1. Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.” What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale. It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary. Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family. 2. Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia. Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation. Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations. Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood. The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself. Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child. None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.” Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations. 3. In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.” As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents. To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met. As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda. For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell. 4. Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia. If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared. But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there. Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
A few days after the funeral, my older son, Josh, now 30, went on a shopping trip with my wife. He brought back a liter of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I thought about it for a few seconds and said, “You know, I think that's the first bottle of hard liquor we've ever had in our house.” He looked up and replied, “You do realize that's not normal,” the implication being that our example had, at some earlier juncture in his life, led him into thinking the occasional drink was some sort of moral failure. He'd probably also discovered that living among four thousand or so books wasn't exactly the American norm, either. That's the way it is among families. Children absorb the culture of their homes and only later in life gain the distance to question it. Parents, either consciously or unconsciously, inculcate their values and loves. For much of my younger son's 26 years, I tried to pass to him my love of reading literature. Zachary, four years younger than Josh, wasn't averse to giving a book a try. He read the opening of my copy of Jonathan Lethem’s backgammon-hustler novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, and enriched my understanding of it by explaining the backgammon meaning of the term “blot.” He wasn't a contrary sort, in general. If we asked him to join us on a family trip, he was always game. He'd pack a bag minutes before leaving, often with odd choices (no shorts for Florida, a shortage of socks for California). We always reminded him to take a toothbrush, which is why, when I recently looked through his backpack, I found five of them. When we told him to grab something to read, he’d toss a book into his pack. But he’d spend the entire airplane ride playing games on his phone or, when he could find it, his old Game Boy. The exceptions were puzzle books. For instance, he would take a break from his phone to rip through five or 10 word jumbles. I just checked the bookshelf of his room and found a Teach Yourself Sudoku book my wife had given him some years ago. It's not exactly dog-eared, but six of the novice puzzles are complete in his clumsy handwriting, before he must have jumped to the final section labeled “expert,” where he had solved five before, I presume, heading back to his electronic diversions. Like the bulk of his generation, Zach spent endless hours reading and watching video clips online, eclectically, but he was particularly intent on the strategy of the games he most loved: Magic: The Gathering, backgammon and poker. He taught himself to count cards in blackjack and dabbled with it at area casinos. Not that the absence of extended reads was ever a source of conflict. It wasn’t even a consideration in our constellation of common interests: once or twice a week, tennis; avidly following University of Wisconsin Badger and professional sports; binge-watching recorded Jeopardy, TV serials and action movies; playing trivia at our favorite local sports bar. Still, in the way fathers have with sons, he apprehended the gap between us in this particular area and must have rued it. Perhaps I should have addressed it directly and tried to make sure it didn’t end up on that inevitable list we sons compose of our shortcomings in our father’s eyes. But there was time aplenty for that. I remember the only time he got excited about going to a bookstore. Poker pro Phil Hellmuth, a native of our hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, was on a book tour for his memoir, Bad Beats and Lucky Draws. I took Zach, who was 13, and his older brother, then 17. We waited in a long line with our copy, and Zach was delighted when Hellmuth scrawled, “To Josh and Zach, good luck, do it.” But I don’t think he ever got around to reading it. He would spend time with the daily paper (mostly for sports and the puzzles), but I never saw him, not once, curled up in a corner reading a novel. In this he had plenty of company. An NEA survey found that only 36 percent of American males read literature even occasionally. When Zach was in grade school, we had concerns about his progress. He was fantastic in some things, particularly mathematics. But he seemed to have some troubling problems. He often failed to understand directions, especially when they were multi-step. Testing at school showed he had verbal processing issues—he wasn't able to absorb and remember the narrative lines of extended stories. He seemed adept at compensating. I suspect he got by in his high school and college literature courses through a reliance on watching the movies and SparkNotes. The bookcase in his bedroom is stuffed with our rebuffed attempts and partial successes. My wife discovered that he would spend time with highly visual, episodic books. Hence the Guinness Book of World Records, A Year in Sports (2005) and Top Ten of Everything 2009. Less successful were the door-stopping Harry Potter books (which he, at best, dipped into) and young adult novels whose movies he would later enjoy, including The Hunger Games and The Spectacular Now. I can’t find a copy of the one novel he would occasionally and proudly note as his reading triumph, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I suspect I slipped that one into the donation pile for the local library sale. My own sense was that his verbal comprehension problem prevented him from absorbing and retaining enough information to make a novel understandable. A bookmarked page from the previous day would be like another reader starting a book in the middle—baffling and frustrating. He once told me that he had never ever been able to translate a descriptive passage into a mental picture, no matter how simple or vivid the language. I remember feeling sad about this, but helpless, too, like discovering your child is uncoordinated or has no ear for music. Movies were never such a problem—not only because of the visual elements but because they could be absorbed in a sitting. He was an avid film fan and would often slip quotes from them into conversation, assuming you'd recognize them instantly. Once in a team meeting at his insurance company, someone made the mistake of uttering the question asked of the Gary Oldman villain in Leon the Professional: “What do you mean everyone?” And Zach screamed, “EVERYONE!”—a response which was naturally met with some puzzlement. When he was in middle school, my wife and I imposed what in retrospect must have struck him as a draconian rule. Henceforth he would need to balance his computer time with reading time. After a frustrating couple of days, he finally erupted with a protestation that there was “nothing to read.” I asked if he'd be interested in a book centered on a boy with similar interests, which at the time were primarily computer games. He gave me what for him was a resounding affirmation: “I guess so.” Our first stop, our neighborhood Barnes & Noble, was a whiff. The Borders (this was 2005) suggested Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which a young gamer finds himself defending mankind against an alien invasion. We tried, but it didn't stick. What we needed, I felt, was a realistic novel in which the protagonist aspires to be a great computer gamer—in other words, a sports novel with gaming as its activity. We found stacks of novels about soccer kids, football kids, basketball kids, but not one in which the main character played computer games, in spite of the fact that there were thousands of gaming kids for every quarterback or point guard. Fine, I told Zach. I'll write it. The end result was In Real Life, a novel about a gifted math student who aspires to join the lucrative world of professional esports, then centered in South Korea. I started drafting it in 2005, finished a version in 2007, and got a terrific agent in 2008. It steadily collected rejections over the next few years (although many were kind and indicated serious attention). In 2012, after my agent had given up and I’d run out of hope, the book was picked out of the slush pile by an editor at Tuttle Books in Vermont, a midsize publisher with a special interest in East/West topics, as part of their launching a young adult line. By then, Zach was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he would graduate with a degree in economics in 2014. Sometime before his graduation, I had given Zach a manuscript copy and later, during his senior year, an uncorrected proof. To his credit, he spent time with these despite his reading challenges, although it was a running joke between us for years afterward, when he was at loose ends, that “maybe I should go ahead and read the ending of your book.” Instead, he continued to spend his time online, honing his gaming skills. He became a nationally ranked backgammon player and a successful poker player, joining his brother in Las Vegas in the summer of 2017 to fulfill a longtime dream of playing an event at the World Series of Poker. By then, much of his non-computing time was spent immersed in thick binders, the study guides to the first of the series of actuary tests required for certification. He had passed two, and in the early months of 2018 was beginning to work his way through the guide to the third four-hour test, studying topics such as “Put-Call Parity,” “The Binomial Model of Replicating Portfolios,” and “Modeling Stock Prices with the Lognormal Distribution.” He was also working full time for a local insurance company, gaining the industry experience needed to break into the actuary field. He never had the chance to finish my book or take the third actuary test. Near midnight on Saturday, April 21, he was struck by a car in the parking lot of the local bowling alley which had hosted a poker tournament. The EMTs were there in minutes, but they never got a pulse. We buried him on Wednesday, April 25, in a cemetery just a few blocks from our home. His best friend rose to the occasion with a remarkable tribute. I wrote a eulogy for him, highlighting his many loves and wonderful traits, with some fancy literary devices, including an extended metaphor. It probably would have sailed over his head, although he would have never criticized it. He never criticized anyone, except himself, which he did regularly and profanely, particularly if he misplayed a move in an online game of backgammon or Magic. The absence of this voice, this presence, overwhelms our lives. I've started to move a few of his books to our Little Free Library, even though each one opens my already riven heart. I think about the occasion of each gift and recall his expression, the same one he made as a youngster when we’d place a sample of some exotic food on his plate, say a few leaves of artichoke or a spear of asparagus. The look of sad accusation, of exposing ourselves to inevitable disappointment as his eagerness to please was overcome by an ask beyond his power to grant. Image: Flickr/Dean Hochman
