The Line of Beauty: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.)

For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry — I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough — Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages.

The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try.

Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you!

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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The Prizewinners 2013/2014

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist.

Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year?

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
>6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – P, C
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

Winning Over James Wood

1.
This is an essay about the genius of James Wood, the literary critic at The New Yorker, and how it influenced the novel I’m about to publish.

Unfortunately even writing that sentence makes me feel uneasy. Enough people already like James Wood; enough people hate him, too. And while there are instances of novelists who admit to being influenced by critics – the most famous recent one is probably Michael Chabon deciding to expand the scope of his work after Jonathan Yardley praised his gifts but criticized the narrowness of their use – there’s something unsavory in that reversal, something suggestible and therefore at odds with the single-mindedness and determination that I associate (perhaps wrongly?) with good fiction.

Still, there’s the truth to deal with. When people ask me about influence I don’t think of the living writers I like best – David Lodge, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Rush. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out, by the time they reach maturity most novelists have moved beyond the stage of direct influence. What I think about instead is James Wood: his emphasis on precision in language, his (implicit and brave) rejection of the intentional fallacy and consequent belief that he can ascertain an author’s aim, his rejection of vague or lyrical cant.

But that uneasiness! I feel it. And therefore maybe it would be best to start with an inoculation – the things that are wrong with James Wood. I’ve compiled a list in my mind over the years.

James Wood has a terrible sense of humor.

Here’s a passage that Wood describes as “sublimely funny,” about how a character in Hardy called Cain Ball was named:
O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking ‘twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ‘twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother…She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem.
Only a deranged person could find this sublimely funny, even using the least general definition of the word sublime. It’s maybe faintly amusing in the donnish, ironic, humorless manner of a letter to the Economist. But the simple fact is that Hardy wrote a century and more ago, and humor is the least durable form of human communication. Someone is being born out there right now who will find it bizarre that I consider The Forty-Year Old Virgin funny, and in all but the most exceptional cases, P.G. Wodehouse for instance, comedy fades after ten or fifteen years.

So to conclude, I’ve read a lot of James Wood, and whenever he finds something funny it’s a sure sign that it’s not funny.

James Wood seems naïve about art.

One of the interesting little ghosts in the James Wood machine is his sophisticated and perceptive love of music, which was the subject that earned him a scholarship to Eton.

But his intermittent mentions of art are embarrassing. There are a few examples of this (including one nails-on-a-blackboard invocation of Andy Warhol) but the worst for me is in an essay on Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in which he describes a series of paintings as “exquisite and enigmatic.” What the hell is that? It’s unlike Wood to use such uninteresting words, the words a docent at a regional art museum might use, but there they are in print. “Exquisite,” in particular. It tells us nothing about the pictures, and worse, it implies that beauty is the metric by which to judge art. In an essay about one of the least stylistically beautiful (and one of the most stylistically interesting) writers alive!

James Wood is obsessed with character names.

About Revolutionary Road, he writes, “Frank is anything but frank, and springlike April will die in the fall.”

Okay.

Or of a character named Adam Morey in The Privileges, a book about, unsurprisingly perhaps, privilege, he says “the name suggesting both ‘money’ and ‘more’ of it.”

Oh, thanks James Wood!

So there you have it – I’m out now. I guess he sometimes chases the strong, vibrant language that he so admires in novelists. He can be unattractively dogmatic.

But the most honest thing to say is that the way he sees fiction has changed the way I see fiction. Whether he’s funny doing it or not.

2.
What makes James Wood great? One thing is his willingness to quote at length, and it seems only fair to grant him the same courtesy. Here is the long first paragraph of his review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a review that I think should be handed out on the first day of every MFA program.
Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine — what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel The Line of Beauty (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance.
This is not a particularly original passage of criticism – for one thing re-description sounds an awful lot like defamiliarization. But it has two qualities I associate with Wood. First, it’s absolutely correct; he’s a great reader, whether you like him or not. This passage is itself a re-description of a sentence one might easily have passed without noticing. Second, it’s a close reading that is attuned to the significance of language within fiction.

The second point is the significant one. In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language.

I attribute this generation of writers’ embrace of non-narrative and extra-narrative observation at least in part to Wood. From his first days at the Guardian he’s been a persistent and sometimes lonely advocate for Hardy and Lawrence’s brand of language-based realism. (The writers he’s criticized over the years – Richard Powers, A.S. Byatt, Paul Auster, this last to devastating effect – often have an element of magic in their works, and a fair criticism of Wood might be that he restricts his affections to books that even when they are fanciful make total sense, which sounds like a fair metric until you think about it.)

