says, “An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.” I concur. In this interview, Sonya and I discuss her book, the publication process, and what’s it’s really like to go from human to author.
The Millions: I was impressed with how effortlessly you moved from one character’s perspective to another in this book. The choice to give war photographer Jane, the Korean-American daughter of Han Hyun-kyu, her own first-person perspective seemed almost intuitive. Was it? The jacket copy calls your novel a “pointillist triumph”, and that’s accurate: these differences in voice ultimately make up a whole, united story. How did these shifting perspectives come about, and why is Jane the only one who speaks in the “I”?
Sonya Chung: Thanks for your kind words, Edan. And, you are correct: I knew early on that the story would span multiple cultures and settings, and I knew that sections would pivot among points of view. I tend to write without a detailed outline, but I have these intuitive (good word, your word) backdrops that guide and propel me. Polyphony was one of these backdrops. It’s a word/idea that I first grasped as a literary structure (as opposed to a strictly musical term) via Milan Kundera, who was an influence in graduate school; and saw the form modeled in novels like As I Lay Dying, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, DeLillo’sUnderworld, Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us, and many others.
Even with its global canvas, Long for This World is ultimately a family novel; and to me, all families are deeply, radically polyphonic. Jane is a Western character, American born, and of the younger generation; she is also individualistic, relative to her native-Korean counterparts, so it “sounded” right in my ear that she would narrate in a first-person voice (I write very much in an aural way). Conversely, I heard the more traditional Korean characters in third-person, and with a bit of narrative distance (it was almost as if I, the author, was paying these older characters their narrative-distance respect). Ultimately, the collage form provided a way for this multi-layered story to be told compactly, with the shifts in voices/perspectives becoming a part of the story-telling itself.
[Note: see my comparative review essay for The Millions about multi-voiced novels; apparently, this form has been on my mind a lot!]
TM: Although the book only has a few snippets of foreign language, the dialogue often reflects, in English, that the characters are speaking Korean; this is managed by imbuing the speech with a distinct formality. At one point, Han Jae-kyu notes that his brother Han Hyun-kyu–whose been living in America for so long, “seems to have lost, during his years in America, an intuitive sense for the humbled “I”: juh, instead of nah; the manners of apology, overstated in good measure, and self-effacement.” I wonder, did these “manners of apology” influence the actions and destinies of your Korean characters, versus those who have been Americanized? How has moving away from Korea changed Han Hyun-kyu and his wife, Lee Woo-in? As you were writing, did you focus centrally on questions of culture–those behaviors and rituals that are either inherited, learned or discarded?
SC: This question has a bit of the “nature vs nurture” debate in the subtext, I think. My perspective on that is very much both/and, i.e. these characters are at once shaped by culture/circumstance, and also by something essential in each of them. I never conceived of any character as exclusively a metaphor for his cultural experience, but at the same time each character’s backstory does exert a pressure on the present.
For example, the semi-romantic collision between Han Hyun-kyu (who emigrated to the US as a young man) and his sister-in-law Han Jung-joo occurs mostly because the cultural alchemy is just right: they are the same but not the same, Han Hyun-kyu being both native Korean from a small town, and also shaped by Western romanticism. On the other hand, in a scene between Jane and her brother Henry, Jane is trying to better understand their mother— a character who has caused the family grief — by painting her own version of her mother’s childhood, and Henry’s response is, “Shit goes down. People survive. You overdo it with Mom sometimes.” Later, when Jane tries to trace her own struggles back to something in her childhood, the Korean artist Chae Min-suk basically responds with, “That’s too bad.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that individuals raised in basically the same circumstances can evolve so differently; in Long for This World, this is very much the case, and one of the novel’s central concerns is how to manage/understand this randomness, this mysterious sense that some people are strong, some are weak, some people survive, some don’t. Is it culture, family, individual spirit, God, chance, all of the above?
TM: It took me almost two years to write a first draft of my novel, but I feel like I was floundering for the first nine months. I always find it helpful to hear from other young writers how the process was for them. How long did it take you to write your book?
SC: About three and a half years, from when I started to when an agent took me on.
TM: Can you describe for readers how you found your agent? My own search–though it now, thank goodness, has a happy ending–was harrowing.
SC: Finding an agent was tough — a wilderness time, not for the faint of heart. But I basically “followed directions,” did what teachers and writers advised: I made a list of contemporary writers I most admired, flipped to the Acknowledgments pages of their books, and found out who their agents were. I wrote succinct query letters. I followed submissions guidelines. Over a period of several months, I received both form-letter rejections and some very thoughtful, thorough ones. I came very close with three different agents; after the third turned me down, I wallowed and fretted for a few months. Then, miraculously, two friends whom I’d asked to read the manuscript came back with comments — both honest and encouraging. “You’re much closer than you think you are” were the magic words, the refueling I needed to dig in to a final, significant revision. With a new manuscript, I found a champion in Amy Williams — who’s been wonderful, as both agent and friend. In retrospect (that darned 20/20 hindsight), I probably sent the manuscript out too early; in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t ready. But I was impatient and hungry for affirmation, so I flung it out there. I don’t recommend that.
TM: What was it like, once you found your agent, getting published?