When I was in my early 20s -- still youthful enough to consider myself an angry young man -- I discovered the novels of Sinclair Lewis. My father had had an old slipcased edition of Main Street alongside titles like Omoo and Wuthering Heights -- so I’d always thought of Lewis as too musty to bother with. Yet when I finally read one of his books -- Babbitt was the first -- I was shocked by how modern it felt. Despite the references to derbies and pipe tobacco, it was as indignant and cynical as I was. When you’re an angry young man, this qualifies as a good thing. I soon read Lewis’s other classics -- Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Main Street, and It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s skepticism, his disdain for hypocrisy, and his ringing pessimism felt in step with a hypocritical and pessimistic world: it was the early 2000s, and George W. Bush was dragging us into war. Given the timing, It Can’t Happen Here's dystopianism struck a chord with me. In the book, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency through a mix of populism and economic promises, then promptly turns the country into a fascist hellscape. Though the book was published in 1935, it felt as if it had been written just before I read it: the conflict in Iraq was at its height, and Bush had, like Windrip, gone from folksy numbskull to leering warmongerer. Bush was Buzz; Lewis had seen our future. I pressed the book upon friends, as if reading it would somehow change the country’s predicament. Thanks to the United States’ latest predicament, It Can’t Happen Here has become a back-catalogue hit; Donald Trump’s election has made it Amazon’s top-selling American Classic, and 22nd-bestselling book overall. Americans seem to be reading it as something like non-fiction, more Michael Lewis than Sinclair Lewis. On its surface, this seems reasonable: like our new president, Windrip rails against the media and intellectual elites, and Windrip’s white supporters -- who mass to hear him talk of restoring America’s greatness -- lash out at minorities. Windrip even employs a Steve Bannon-like propagandist who sneers at supplying “ordinary folks” with “true facts.” Once in power, Windrip jails dissenting congressmen, abolishes the states, and opens concentration camps, among other general horrors. And this is where It Can’t Happen Here lost me in 2004, and loses me today: it becomes so relentlessly, cartoonishly grim that its prescience is dimmed by its alarmism. Which begs the question: do we need It Can’t Happen Here for this? We seem to be depressing and alarming ourselves without any outside help; thanks to social media, we’ve become a nation of hissing cats, our backs perpetually arched. There’s another Lewis novel that describes a Trump-like figure’s rise with none of It Can’t Happen Here's Hunger Games hyperbole: the religion-deflating Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. While It Can’t Happen Here posits the aftermath of a false prophet’s ascent, Elmer Gantry is a complete portrait of such a man -- and, in our present moment, strikes me as the far more useful book. Elmer Gantry’s titular character is a boozing womanizer who, as a college student, learns “the intoxication of holding an audience with his closed hand” in his public speaking class. Yet he shunned the debate team because “he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration…out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.” Gantry chooses a life in religion more out of lassitude than belief -- his mother, “owned by the church,” “had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher” -- though he was “a little too much tempted by the gauds of This World.” As he moves up the ministerial ladder -- beginning in lowly Banjo Crossing and grinding towards the metropolis of Zenith -- he preaches against personal ambition, though he “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” He rails against immorality, though he’s a Ku Klux Klan admirer and a sexual predator. He’s too hypocritical to consider his hypocrisy. None of this bothers his followers; all they want is a good, fiery show -- never mind that he considers them “pop-eyed and admiring morons.” “He had a number of phrases -- all stolen -- and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions,” Lewis writes. In different circumstances, Gantry wouldn’t hesitate to lead chants of “Lock her up” or “Build the wall” -- regardless of whether he believed in the words or their consequence. Unsurprisingly, Gantry fixates on his audiences’ sizes, not any good that he might do: “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” he tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!” Indeed, he has the bigliest crowds around. In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip emerges from the traditional architecture of American politics. He’s a despot but he’s also, first and foremost, a politician. Gantry, though, is more Trumpian, a fraudulent fish-out-of-water who makes it up as he goes. And, like Trump, he knows that truth is no match for style. Elmer Gantry ends with the preacher thundering to a crowd of 2,500, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” -- though he has just emerged from a sex scandal involving his secretary. The lesson of Elmer Gantry -- and, perhaps, of Donald Trump -- isn’t that terrible people succeed. It’s that good people enable them by hearing what they want to hear. If you want to read a nightmare about the havoc Donald Trump might wreak, then pick up It Can’t Happen Here. But if you want a guide to how we’ve come to find ourselves in such a bewildering, dangerous place —-- and to how we might, in the future, avoid such empty hucksters -- choose Elmer Gantry. It’s one of Sinclair Lewis’s best. And it’s the story of Donald Trump.
1. In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title. After we'd put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money. To borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my "shame memories." Sometimes when I can't sleep, or when I'm having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn't send him the zine. I just...didn't. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I'm also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone. Lately, I've been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me? 2. In her essay "Perfectly Flawed" Lionel Shriver writes, "Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull." I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country. I love that they're barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, "I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it." Every couple of months there's a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud's take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner's), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women. Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about "The Female Bad Fan" for The New Yorker. These are "the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment." Nussbaum writes: The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund. I've come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida "isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive." I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn't also have trouble with Cal, Frida's husband; to me, they're both flawed. I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review. 3. To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I've found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I've hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, "What's with the hat?" to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I'm saying. Frida isn't like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she's a slacker. Cal isn't like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn't part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an "end-of-the-world" situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren't our best selves--we're just ourselves? (This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I'd love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I'm interested in the characters who don't or can't do that.) 4. I decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the "unlikeable" issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers' dislike for her protagonists had "risen to a general din...even from readers who liked the novel very much." She went on: 'I just didn’t like her' is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems -- missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.-- that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list). The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character? When I asked Jean what's on her mind as she creates a character, she said, "I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back." She continued: I think there’s an essential feminism at work here...not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she -- God help us -- writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline -- “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have...”--could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel. Since receiving Jean's words of wisdom, I've been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it's particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it's strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her. Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don't seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma's novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she's being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband's infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue: I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently. I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading! I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably. 5. Traditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you're reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it's clear that such characterization is part of author's aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn't Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn't like him or her? That's a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading. But it's such a personal response that it's irrelevant to the critical gaze. 6. Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable--at least to some readers. It's like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you--or worse, your children!--are. I can't help but keep eavesdropping. At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn't stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better. I stumbled upon Susan's review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn't stand any of the characters in California. It's a very funny rant, which begins, "I don't remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole." When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, "I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me." In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn't know she possesses. Susan said, "The turkey baster was so bizarre... I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off." Susan's reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it's between a husband and wife. I'm reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me! (Susan also hated that Frida "seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life." I hate that, too.) Susan had some choice words for Cal: "The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass." Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I've failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there's a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren't we all.) Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida's decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, "I just found this so stupid and selfish." It's true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I'm interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make. 7. Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can't control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I'm heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there's often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, "A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero." Susan said, "I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she's not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way. I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels." Susan's tastes align with mine, and with many other readers'. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls. I, for one, can't turn away from these women, and I won't. I won't turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either. Image via amysjoy/Flickr