To pick out language for special attention might seem like an affectation in a critic of fiction. Language is important in a novel, obviously, but less so than in poetry, where the sense of distillation makes it overarchingly vital. Novels should have room for mess and digression, the way life does – and in my opinion they should also have some speed, which precious language can check.

But what seems to me to make Wood such an important critic is that he doesn’t care about language simply for itself, even when he cites its beauty, as in Hollinghurst’s case, but, crucially, as an indicator of a novel’s quality of thought. That seems to me to be his central insight: that since language is our only point of access to a writer’s intentions, its care or carelessness is the first test we ought to take of a book’s merit, and more than that our greatest clue to the quality of their thoughts. “Intelligence is not mere ‘smartness,’” he writes at one point, “but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the book.”

This – the division between smartness and thought – is where Wood’s brain began to work on my own.

3.
In the spring of 2011 I was living in Oxford, doing halfhearted work on a doctorate (its subject was false genealogies in the work of Edmund Spenser; film rights still available) and working intensely on the final third of a novel about the city, where by then I’d lived for nearly three years. One day I read that Wood was going to be in town, to deliver a series of six lectures on fiction at St. Anne’s College.

I went to all six, excited to hear him speak. They were intermittently terrific; it seemed to me that he was strongest in his readings of contemporary writers, where the weight of academic thought had yet to settle. In particular his lectures on Melville and Woolf were perceptive in parts but also seemed less persuasive in that academic setting, and I was reminded that in a very real way criticism is journalism, a first, delible draft of literary history. That was Wood’s strength, I thought: getting a living writer just right for a literate but not professional audience. His opinion of Orwell seemed less vital to me than his opinion of Ben Lerner.

Around the same time I read How Fiction Works, his short guide to (truth in advertising) how fiction works. Though that book was genial company it made very little impact on me, probably because I was already aware of the existence of free indirect speech, which Wood discovered in the same way that Columbus discovered America – long after it was settled terrain. Combined with the good-but-not-great lectures, the effect of the book was to lessen his importance in my mind. It wasn’t as if he was the only critic I liked, anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read a word Zoe Heller wrote that I didn’t love. Dwight Garner was never boring.

Then a funny thing happened.

By June I had finished my novel about Oxford. It was under contract to a publisher and I took some time away from it, two or three months, because I wanted to return and edit it with fresh eyes. When I went back to it late in the summer I felt pleased with the book from sentence to sentence, and with its characters. But I started to have a terrible, itchy, and at first seemingly irrelevant thought: James Wood would dislike this book.

This was truly stupid, I thought at first. You might write for yourself, or some ideal reader, but never for a critic.

But then my thought clarified into something worse: James Wood would dislike this book and he would be correct.

There were two levels to this realization. The first was the level of language, and I experienced it as I edited from line to line, like those fibrillations you feel in a muscle just as you’re falling asleep: I would pass by a sentence and then startle back toward it, realizing the fatal slackness of its language. Where I thought I had been precise I had been quick, where I thought I had been quick and free I had been inexcusably careless. (Wallace Stegner put it so well – hard writing makes for easy reading, and the reverse.) I began to edit much more fastidiously, not in accordance with what I thought Wood would like (I wasn’t that far gone) but with what sounded like the truth. If, for instance, I had a character “crunch through the snow” in my first draft, now I would stop and think. Was there any vitality left in that word, “crunch”? Where had I received it?  Was it the best word I could think to describe the sound of shoes in the snow? What about the little shreds of wisdom (“fail better” was one I can recall cutting) that had been hollowed of meaning by familiarity?

The second level of that Woodian realization, and the less agonizing, more liberating one, was about a subtler idea: withholding.

That is one of Wood’s own words, an attribute he values enormously in a writer. Reticence might be another thing to call it. In his assessment (one of his most profound to me) of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, he writes:
And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz.
As I read through The Last Enchantments – as my book was and is called – I began to see how catastrophically little I had withheld. Partially this was a fault of using the first person, a choice that I began to look on with dismay. My narrator analyzed every gesture of the people around him, and was constantly checking in on his own thoughts. He also explained the emotional significance of all the interactions he had, as if he were writing for a child.

So I began to cut as ruthlessly as possible, and just as importantly to elide plot, to remove connective tissue, to cede control of the book to the reader. As with the language, it wasn’t a slavish choice, taken in obeisance to James Wood’s critical opinion. Instead, it was that he had, as in the opening to his Hollinghurst review, illuminated an idea I already understood in my mind – that the best texts are writerly, per Barthes – but had never cared all that much about, until I relearned it through his gift for instantiating abstractions through criticism. How rare that seemed to me at the time, and seems still, in a critic.