SC: Finding a publisher was weirdly fast, given the long road of writing, revising, finding an agent. I met with Amy on a Tuesday, she sent the manuscript out to editors that Thursday, we had an offer on Monday. It took a week for it to sink in, and even then, I don’t think I quite understood just how lucky I was.
TM: Has anything surprised you about the publication process?
SC: Pretty much everything has surprised me. I knew almost nothing about publishing a book, and it’s funny — well, sometimes not so funny — how people in the biz expect that you would. In other words, there’s no Orientation Day for New Writers. I would get these emails referencing “second pass pages” and have no idea what that was; or I’d get a manuscript in the mail with a deadline but wouldn’t know what I was expected to do with it exactly. I was surprised by how long some things took and how quickly other things moved. It became pretty predictable that what I feared would happen didn’t, and what I never saw coming did – maybe kind of like life? I’m glad to have the first book under my belt; next time (assuming there’s a next time), I’ll know a little better.
I was a little surprised by how gut-struck I was when the hardcovers came in. For a first-time author, there is nothing like the hardcover.
TM: How about touring and promoting your book? Do you find that an easy or fulfilling aspect of being a published author?
SC: The social networking aspect of publicity – what most authors are now expected to do – is a mixed bag. It’s wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but it’s also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that I’m not sure is conducive to the writing process (Kazuo Ishiguro talked about this in a great interview several years back).
These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control and more responsibility, with regard to how much attention her book gets: if you want to go gangbusters on blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, scheduling your own book tour events, you can do that, and to good effect, but the amount of time/energy you can devote is also endless. If you happen to be a natural networker, it definitely works to your advantage; if, like many writers, you prefer the writing cave, it can be burdensome. There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might “open doors” for publicity and events. It’s definitely a choice, and you want to make sure that you’re continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking.
With the book tour these days, authors are encouraged to be “lean and mean” and strategic about it. No more 20-city book tours! As for the experience, maybe I’ll start by saying what, for me, it’s not: it’s not exactly “exciting” or “fun.” Those seem to be the two expectations – “Are you excited? Are you having fun?” Primarily, it’s work, which is not a bad thing at all – it’s just distinct from the romanticized notion that it’s glamorous or the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I don’t mean to be down on it. It’s absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear their good questions or that they’ve been moved by your book; booksellers are a special group of people, and it’s a privilege to connect with them in person; your friends and family roll out endless generosity, support, and hospitality. But book touring is also a lot of scheduling and shuttling and talking talking talking, and also, in a way, performing. After returning from an intense book-events trip a few weeks ago, I sat down to my blog, which I had not updated in several days, and found myself writing, essentially: “Hi everyone. I have nothing to say. I am all talked out.”
TM: I think for debut writers, it’s both exhilarating and slightly scary to have people reading something you worked on for so long. It would be for me. Have the people close to you read your book, and if so, what’s been the reaction?
SC: It’s very strange when your friends and family read your book. After the release date, I started getting emails and Facebook notes – “I’m reading your book!” I thought, “You are?” Promotions had taken up so much space in my head, I forgot that people would actually be reading the thing. Most of my friends and family are not writers, and some aren’t even avid readers; so it’s been gratifying to hear that people like the book, that it seems to have an “all things to all people” quality to it, which surprised me, frankly. I worried that the book might not be that accessible, because it’s complex in structure and perhaps more densely populated than some other novels. A number of people have said they “couldn’t put it down,” that it was a “page-turner.” I love that, because the narrative is fragmented, and I know that agents and editors sometimes shy away from that because of the readability factor.
Of course, not everyone will connect with your work; my expectations were pretty low about this, I know all too well that you can love a person but not love her books (and vice versa). So overall I was pleasantly surprised.
TM: It’s interesting to me that you weren’t considering the readability of your novel, because it is such a page-turner. When I’m writing, I’m (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with the question of readability, perhaps because I find it’s such a pleasing quality in other people’s books. As you were writing Long for This World, did you imagine for yourself a reader? How did you perceive of their reading experience?
SC: That’s interesting that you think about the reader. Maybe somewhere between you and me is a good, healthy place to land? I did not, and do not, consider the reader when I’m writing. The work is a contained world for me, unto itself, it has its own internal energy and design; and when I sit down to work I’m like the astronaut landing on Planet Novel. I’m worried that this is going to sound pathologically narcissistic, but “the reader” – during early drafts – is me. Going with the astronaut analogy, it’s me who needs to be able to find good air and solid footing and navigate the place while I’m in there.
This does raise challenges later on. For example, I named the characters from inside the astronaut suit. During the editorial process, it became clear that the Korean names were going to be tough for native English-speakers (siblings in a Korean family typically have similar names, e.g. Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jae-kyu). But by then, their names were their names, they weren’t going to change, so we decided to put a character list in front to help readers navigate (I’m also now considering an audio pronunciation guide for my website). I suppose I’ll incorporate that experience as I go forward, but generally speaking I find that, for me, cracking open that door to self-consciousness lets in all kinds of monsters.
TM: It certainly can! I suppose my imagined reader is me–and also not me. I certainly write what I would like to read, but my writing is also for some imaginary person, someone who lives across town, perhaps, and reads in the tub, and in line at the post office, and during breakfast. She has impeccable taste, of course. This lady, she absolutely loved your book!