Maybe we should lay this one on Cormac McCarthy. In 2006, after writing a string of rigorously realistic literary novels that seemed to come down to us from some remote desert Olympus, McCarthy delivered an utterly out-of-character book. The Road was set in the near future after a vaguely defined cataclysm – “a long shear of light and then a series of concussions” – had turned the planet into a wintry ashtray, wiped out most of mankind, and erased civilization. The novel was post-apocalyptic and viciously dystopian and, most amazing of all, unashamed of its genre trappings. It was not exactly news in 2006 that the once-impregnable walls separating literary genres were beginning to crumble. But when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oprah pick and got made into a major motion picture, it suddenly seemed that writers of every persuasion, from highbrows to hacks, had the green light to explore that realm once seen as the preserve of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction: the near future. Emily St. John Mandel, a colleague of mine here at The Millions, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization. Here, in Mandel’s words, is what such a world might look like: An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films… No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, or a dog bite… No more flight… Mandel, in an interview with the New York Times, cited McCarthy’s take on the end of civilization as a liberating force for herself and like-minded writers. “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject,” she said. That Times article dissected the “cluster” of recent and forthcoming novels that are set in bleak worlds after civilization has crumbled. The article speculates that this cluster – books by Howard Jacobson, Michel Faber, and Benjamin Percy, among others, plus Station Eleven and the Divergent and Hunger Games series – is fed by our era’s anxieties over pandemics, environmental catastrophes, energy shortages, terrorism, and civil unrest. Today’s headlines about the international spread of Ebola are sure to deepen this anxiety. (It’s worth noting that novelists aren’t the only ones drawn to the dark possibilities of the near future. The makers of movies and television shows are churning out dystopian fare set in a future inhabited by a few decent souls trying to navigate worlds riddled with cannibals, zombies and totalitarian cults.) For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and many others. As these writers have shown, fiction set in the near future can be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. (It is, however, almost always dark.) It can contain elements of fantasy, magic realism and/or science fiction, but it doesn’t have to. In the end, labels are less interesting to me than writerly strategies: What is gained by setting a work of fiction in the near future? A good place to start looking for an answer is Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a satire set in New York City around the year 2018. Rather than imagining some environmental or economic upheaval, Shteyngart has simply taken today’s technology and tried to extrapolate what it will be doing to us a few years from now. The novel bristles with devices like the äppärät, a pendant that broadcasts the wearer’s scores on everything from looks to “fuckability” to credit rating. An individual’s credit rating is also displayed on sidewalk “credit poles.” The currency of choice is the “yuan-pegged dollar” because the old dollar is worthless. Women wear see-through jeans called Onionskins. Hipsters have migrated from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Nobody reads books anymore. (On an airplane, a fellow passenger upbraids the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, for cracking open an actual book: “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”) The country is run by the right-wing Bipartisan Party, and American society is made up of elite High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lenny Abramov is the “The Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” which provides life-extension services to anyone who’s got a pile of money and a desire to live forever. The novel becomes, among other things, a very funny portrait of the twinned hells of post-literacy and constant connectivity. Shteyngart has said that when he started writing the book in 2006, he imagined a future in which Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Chrysler all tanked. Two years into the writing, those companies actually tanked. “So I had to make things worse and worse,” Shteyngart told The Nation. “That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days – there doesn’t seem to be a present to write about. Everything is the future.” Another difficulty, as Shteyngart discovered, is the novelist’s need to walk the increasingly blurry line that separates the plausible from the outlandish. William Gibson, who made his name in the 1980s writing science fiction novels set in a future heavily influenced by then-nascent computer technology, is now going against the grain: He recently started setting his fiction in the present. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written,” he told The Paris Review in 2011, adding, “For years I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of the novels I had set in imaginary futures…I finally decided I had to call myself on it.” It’s a wrinkle on Shteyngart’s discovery: technology is changing so fast that there’s no longer a present; the future is already here, relentlessly unspooling into the past. Which presents its own counter-intuitive challenge, as Gibson sees it: “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” Michael McGhee has set his first novel, Happiness Ltd., somewhere between the worlds of Mandel’s extreme post-apocalyptic future and Shteyngart’s more recognizable near future. In the middle of the 21st century, the novel’s titular entity governs the developed world like Amazon on steroids, crushing competition, feeding the public a diet of happy news, and demanding that people consume the abundant goods and services offered by the Bountiful Age. Celebrities are worshipped, lifespans are artificially extended, and after a major economic collapse and years of devastating storms, watery lower Manhattan has been walled off and ceded to disenfranchised persons, or DPs, who refuse to be seduced by the consumer society’s ubiquitous baubles. There are strong whiffs of Huxley and Orwell in this smiley-face dystopia. There is also an echo of the difficult love affair at the center of Super Sad True Love Story – when Nelson, a rising star in Happiness Ltd.’s news management operation, falls in love with a DP named Celia, trouble is inevitable. Such slumming is fiercely discouraged by the powers that be. In an email, McGhee explained his decision to set his novel near the middle of this century: “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is its invitation to tweak society’s nose – to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme. For example, modern American culture encourages us to spend beyond our limits – what happens tomorrow when a cash-strapped government requires us to spend beyond our limits? Or, today our culture practically worships celebrities. What happens tomorrow when some of us literally worship celebrities? It’s a fertile field for satire.” Like Shteyngart, McGhee learned that current events have a way of outracing a writer’s imagination. “The peril is that the near future has a propensity for arriving faster than you expect,” he writes. “It took me 10 years to write Happiness Ltd., and almost all the fantastic features I started with – advertisers tracking our every move, hurricanes ravaging lower Manhattan – came true before I was finished.” Edan Lepucki, another colleague of mine here at The Millions, hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with her dystopian debut novel, California. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young couple, Frida and Cal, who flee southern California after a string of financial and environmental catastrophes, then try to eke out a life in the northern woods. America has finally become what it is now firmly on its way to becoming: a bifurcated society, where the haves live in gated communities, and the have-nots like Frida and Cal live in decayed cities or the wilderness. Like Shteyngart’s future America, Lepucki’s is a country of High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lepucki, in an email, described the allure of the near future this way: “I loved the challenge of speculation, of imagining certain present-day conflicts (oil crisis, climate change, disappearing tax base in dying cities) escalating to an intense degree. I also liked the freedom of a post-technological world, and how that added mystery to my characters' lives, and deepened their isolation. And it was just fun to play pretend, to really fling myself into this new, unfamiliar landscape; I had never done that in fiction. Last, there was a real sense, when I was writing this book, that the characters' conflicts mattered. I'd never had such a strong and accessible sense of dramatic propulsion when writing, and I think the apocalypse had something to do with it.” There is, she added, a flipside: “To create a believable future you have to think logically through certain large-scale events, which is so different from my usual concern when writing fiction; I usually work on a much smaller scale, considering a made-up person, putting them in a room, and letting them interact with another made-up person.” If I see a thread running through these books and their authors’ comments, it would be this: the near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed. If today’s crop of books, movies and TV shows set in the near future are an accurate barometer, it looks like we’re in for some filthy weather. Image via mikelehen/Flickr
Whenever my students ask me about getting a literary agent, I say three things: 1. There are a lot of agents out there. 2. The process can take a long time, so be prepared for rejection and waiting, waiting, waiting. 