I spent that whole fall of 2011 cutting and rewriting my novel. By the end of it I felt nearly sick with anxiety over the process. Still, I forced myself to take another few months away from it, and when I returned again I realized, with a tremendous exhalation of relief, that it was a better book now. When I finished reading the last draft I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York, and I can remember, though it sounds bizarre, thinking of James Wood – and feeling grateful to him.

Also, and not irrelevantly, on that day I remember thinking that even after all of my changes he would see the book as a failure. A few months away from publication, I still do, for reasons I’ll describe now.

4.
Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written, “he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”

The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. The fact of the matter is that language and elision – the lessons that James Wood reshaped and renewed for me as I was editing – are important, but they’re still not as important as conception. As I look upon my book as a finished object, preparing to exchange it for money with people out in the world, I can’t help but feel its conception risks too little. (I should say I don’t think risk means formal radicalism – Alice Munro, to me, is a far riskier writer than, say, John Barth, because her stories rely on her perception of human psychology, which when written falsely is disastrous.) The Last Enchantments seems to exist too much within the contours of books that I’ve loved in the past, both long ago (Brideshead Revisited) and not that long ago (The Line of Beauty). That may sound odd, since at the outset of this essay I specifically disavowed the direct influence of other novelists, but I don’t mean that the books were influential on my own. I mean that I accepted the terms of other writers too easily – their view of the world. My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough.

Of course this is a common tactical retreat. Every writer must feel his last book is the worst one ever, and I don’t know how I’ll come to judge this one when I’ve traveled farther away from it. I’m working on something now that is riskier, or feels riskier to me, but it could be that I’ll look back on it with far greater regret than I do on The Last Enchantments. At any rate it’s certain that I’ll look back on it with regret. It seems impossible to me not to. Iris Murdoch said it best: every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.

This returns me to James Wood. Almost no subject on earth has more nonsense mysticism attached to it than writing. I think perhaps in the end what he has given me is the feeling that any real work of literature is underwritten not by inspiration, or genius, but by actual thought – actual work – actual choice. In every line of his criticism, Wood searches for the real work that an author is doing, rather than the most generous possible reading of its brilliance. No wonder his highest praise for Lydia Davis is for her “relentless control” of her work, which “gives it an implacable Beckettian power.”

The fact that this praise gets right is that writers live within the borders of their choices. That is the lesson I owe James Wood for teaching me, better than I was able to teach it to myself. Critics should never determine what a writer should write, of course. But writers shouldn’t be proud, either; they should take their lessons where they can find them. Read with the craft in mind, Wood can give a writer who pays attention the wherewithal to write with greater care, to take greater risks, and therefore ultimately to – one more time, why not – fail better.

The Prizewinners 2012/2013

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain’s major literary awards (though the book hasn’t quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year.

Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The Prizewinners 2011/12

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The Literary Pedigree of Downton Abbey

In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.

In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)

The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.

I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)

Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.

It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.

Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”

Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.

It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.

But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.

To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)

Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.

The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.

In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This was the year my son became a toddler — which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called “How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits” … along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it “Reviews I Did Not Write This Year.”

1. Game-Changer
The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding — and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an “Ecology of Mind”, e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking…) But Bateson’s method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject — alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises — toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, “Systems Theory,” which is another, uglier name for “Ecology of Mind,” comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that it changed my life.

2. Novels
Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I guess there’s no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it’s either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism … or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don’t take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson’s. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it’s a pricey import.)

The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy’s style — his “port-wine irony,” as Pritchett puts it — looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy’s astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class.

3. Addendum
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it’s done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste.

4. Best New Fiction
As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that’s a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go ’60s rather than the go-go ’80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the ’60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn’t have. It’s a wistful little f–ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis’ best book … were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.)

IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami’s temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who’s going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, “simple meals,” crazy religious cults, and “little people”? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn’t wait to get back.

5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees
A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn’t be more unlike IQ84. It’s short, for one thing — I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It’s wickedly funny, for another (writers’ colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it’s just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year’s resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012.

Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc’s The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon — an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc’s comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange.

The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn’t mean what you’d think it means. Basically, you just have to read it.

6. Omissions
Somehow I’ve gotten through the “shorter books” section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too.

7. Nonfiction
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis’ voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis.

8. Pulphead
Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it’s true. The debt to Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven’t read Sullivan’s beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they’re really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm.