3. If you're afraid of your agent, he or she is not the right agent for you. That last piece of advice is borne out of my experience working with Erin Hosier, whom I consider not only my advocate and colleague, but my friend. I'm not afraid to email her for advice and I do not fear her reaction to my work. (Other friends of mine seem cowed by their agents, which saddens me: if your agent can't root for you, then who in the business can?) Erin is honest and smart and funny, and if I am bugging her too much I expect her to tell me so. When she isn't agenting at Dunow, Carlson and Lerner, she's writing. Her memoir, D0n't Let Me Down, is forthcoming from Atria Books. Also: her lipstick is always impeccable. She answered the following questions via email within 24-hours. If you want to hear more from Erin -- and who won't after reading this? -- she'll be appearing at WWLA: The Conference on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (And, yes, that's a shameless plug.) The Millions: How did you become a literary agent? Erin Hosier: I had been interning at a magazine and found it to be a stressful, low-paying job with a lot of responsibility, but I loved the editorial meetings. I loved talking about ideas and strategizing with smart people. It was thrilling to help put together an issue of a magazine, and see the fruits of our labor on display just three months later. The people there were always bummed out, though. They moved so quickly through an idea when I wanted to immerse myself in one. I happened to read a galley of a book called The Forest For The Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, that made book publishing sound much more my speed. Through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to the book's author, Betsy Lerner, who then hired me to be her assistant when she made the switch from Doubleday editor to literary agent at The Gernert Co. The whole thing happened very quickly, in the time it would have taken for another issue of the magazine to come out. I answered phones and worked really hard for a year before I ever sold a book, but once I showed the aptitude, I was given a lot of support and encouragement to move forward in my career. There was nothing corporate about that agency (credit wendy at dresshead.com). I didn't have to compete with anyone or fill a quota. I'll always be grateful for that experience, but my publishing soulmate will always be Betsy Lerner, who I'll follow to the ends of the earth. TM: Can you describe, in 2-3 sentences, why a writer needs an agent? EH: It's like having a lawyer, but way cheaper. You wouldn't represent yourself at your own trial, would you? A good literary agent protects you from yourself. TM: What does an agent do all day? How much reading does the job entail? How many schmooze lunches do you have a week? How often do you have to call an editor and yell at them? EH: I'm sure some agents read all night and on the weekends. To me, that isn't pleasurable -- that's being a full-time editor, and that's where I have to draw the line, when it becomes a quality of life issue. At this point, I only take on authors or projects when I feel like I'm the only one who can do the manuscript in front of me justice. I have to be able to envision the book as a finished product/physical object before I can even consider it. Then I have to really believe that the author and I would be compatible collaborators. Back in the day, I was willing to work with people with obvious personality disorders if it meant I'd make more money or get to go to better parties. But now that I'm older I have zero tolerance. I mention this because one learns over time that it's not so much the lunches and the meetings, or the dealmaking and negotiating, as it is the day-to-day relationships with the writers themselves. Some of the people I work with are pure artists, some are in it to add prestige to their platforms, some are ghostwriting manuscripts for cash, some are just learning how to write and need total editorial attention, all need the money yesterday, and all are vulnerable to self-loathing in the face of criticism or apathy in a dying industry. For me, it's the emotional work mixed with the variety of potential crises that makes this job one I take too seriously to do too much. I write and do other things myself now to balance it out. But since you asked, here's a typical scenario. If I don't have an AM meeting, I will stay up late either writing or thinking about writing (or watching HBO Go), then get up after rush hour and contemplate email. Inevitably, there will be at least one immediate crisis involving an author or a book that needs addressing. Pep talks are a big part of my outgoing email, ditto rejections and referrals, favors and solicitations, and the transference of information between publishers, agents, publicists, and authors. I try not to book more than three lunches with editors a week. They start to blend together if you do too many, so I really prefer one. I like getting to know people though, and the publisher pays for the sushi, so I can't complain. I go to a variety of meetings a week, not just with writers, but with publishers, talent agents, foreign rights agents, lawyers, managers, and colleagues. I don't necessarily have to go to the office if I don't have any meetings onsite, so increasingly I work from home. Either way, I try to work for my clients during the day, and more for myself at night. As for reading, same thing: for the writers during the day, for me at night. Both reading and writing tend to make me sleepy, so that's become my test - can I read or write this paragraph without wanting to put my head on the desk? I do go to events sometimes, but not as much as I used to - and more to support than to schmooze. TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents? EH: I'm easy to find. Just treat me like you would any celebrity, because that's sometimes what it feels like for an agent to go to a party. I once dated a writer for months before I found out he was trying to sleep his way to representation. I get it, it's nice to meet me. In general, I'd recommend cutting to the chase. I've had good luck with new writers lately -- no mouth breathers in the bunch at The New School's MFA program -- I met some in person on campus, listened to the ones that approached me, invited them to send pages if I thought it was something I'd be interested in, and did/am doing my best to follow up on each one. It's rare that I try to go out there and find new clients -- they have to come to me. This is almost always done by referral from another writer, editor or colleague. I do look at slush email but only if the queries are short and exciting to me. If they are, you'll hear one way or the other. If they're not, I usually just delete. It sounds shitty, but if you were one of my clients you wouldn't want me wasting time on email from strangers who might take attention away from the important work we've got to do together. It's so not personal. The great thing about literary agents is there are a ton of them. TM: You took me on as a client years before I actually made you any money. Before Little, Brown bought California, I was pretty sure you were nuts for working with me. What makes you want to take on a writer? And do you feel like you have a spidey-sense for books that will make money -- or (in the case of my first book), not? EH: I actually advised you to try another agent specifically known for selling edgy debut fiction, but you were really stubborn! Here's what I think happened: you were referred somehow or I found out you went to Iowa. I read that manuscript that you sent and I knew the subject matter was risky (the psycho-sexual coming of age of a very young teenage girl, with a dual historical narrative about the nature of violence against, and perpetuated by, women) - the novel equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie - but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I knew it was ahead of its time. (It still is.) I knew I had to try because even though the other agent might have taken you on, I couldn't be sure that s/he would get you the same way I do. When I met you in person at the Le Pain Quotidien in Beverly Hills, I was prepared to tell you my doubts, but you were so pretty and serious that it actually surprised me that something that dark could come from someone so fair. I felt like you could handle the ride, and if you wanted to put your trust in me then I would be proud to stick up for a novel that upset people, and scared them. I do think I have spidey-sense, yes, but it doesn't often do any good in publishing. One of my favorite writers whose book I couldn't sell (because the world wasn't ready) two years later ended up writing on Girls. Now she's rich and successful and I'll be forever asking her for blurbs and referrals. Meanwhile I'm the one who was telling them about so-and-so five years before the boss's daughter got her first period, which counts for nothing when a publisher insists on waiting on Hollywood or the public to legitimize my hunch. My failure to convince publishers of someone's talent and commercial viability: that's a sustained shitty feeling that comes with no billable hours. TM: Once you told me something like, "Publishers like things tied up in pretty pink bows" and you said that it was harder for a woman writing dark fiction to get published. Do you still think this is true? And, if so, any guesses as to why this might be the case, especially since so many women work in publishing? EH: I don't think it's the women who work in publishing as much as it is this notion of what readers (mostly women) want. There are a couple of things going on. I think women in our culture can speak freely about dark themes on the page more and more if they're comedians, or writing narrative nonfiction that directly addresses a personal crisis that happened to them. In fiction, a great writer can get inside the heads of a range of characters, so they can explore the interior motivations of a person who does bad things, even if that person is female. I'm talking specifically about violence, explicit sexual content, and "non-sympathetic" characters. There's still this notion that women have to deliver a happy ending/redemption in order to have the opportunity to sell. And I've personally received a note that women should use words like "fuck" less on the page, lest they alienate their audience. I've been told in a meeting, in reference to a book by a sex-worker-by-choice - "Who would want to read a book by a whore?" (Granted, this was said by a publisher from another country, but he was European and this was less than 10 years ago.) I know of one fiction writer who wrote a masterful novel about a mother who kills her child. She felt she had to give herself a gender neutral pseudonym to even submit it to publishers. (Still didn't sell, but I still think about that novel to this day.) Ironically, one area where this is changing is in books for young adults. Before The Hunger Games became a sensation, do you think a Hollywood studio would have green-lit a project about children hunting and killing each other for sport? The Lovely Bones - a novel narrated by a young girl who has been raped and murdered - that was excerpted in Seventeen when it was published, not Playboy, not the New Yorker. I'm heartened by this because publishers are starting to understand that it doesn't get darker than being a teenage girl, and we need books that help us relate and cope with the stuff that is happening to us/around us for the first time. These YA books are now crossing over into the adult market, as opposed to the other way around. Young women have always been big consumers of literature - it's about time publishers listen to the stories they want told. TM: You're not only an agent, but a writer, with a forthcoming memoir. How has your view of your job changed now that you've experienced it from an author's point of view? EH: I was really arrogant about being able to write a good, saleable book proposal, and I knew that I had an interesting personal story to tell. I also had the best agent for me (Lerner), who I was close to and who had confidence in my abilities. I had this idea that I just needed a chunk of money that an advance could bring to actually "buy me some time" to write the memoir I assumed would just burst forth from my hands as efficiently as my editorial letters to/for the people I represent. The proposal did sell in an efficient manner, and I was given the customary 12 months to produce a draft. Guess what? That was in 2011. Right after I got the book deal, I was asked to sit on a panel about art vs. commerce in publishing. I remember I said something really stupid like, "I only write to get paid" or "For me, it's about the money." And I believe it was Fiona Maazel who piped up and said that was a bullshit way to approach a writing project. The thing she said that stuck with me was, "The writing is its own reward." At the time I couldn't imagine it. How could the writing - especially if no one gets to read it - be its own reward? And now I see exactly what she meant. Writing this book has already changed me forever, and it still doesn't have a pub date. I know first-hand now, that a book is constantly being written, rewritten, thrown across the room in anger, shelved for awhile, and changed ad nauseum until someone finally accepts it as being "finished." (And that's just the first part of the process.) I no longer ask another writer when their next book is coming out because I know what anxiety that induces. I would never shame an author who was having a hard time with a delivery date. I now believe the up-front money is irrelevant in the long run, (because taxes), but also because you're doing something so difficult that almost no amount of money will make you feel better about the actual process of writing/getting published. Writing can either save you or ruin your life - the jury's still out on what that will mean for me. And I don't mind warning authors now: don't ever do it for the money. I'm poorer now than I've ever been, but I think I'm a better agent, and a better person, because of it. Image via Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing. The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first. Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously. Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading. This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do. What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume. I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them. When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens: “It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —” “Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.” (General murmurs of approval.) “Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?” “That one is amazing.” Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson. My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny. I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover. Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen. Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan. What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share. One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading. I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares. Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this. Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own. Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students. Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree. In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome. My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay. They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments. I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement. Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down. Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book. Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers. I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading. But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th. Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag. This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading”. The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely. Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading. You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest. I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more. “How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page. I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book. That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading. In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.” Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen. And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August? Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right. Image Credit: Flickr/Enokson
Who is Orson Scott Card? Until recently most people knew him as the author of Ender’s Game, a beloved modern science fiction classic. Prolific and highly decorated, Card has written in nearly every genre, from video game scripts to comic books to movie novelizations. Of late, however, Card’s opposition to gay marriage has led to widespread media excoriation and intense scrutiny of his politics, revisiting issues that have dogged him in the past. In an effort to nuance current coverage of Card, I chose to ask him questions about writing and his identity as a writer. He provided detailed answers by e-mail — what follows is an edited version of his replies. (My own discussion of the gay marriage controversy is here.) 1. The practice of writing The Millions: What does your workspace look like? Orson Scott Card: I’m in an attic room, with walls that quickly turn into slanting ceiling. Very little room for art on the walls, but books completely lining the walls up to where the ceiling starts. These are my research books — history, daily life, archeology, language, reference works. A few old things that I never use but haven’t had time to purge — old software disks that no machine could read now, outdated almanacs. My desk is against the north gable. From my window I can see the top of the neighbor’s house, the tops of trees, the sky. Nothing too distracting. Doesn’t matter — the computers have plenty of distractions. Both the desktop in front of me and the laptop on a table behind me have constantly changing wallpaper that cycles through thousands of images I’ve collected over the years. My private art gallery. All around me are stacked CDs I mean to rip one of these days, to join the thousands of MP3s already on my computer. (My first hard drive had ten megabytes — if MP3s had existed then, my computer would have held exactly two songs, plus the software to play them.) Art books and magazines I mean to scan. Old bits of hardware. Books I intend to review. And notes about things I need to do Right Now (some of them two or three years old). Chaos. But I can get to the keyboard, the mouse, the screen. I can work. TM: What are the main problems with creative writing education today? How do you address those problems at your writing “boot camp”? OSC: Such a long, long list. Pre-college creative writing seems to be a sort of group therapy — gush out your feelings and nobody can criticize them because you’re being “creative.” Nobody teaches you the bones of the language. Nobody teaches you forms. Imagine trying to learn to play violin if no one taught you pitch and fingering, if you never practiced. But that’s what we do to children. Then they get to college, where the ones whose native language abilities survived the uselessness of primary and secondary education begin to think they might become writers. Then they become the captives of the elitists, who teach them to write in such a way that their work can only have meaning to those who do not so much read as decode. Their symbols are obvious because they’re the only thing going on. They “shock” their readers — but only if their readers are still living in 1915. They learn to be “experimental” in exactly the way the Modernists were experimental. They are all style, no substance; all code, no message. I hear them doing their readings and it makes me sad, because some of them really are talented, but if they ever get an audience, it will be because they did not follow what they were taught by their writing teachers. Specifics? First person present tense — a convention that makes sense in French, which hates its preterite, but none in English, where our real present is present progressive: Not “I pick up the envelope from the table” but “I am picking up the envelope from the table.” Who could bear to read a story, let alone a novel, in the true present tense of natural spoken English? So we get stories written in this artificial, impossible voice. The voice we use for jokes and anecdotes — “A guy walks into a bar, see” — but not the voice we use for truth — “No, he really did.” As soon as we want to be believed, we move to the past tense. But our most pretentious fiction is in the language of jokes. Regular readers generally know they’re being excluded when present tense is used for narrative. It’s a shibboleth for the overeducated, the true believers. The sad thing is that because young readers don’t yet recognize the shibboleths, overtaught but underskilled writers of YA fiction often get away with first person present tense. It worked for Hunger Games because the story was so powerful; but the choice hampered the sequels. It’s simply not a natural narrative choice in English; most writers confess that they are faking it because they use pluperfect for the narrative past when the past of present-tense narrative is the simple preterite or present perfect. TM: In your How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy you talk at length about the “wise reader.” In brief: What characterizes the wise reader and how can writers find one to critique their work? OSC: I warn my writing students not to submit their work to English majors, who are likely to be true believers in the anti-communication school of literature, unless they plan to do the opposite of whatever such readers suggest. Nor should they keep showing their work to the same writing group — after a year, you’ve learned everything they have to teach you, and you have nothing of value left to offer them. Most such critiquers are like doctors who walk into the patient’s room, and without asking a question, glance at the sufferer and prescribe something in Latin and then move on. The wise reader, on the other hand, prescribes nothing — ever. The wise reader merely reports to the writer on the experience of reading, which boils down to three questions: So what? Oh yeah? Huh? When the wise reader catches her mind wandering, thinking about something else, she puts a line in the margin at the point in the text where she noticed she was thinking of something else. It means she lost interest — so what? When the wise reader finds herself doubting — oh, would he really do that? — then she puts another mark in the margin. It means she cannot suspend her disbelief at this point — oh yeah? When the wise reader finds herself confused, having to read a paragraph again, or look back through the text to see how she missed some fact now taken for granted (when did that happen?), then there is a flaw in clarity of narrative. Huh? These boil down to belief, concern, and clarity — or, to help readers of the Pauline epistles remember it, faith, hope, and clarity. And the greatest of these, as Paul said, is clarity. The wise reader then points out these marginal marks to the writer and says, Here I didn’t believe; there I was confused; in this spot I found I was thinking of grocery shopping. It is the writer’s job to figure out what in the text caused these poor responses, and then to figure out how to fix the problems. Foolish writers argue with the wise reader, pointing out how it’s perfectly clear, or this really happened once so it’s definitely believable, or how can you not care! Such writers don’t deserve a wise reader. The good writer thanks the wise reader and then reinvents the story so belief and concern are not lost, and edits the language so that the narrative is perfectly clear and never, never, never confusing. 2. The meaning of your work TM: Some readers have understood the Ender saga and the Homecoming saga as “feminist.” Would you agree with that characterization? OSC: As the child of a working mother, I thought of myself as feminist until the word took on a narrow political meaning that bore no relation to the reality of the human species. I have no program of “feminism,” though I do treat my female and male characters as equally human and equally interesting. TM: In Xenocide, the godspoken on Path are actually victims of government genetic modification meant to control them. When I was young, I read this as a powerful critique of the origins of religious belief. Was that your intention? Are doubt and self-reflective questioning an important part of faith? OSC: No one has any answers until they’ve asked the questions. No one knows anything until they have taken into account their own needs and drives and hungers, and those of the culture around them. What people often miss in Xenocide is that the young heroine responds to the drives built into her genes in order to control her by becoming obsessively and perfectly obedient to them. Not everyone responds that way. Even when we are genetically modified (and we all are; it simply is nature rather than government that usually does the modifying), our self is distinguished by what we choose to do about our drives and impulses, our weaknesses and strengths. There is no human being without religion. I am amused by those who consider themselves post-religious, who sneer at religions or religious people. All they are really saying is, "What you believe is ‘religion’; what I believe is truth." This is the way all fanatics think. And see how they behave, trying to silence those who don’t share their unbelief! We live in an age of inquisitions and puritanism, and the inquisitors and puritans all believe themselves to be “above” religion even as they try to enforce their ignorant faith using the power of the state. All knowledge that we believe so firmly that we act upon it is faith, and almost none of it is based on our personal experience. We believe what others have told us, and consider “sane” those who agree with the people we agree with. I have watched with amusement, then sadness, as “education” has become indoctrination; as students are taught that conformity to a set of received ideas is the same as being “smart,” and nonconformity is “stupidity.” Yet it is those who receive these “smart” ideas without question who are most stupid. This kind of stupidity is common in religious communities; it is equally common in universities. So many idiotic ideas are believed without question — and without evidence — while anyone who questions them is ridiculed, their arguments answered with character assassination. So yes, Xenocide is a critique of unquestioning faith — but not of “religion” as it is normally spoken of. Since “religion” is an artifact of all human communities, and there are no human beings without it, I am no more anti-religious than I am anti-oxygen. I only suggest that perhaps we will do better if we earn our beliefs by rigorous examination of our beliefs and a constant process of holding our belief in abeyance, acting on that which we believe to be true, but always ready to change our minds when better information is available. TM: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission? OSC: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects. Every work of art is an attempt to create a community; any artist who claims to create only for himself is a liar, unless he never showed his work to another soul. Every work of art is mostly a reflection of the artist’s culture, unconsciously passed along because the artist has never thought the world could work any other way; yet every work of art, even the most conformist, is still different from any other’s work, and so it challenges the status quo to some degree, however minuscule. I love to work in science fiction and fantasy because we deliberately rewrite the rules of reality. Sadly, of course, even in our field we tend to converge on consensus realities, as Bruce Sterling once pointed out before he himself joined a new consensus reality. So even we keep searching for new writers to re-envision the world around our characters. Yet even in the most relentlessly conformist of the just-like-every-other-post-modernist fiction, there are glimmers of individuality — even creative writing programs can’t stamp out every vestige of it, try as they might. Whether you are openly reinventing reality, you reinvent it; whether you are deliberately championing certain cultural values, you champion at least the ones you have not yet thought to question. I have learned to trust my unconscious mind. In my many years at this trade, I have had a chance to see what many readers have found in all my stories, and I am sometimes astonished at the personal and cultural meanings they found in them. Yet I cannot, and would not wish to, challenge their readings as long as they conform to the text 3. Art and society TM: Last year Christopher Tolkien decried the commercialization of his father’s work, saying that it has “reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” You are a fan (albeit with some misgivings) of Peter Jackson’s films. Do you think commercialization can have a negative impact on art? Do you fear it with your own work? OSC: Commercialization does not erase one word of the original work. Lord of the Rings is still available in its entirety — and with wonderful commentaries by superb scholars like Tom Shippey. All adaptations and translations will leave out or overemphasize things in ways that others will resent or regret; this is true when you translate LOTR into German or Japanese, just as when you translate it into film. I once adapted LOTR (with permission) into a public reading script, three hours per volume, and performed it once at NorWesCon in Seattle and again at MythCon at Pepperdine University. Perforce I left out things that others loved; I left in things that Peter Jackson left out of the movie. I think all my choices were right and where he differed with me, he was wrong. But his movie got made and showed us many wonderful things, even though he also added several foolish things and left out what I think of as the heart of the movie. He obviously considers my view wrong. So what? The book is still there. Let’s remember that most people don’t read books. So the commercialization brings a translation of the story to an audience that would otherwise never receive it. Some of them will go on to read the book, which they might not otherwise have done. Most will not. But in our culture, though film is the highest-prestige medium (“That story was so good they oughta make it a movie!”), the text of the novel has the highest authority. Where the two disagree, nobody will ever say that the film shows what really happened; that will only be said of the book. All readings, all viewing, all hearings of art are edited by the listener anyway. No two members of the audience receive or remember the same work. Yet with repetition we converge on the most authoritative source, which should be, and usually is, the original. Christopher Tolkien has nothing to fear. Commercialization is a symptom of success; it does not harm anyone’s ability to receive the original. For that matter, even the written text of LOTR is an inferior way to receive it, because readers almost invariably skim over the songs and poems which were so important to Tolkien and which show so much of his mastery of language and cultures. So for me, the supreme way of receiving LOTR is the audiobook. It gives you every word of every song and poem, right along; you cannot easily skip it. It is the most complete way to experience Tolkien’s original. Yet one might also think of the audiobook as part of the commercialization of LOTR. Ender’s Game is an unfilmable book. Yet it is being filmed. All such translations are inadequate. But the film, if it is a good film, and regardless of its degree of faithfulness to the book, will bring new readers to the book; they will then discover the authoritative version of the story. Some will prefer the movie. So what? That group would never have read the book without having seen the movie, so Ender’s Game will have lost no part of its natural audience. Decrying the commercialization of a successful work of art is like famous actors complaining about the annoyances of fame. The annoyances are real enough, but they are also a symptom of success. Which would you rather have? Less annoyance and less success? Or the greater success with the greater annoyance? TM: You’ve long been interested in video games and have even written for some. Recently you expressed frustration with the unreflective and poorly researched blaming of violent video games for social ills. Is there any kind of art you do think is dangerous? OSC: All art both affirms and critiques the artist’s culture and community, whether she intends either outcome or not. Art that negates the strengths of a good community is bad; but art that negates the strengths of a bad community would be good. It gets very complicated, and few people are able to agree on the goodness or badness of any long list of attributes of a culture, or their relative weight. We might say, yes, this that you attack is bad, but not as bad as that, which you do not mention. As if every artist should observe the same things, and share the same values! Yet that is precisely what many people insist on. They are sure that art they do not like causes harm, while art they enjoy is harmless. They are always partly wrong and partly right. But which part, and to what degree? We promote freedom of speech and expression precisely so that we can openly disagree about what our culture should be and should value. We vote by admitting certain works to our memory and insisting that our friends also read, listen to, or look at it. Works that are beloved by many have a proportionate effect on the culture; works that are loved by fewer, but with greater intensity, may have an equal or greater effect. It is impossible to measure. A work may indeed be dangerous, but the counter is not often to censor it, it is to offer an alternative. Yet puritans of one stripe or another invariably insist on censorship. Just as the Puritans of Political Correctness ban any speech by their opponents on most American university campuses merely because they do not agree with them, so also the Puritans of anti-violence would ban videogames merely because they do not enjoy them. In fact we have actual data about the effects of videogames; even the most harmful are relatively harmless, in terms of any direct cause and effect on real-world violence. Pornography, on the other hand, has been proven to be a rehearsal for real-world acting-out of the scripts thus depicted. Yet the very people who would ban videogames are often the ones most insistent on protecting the freedom of pornographers. Research makes no difference to them; actual facts rarely influence people’s visceral decisions. My problem is that I understand the arguments for and against censorship. There are things that I believe damage society — pornography among them — but I’m not absolutely sure that I’m right, or that a ban, if once instituted, would be limited to what I would call “pornography.” Once we admit censorship, the definition of the thing censored will always be expanded to include unintended objects. It is best, in a free society, if one view never absolutely prevails. In a perpetual struggle between freedom and protection, and between this and that set of values, we have our best likelihood of achieving reasonable balances. Alas that we live in a time when no group can stay in business while accepting reasonable balances. You only get donations for extreme positions. We’d be better off if, instead of banning censorship, we constantly argued about the definitions of what is or is not censorable, with the boundary constantly shifting back and forth. It is when the boundary is moved all the way to one extreme and stays there that we are endangered. But that is only my opinion. I might be wrong. So even in my absolutely correct moderation I am not sure that I ought to prevail... TM: According to your website, our society is becoming less free in matters of speech, press, and religion. You also say “art which is destructive of the values of a decent society is deserving of no special privilege or protection.” Should a society interested in free speech also protect art that it considers destructive? OSC: It’s in the definition of a “decent society” that the monster hides. That said, I think it’s more than slightly ridiculous to put “art” on a pedestal as if it existed above the realm of ordinary commerce and conversation. Freedom of the press and of speech and of belief are vital to a free society, for political reasons. But art? What makes the whole argument ludicrous is that the very people who would protect works that some consider obscene, are perfectly happy to ban works that they consider to be racist. Everybody seems to accept censorship — they just disagree about the list of people-never-to-be-offended. Most people who champion the use of “fuck” would crucify you for saying “nigger” — they are no more in favor of “free speech” than those who believe the reverse, or who would ban both. And those who would ban neither invariably have their own private list of forbidden words. If we did not have such a list locked away in our brains, how would Tourette’s Syndrome even be possible? Where I find the whole argument becomes offensive is when artists demand public funding for work that is deliberately offensive to taxpayers. Take your artistic freedom as you can — but pay for it yourself. When you expect the public to pay for it with money taken by threat of force, you are demanding that your art become a sort of established religion; and to oppose public funding for your art is not censorship; it is not even like censorship. When you take money from a sponsor, you surrender your freedom; if you want the freedom to be offensive, don’t dip into the pockets of unwilling people who are not free to resist your taking.
It’s safe to say that Tumblr saved my reading life. By the time I began using police composite sketch software to create images of literary characters suggested by Tumblr users I had really stopped reading fiction. Between sorting short stories every month at Joyland and switching from writing unsold novels to working on film and television scripts, my relationship to fiction had trailed off to a sluggish pulse. When The Composites took off, I started reading what thousands of complete strangers told me to read and, in the process, I rid myself of a lifetime of habits, biases, and poorly formed opinions on what literature should be. I killed my inner pundit. Answering the hive mind of Tumblr, I was sent rummaging through my books in storage. I searched Project Gutenberg. I skulked the aisles of The Strand bookstore with pen and notebook, hoping to not get caught. While I thought I probably looked thoroughly insane, I’m confident the staff had seen worse. Hell, I even bought a few books. This accelerated thesis-style surveying of 400 random novels over eight months allowed me to revisit books from my past and to see their forgotten influence on me now. Stephen King may have unknowingly swiped the title Joyland, but I still think Misery is a bitter, hilarious, and brilliant novel. Not before or since has such a popular author figuratively punished his fans with effortless postmodernism -- a nuance I may have missed when I first read it at age 13. I re-read The Recognitions, William Gaddis’s messy, vital book about the impossibility of living authentically. His consciousness-altering writing merged with The Composites, from the definite article title to the heady brew of ideas about representation and originality. Even the resulting composite image of the protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, felt like a mystery solved. Gaddis had described a face much like his own. Mikhail Bulgakov’s perfect novel The Master and Margarita was something I boldly lied about having read before and once you lie about having read a book it’s very difficult to undo deceptions you’ve built your life on. Jonathan Lethem’s funny and affecting The Fortress of Solitude was a novel that sat on our shelf for years (it’s one of my wife’s favorite books). Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the story I now most want to see as a TV show adaptation. The default of the hive mind is to reiterate the popular. A composite drawn from Gaiman’s novel created waves of nerdgasms throughout Tumblr while something like the composite from The Recognitions brought a smattering of applause from five men in cardigans. I tried to keep the balance of popular and unpopular in phase during my nine months of social reading but what most changed my understanding of literature was being asked to look at staggeringly popular books. Women who write popular books are given a raw deal out of the critical gates, judged on criteria that similarly popular male authors never face. How much had I unconsciously absorbed that bias? Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is not a book I would have read without hundreds of requests for me to do so, but I’m glad I did. It is a damn good book. Collins’s writing is economical and elegant and the novel’s allegories about class and entertainment are sharper than literary attempts to explore the same subjects. Having spent a year speed-reading and skimming 400 books, I think I deserve another few years off. When I do start again, though, I know it will be as a freer, more open reader. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
You've probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an "auto-complete" feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It's probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon's book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, the results were fairly literary and 18 months before that, vampires reigned. This time around, Fifty Shades has ushered in an era of erotic-inflected popular fiction, and diet books and YA lit figure prominently as well. You might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon, to be a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what's popular in the world of books: Audio Books Bared to You (erotic fiction by Sylvia Day) Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell thanks to the upcoming feature film) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children's series by Jeff Kinney) Eat to Live (a diet book) Fifty Shades of Grey (The erotica that launched a publishing trend) Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn's blockbuster) Hunger Games (Replacing "Harry Potter" as the top "H" search in YA lit) ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box) James Patterson Kindle (no surprise here) Lee Child Michael Connelly No Easy Day (The book about the bin Laden raid) Organic Chemistry (A textbook search) Psychology (More textbooks) Quiet (a book about introverts by Susan Cain) Rick Riordan Stephen King The Hunger Games Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand) Vince Flynn Wheat Belly (a diet book) X-Men Yoga Zoo by James Patterson (Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
1. From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions -- sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event -- at least as De La Pava saw it -- was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics. I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no! If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with...well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too -- one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing -- to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) -- that way lies madness. Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It's very good -- one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared. These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate. So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here's what I found: --noise background, Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test. My getting out or what?! Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes: Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded. There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, "It was 11:33?"). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went -- edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut -- but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand. It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011. And it's a funny thing about those extraliterary signals -- superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they're unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava's prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” -- the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James' preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.") And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don't know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio -- unless she was Sergio? -- and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses. 2. This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life -- age, occupation, place of residence, education -- remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if -- I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear -- De La Pava was certifiably crazy? When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important. As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art -- that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis' The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava's dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. "My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with," he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise "someone might put a bullet in someone's head.” This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero -- on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility -- as matters not just of style, but also of psyche. Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing -- home-cooked empanadas and "school clothes warmed on the radiator” -- suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages -- his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude). Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems -- theology, physics, classical music, math. "My earliest memories are of philosophical problems," he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like "being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals." Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism -- the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. "Boxing, that's my fucking religion," he says. His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses -- the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, "the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical," he says, as opposed to "the faulty process of human beings...I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it." Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. "I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head," he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. "Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?" Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. "I'm not that well-read," was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions -- the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition -- seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He's not that well-read in contemporary fiction. "I have old-fashioned taste.” Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace -- but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read "all the nonfiction." Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity's Rainbow "turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.” In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was "pretty terrible" at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls "Bodega Heights," and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. "I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow -- a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring -- vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles -- into something "nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel. 3. "When I write, I almost begin with the end product," De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. "It's similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first." And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he'd been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven's Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?” This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels' (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava's indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel's close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this -- singular, urgent, commanding -- are supposed to be what good editors live for. As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there's an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It's this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he'd drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down. 4. “I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that "This wasn't The Old Man and the Sea." A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011). Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist...and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation's poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week. 5. This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There's also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use. And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi's desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it's a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he's preparing to file, "I'm determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least," we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder. "Achingly beautiful and effective and important:" I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he'd achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame. Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one's own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. "That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things," he said. "The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey. Bonus link: "Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List" by Edan Lepucki Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: "A Day's Sail" Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
Last weekend I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as both a reader and an author. This means I bought too many books and longed for about a zillion others; made eyes at Susan Straight and Cheryl Strayed; ate free food in the green room; and moderated a panel about fiction writing. After two days of rubbing elbows with my fellow bookworms (and eating so many tiny sandwiches I began to smell like one), I was ready, come Monday, for my role as solitary book giver on World Book Night. It was going to be just me, a box of books, and Pico Boulevard. I was kind of scared. As its website explains, "World Book Night is a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities across America to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23." The program began last year in the U.K. to great success, and the literary holiday will hopefully reach even more countries by 2013. To become a giver, I had to apply. I recall promising to offer books to my local mechanics and barbers, and to anyone who might be wandering diverse PicFair Village, the mid-city neighborhood I call home. I requested to pass out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which was just one of 30 titles to choose from. Last Thursday, I took my 10-month-old son, Dixon Bean, to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park to pick up my copies. Before handing them over, proprietor James Fugate had me sign a form promising to do right by the World Book Night folks. I solemnly swore to pass the novel out on the 23rd, and I was not to sell or dispose of any leftover copies. Outside the store, a playwright named Reginald helped me load the books and the stroller into my car, and when I told him what I was up to, he said, "I should read more." Why is it that everyone always talks of reading like it's vitamin-taking? To be honest, after the nerd-love-in that is the Festival of Books, I was prepared for Monday to be a real letdown. I kept imagining people shaking their heads at my offer, or worse, yelling, "Get out of my face, bee-otch!" (Why do so many of my imagined scenarios star this line of dialogue?). As a way to protect myself, and to disarm strangers, I decided to bring Bean along for the giving. (We changed the name to World Book Day. I think this is allowed.) First, he and I practiced giving out books in the living room. I thought it would be cute if he walked the books in his push-cart, but he's not the most productive traveler, so after a few rehearsals, we settled on the stroller. And off we went! To my delight, the books went fast. As promised, I passed out copies to the mechanics at the auto body shop on the corner, but since it was before 10 a.m. (World Book Morning?), all the barber shops were still closed. I got rid of three copies at the bus stop, one of which went to a woman with a butterfly tattoo -- on her face. (So weird and feminine/masculine, you guys!). I handed a few to some dog walkers, and one to my neighbor. I was amazed by how many people said "yes" immediately, without even hearing what the book was. It reminded me of my father's favorite saying, "If it's free, take it." Others eyed me and the baby skeptically, as if trying to discern if we were members of a religious cult. One guy thought I was offering him a book I had written -- and it was clear he did not want that. I found myself exclaiming, "This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!" -- and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference. The best thing to say about the book, though, was, "It's about a fat nerd and there's lots of Spanish slang." People loved that. The goal of World Book Night is to give books to non-readers. The rules specifically state that the books "are not for those who already read books regularly." This is why, I assume, the selection of 30 books are real crowd-pleasers, from Bel Canto to The Hunger Games. These are beloved books that have already been passed fervently from one reader to the next; they aren't hard to enjoy. The hope is that someone might fall in love with a book they received from a stranger -- and voila, a life-long reader is born. This makes a lot of sense to me, and yet, it's tricky for a giver. I found it awkward, even condescending, to ask, "Are you a big reader?" before I told a person what I had to offer. And I was uncomfortable with the realization that I was asking this question in the high-end coffee shop -- and not to the people at the bus stop. One time, I offered the book to a guy without asking about his literary proclivities, and when he saw what it was, he got so excited. "Oh! I love his stories in The New Yorker!" I couldn't very well refuse to give him the book after that, could I? By the end of our giving, I was exhausted, but also uplifted. It's hard to approach strangers, but it feels good to give something you love to the world, especially when the world is so thrilled to receive it. I keep imagining one of the people I met opening up her copy of Oscar Wao -- perhaps as she sips a Cappuccino, or settles in for a long bus ride -- and reading the first sentence: They say it first came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. And like that, she's sucked into Junot Diaz's strange, funny, naughty, beautiful world. All it takes is one book. And one reader. Image courtesy of the author.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 5 months 2. 2. The Enemy 3 months 3. 3. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 6 months 4. 5. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 4 months 5. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 3 months 6. 8. The Hunger Games 5 months 7. 9. A Moment in the Sun 2 months 8. - Leaves of Grass 1 month 9. 10. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 2 months 10. - A Dance with Dragons 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us. And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 4 months 2. 4. The Enemy 2 months 3. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 5 months 4. 3. The Imperfectionists 6 months 5. 6. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 3 months 6. 8. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 2 months 7. 7. Skippy Dies 6 months 8. 10. The Hunger Games 4 months 9. - A Moment in the Sun 1 month 10. - Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens' "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals - Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own - will be an interesting trend to watch. Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles's massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer's collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer's second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger's Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 3 months 2. 2. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 4 months 3. 3. The Imperfectionists 5 months 4. - The Enemy 1 month 5. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 6 months 6. 9. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 2 months 7. 5. Skippy Dies 5 months 8. - The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 1 month 9. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 6 months 10. - The Hunger Games 3 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King retains our top spot, but that's not where the real action was this month. In May, a pair of new titles debuted and a third returned to our list after previously slipping off. The biggest news story of May was the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, and that event was the catalyst for the first appearance of a "Kindle Single" (or any e-book original, for that matter) on our list. Clearly, many readers wanted Christopher Hitchens' take on this event, and Amazon managed to lock down the 17-page essay he produced. The Enemy would have appeared as a magazine piece not too long ago and would likely have therefore been pretty ephemeral. It will be interesting to see if this essay's status as a Kindle Single affords it any staying power. Also debuting was The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which our staffer Janet Potter reviewed this month. Returning to our list after a one-month hiatus is YA bestseller The Hunger Games, whose return was perhaps spurred by headlines surrounding the casting of the upcoming film version of the book. The other big mover was Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, climbing three spots. As I wrote last month, Only Millions readers would make a book of rhetoric a bestseller. Departing from our list were The Finkler Question, Cardinal Numbers, and Unfamiliar Fishes. Finkler's Booker glory has faded; Cardinal Numbers was touted in these pages by Sam Lipsyte, but that was back in December; and Unfamiliar Fishes, with its somewhat obscure topic, lost some steam after the book's initial publicity push waned. Other Near Misses: A Moment in the Sun, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. See Also: Last month's list
Led by Millions Top Tenner The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, dystopia is unseating vampires as the dominant theme in teen fiction, according to The Independent. The paper lists several other examples of the hot new trend, including Plague by Michael Grant and Matched by Ally Condie. (We'd argue that with dystopian classics like 1984 and Lord of the Flies on teen reading lists for decades, this is an old trend that's new again.)
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Pale King 1 month 2. 8. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 2 months 3. 1. The Imperfectionists 3 months 4. 2. Atlas of Remote Islands 4 months 5. 3. Skippy Dies 3 months 6. 5. Cardinal Numbers 4 months 7. 6. The Finkler Question 5 months 8. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 4 months 9. 10. The Hunger Games 2 months 10. - Unfamiliar Fishes 1 month I knew it would end up atop our list, just not this month. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King debuts in the top spot, based only on those early pre-orders shipping from Amazon. Our other debut is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here on The Millions last week. Thanks to the generous interest of many Millions readers, the book I co-edited The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books vaults to the second spot on our March list (I hope everyone's enjoying it!). Graduating to our Hall of Fame is one of last summer's big books, Emma Donoghue's Room, and getting bumped from the list after a brief stay is the Mark Twain Autobiography. Other Near Misses: Lord of Misrule, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Just Kids, and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. The Imperfectionists 2 months 2. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 3 months 3. 8. Skippy Dies 2 months 4. 5. Room 6 months 5. 7. Cardinal Numbers 3 months 6. 10. The Finkler Question 4 months 7. 9. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 3 months 8. - The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 1 month 9. - Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 1 month 10. - The Hunger Games 1 month Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who's picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. A Visit from the Goon Squad 6 months 2. 1. Freedom 6 months 3. - The Imperfectionists 1 month 4. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 2 months 5. 3. Room 5 months 6. 6. Super Sad True Love Story 6 months 7. 8. Cardinal Numbers 2 months 8. - Skippy Dies 1 month 9. 10. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 2 months 10. 9. The Finkler Question 3 months Goon Squad! In the last month on our list before they graduate to the Hall of Fame, Jennifer Egan's underdog A Visit from the Goon Squad toppled Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for our top spot. Egan's book started with a lot of buzz last summer, and that buzz grew deafening over the course of 2010 (and into 2011) as it became the book to read among discerning fans of contemporary literature. Meanwhile, after months knocking on the door, Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (not coincidentally just out in paperback) rockets onto our list with a debut appearance in third spot. Our other debut is another book that's been much discussed around here, Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Rachman participated in our Year in Reading this year, as did Murray. Those two debuts took the spots vacated by our latest Hall of Fame inductees, a pair of summer reads that stayed hot as the weather got cold, Justin Cronin's vampire tale The Passage and Tana French's thriller Faithful Place. Near Misses: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Hunger Games, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 5 months 2. 3. A Visit from the Goon Squad 5 months 3. 6. (tie) Room 4 months 4. - Atlas of Remote Islands 1 month 5. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 6 months 6. 4. Super Sad True Love Story 5 months 7. 8. The Passage 6 months 8. - Cardinal Numbers 1 month 9. 9. The Finkler Question 2 months 10. - Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 1 month During the month of December, The Millions was flooded with book recommendations thanks to our Year in Reading series. Many of these recommendations piqued the interest of our readers, and a pair of hidden gems were intriguing enough to make it into our Top Ten. One was Anthony Doerr's effusive praise for Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and the other was Sam Lipsyte's unearthing of the late and little known Hob Broun and his Gordon Lish-edited book Cardinal Numbers. A third debut in December was Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, her hotly anticipated follow up to Seabiscuit that was noted with an "AAAH!" in December by Sam Anderson. December also graduated a pair of books to our Hall of Fame, the second such honor for each of the authors. Joining Cloud Atlas as an all-time Millions favorite is David Mitchell's newest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Meanwhile, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a second inductee from the late Stieg Larsson's global sensation, the Millennium Trilogy Finally, it's worth noting that after many months of skewing male, our list has acheived gender parity, with four of the top five books penned by female writers. Don't be surprised if Jennifer Egan's breakout hit A Visit from the Goon Squad eclipses Jonathan Franzen's Freedom next month for our top spot. Near Misses: Skippy Dies, The Imperfectionists, The Hunger Games, The Autobiography of Mark Twain , and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. See Also: Last month's list
My big project over the last year has been (finally) reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, about which nothing really need be said. I have, however, taken periodic Proust breaks and read novels that don’t require 10,000 hours of uninterrupted attention. I could list a dozen or more good novels I’ve read, but a particular favorite was Emma Donoghue’s Room, which concerns a young woman and her five-year-old son who are kept captive by a psychopath in a single room. It’s amazing what Donoghue is able to do within that tiny physical space. If we were worried (and I don’t think we should be) about a lack of originality and ambition in contemporary novels, here’s one that conjures an enormous story out of simple, even miniature, circumstances. I also tremendously enjoyed a young adult novel called The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which imagines a future world in which children are selected to fight to the death, for a vast TV audience. It’s well-written, completely engrossing, and involves a kick-ass girl who never needs to be rescued by the boys. What’s not to like about that? More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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
Home, Marilynne Robinson: I loved Gilead, and it is a pleasure and feels like a gift to spend time with this prose. Reading Robinson, for me, takes a lot of focus, and I find myself rereading lines often, but the reward for this pace is a calmness lifting up off the pages, and a careful generous dipping into a deep and beautiful well. She is the opposite and maybe even an antidote to fast-paced technology. Big Machine, Victor LaValle: A wonderfully interesting and resonant read. Two scenes in this book in particular are still so vivid to me that I could probably tell you about them in detail without glancing at the pages; they are etched on the brain. When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead and The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins: Two satisfying, inventive, page-turning YA reads. About a Mountain, John D'Agata: The momentum he builds, by the end! The layering, the surprises, the way he does not use the double space break... somehow this book feels like he's thinking/dreaming up facts on the spot; they are that available to the prose, that effortlessly flowing along. Dearest Creature, Amy Gerstler: There's an amazing poem about a dog's view on shit that is full of dignity and depth. But I kept rereading the first poem-- it took awhile to move past it, I found it so moving. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway: I'd never read this one before-- still am thinking about what a simple, deep story he tells. The story has the classic mythic feel of a long-lasting fable or tale, in how it's hard to imagine it didn't exist before-- like he plucked it off a tree, or dug it from the ground. But it's also a complicated study of regret and disappointment and aging, so even though the plot movement is direct and unfussy, there's real nuance in what lingers with a reader. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 4 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 6 months 3. 5. A Visit from the Goon Squad 4 months 4. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 4 months 5. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 6 months 6. (tie) 6. Room 3 months 6. (tie) 8. Faithful Place 5 months 8. 7. The Passage 5 months 9. - The Finkler Question 1 month 10. 10. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 6 months November saw Booker-winner The Finkler Question, which we reviewed here, debut on our list. Last year's Booker winner Wolf Hall also landed on our list after being awarded the prize and ended up in our Hall of Fame. Speaking of which, another prizewinner, Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers is the newest inductee into our hallowed hall. Meanwhile, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen retains our top spot, while Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Super Sad True Love Story continue to surge higher on a wave of interest from Millions readers. Near Misses: The Hunger Games, The Imperfectionists, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and The Gone-Away World. See Also: Last month's list