I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn’t get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can’t say when you’ll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it’s time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics

Alan Hollinghurst’s work combines the joys of the traditional tropes of the 19th-century novel with a contemporary sensibility unencumbered by the 19th century’s social strictures. The Line of Beauty, his 2004 Booker winner, employed the strategies of a “Jamesian procedure,” he says, in which one writes about a large period of time from the point of view of one person. The result is a series of “social events” that are all filtered through a singular main conscience. But unlike a Henry James novel, The Line of Beauty, a story set in the upper class milieu of Thatcher’s England, includes among these “social events” lyrical descriptions of gay sex. What is suggested by James’ strange use of the word “perverse” in his late story “The Beast in the Jungle” is here made explicit and definitive. There is an argument that the golden age of the novel died with the rise of divorce. A Portrait of a Lady cannot emerge from a society in which an upper-class woman can happily remain single. Hollinghurst’s examinations of gay culture in differing periods may suggest otherwise.

The first third of The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, indulges a pleasure common to recent historical fiction. The book opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance enjoys a day at a fellow Cambridge sodomite’s family estate, where he scratches off a poem in a 16-year-old girl’s album. That poem, thanks to a Churchill speech, becomes a national elegy for England’s World War I dead, of which Cecil becomes a member. In the third and fourth sections of the novel, set respectively in 1967 and 1980, an enterprising writer, Paul Bryant, sets out to write Cecil Valance’s biography in an attempt to uncover the contours of the poet’s sexual lilt. If the early sections of the novel excite our desire to read between the lines of the codes of the past, adopting a style not unlike Evelyn Waugh, but with fewer double entendres, the latter sections call that very desire into question.

I met Hollinghurst at his room at the Grand Hotel on October 27 in Minneapolis, where he was on book tour. The hotel was a hilariously ugly Vegas-like concoction in the city’s downtown. I sat down on an armchair next to a strange coffee table shaped like a silver tree stump. He sat on an office chair at a desk in front of his laptop. We started by chatting about James Wood’s unflattering review of The Stranger’s Child in The New Yorker and I turned my digital recorder on. What follows is a pared-down version of a one-hour conversation.

The Millions: Do you read reviews?

Alan Hollinghurst: I do, unless very strongly warned off them by some kind person. There’s no point in upsetting oneself unnecessarily.

TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?

AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.

TM: When he did the parody of you?

AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

TM: I know you lived a very social life during your time at the Times Literary Supplement. But when you’re in the process of writing novels, you don’t seem to be living a very social life, as far as I can tell. All these profiles describe you as somewhat reclusive.

AH: I do rather play that up for profile writers. (laughs) I’m actually very lazy, and put off doing anything for as long as possible. But a combination of reasons will bring me to my desk. And then when I get on with it, I do get on with it. It is, after all, how I make my living, what I feel I’m supposed to be doing in this life. So I’m then very disciplined. But I have quite a social life in the periods when I’m not writing a novel. This book took me four years to write, but there were quite a few periods during those four years when I wasn’t at my desk.

I love society. And it’s true I used to live a more social life before. Working at the TLS threw me into the whole world of literary parties and book launches, which I used to go to all the time. Like any professional world, the behavior is extremely repetitive in nature. I described in The Stranger’s Child, Paul Bryant having this experience, of going to a party and staggering out at a quarter to nine, drunk, hoping to find someone to have something to eat with. And then having a horrible blur of that night after night. (laughs) So that was a kind of socializing I really quit quite happily. I think as one gets older one just wants to see the people one really likes and not be bothered by all sorts of mere social obligations.

TM: I’m trying to get at the machinery of writing. Joseph Conrad takes a trip around the world and finally settles down to his desk and writes about Africa and Latin America. My assumption had been that you had lived your youth and then decided to sit down and write about what life is like in society.

AH: One has reserves of memory, which is obviously a writer’s main resource, really. It’s not really a problem. I think the way I write I tend to have periods of exposure to life, as it were, where particularly dramatic, thought-provoking or stimulating things might happen. Then there are periods where I withdraw and reflect on them. But it’s not as if I did everything in my youth and then retired to write about it for the rest of my life. Writing is a constantly growing, alternating process. It’s reassuring to know that one still has pockets, areas of one’s life that can still be explored.

TM: There are a lot of holes at the end of this book. There are lingering questions about all sorts of things we realize won’t be answered. When you leave those holes, do you, as the novelist, have them filled in for yourself?

AH: No, I don’t actually. I really want the reader to be left in as great a state of speculation as a lot of the other characters are both [in the earlier sections] and those who weren’t there but were trying to work it out later on [in the later sections].

What to leave out is so important. I like the fun of withholding information, the trickle of disclosure, the distance that might create in the reader.

TM: But does not knowing those things make it harder for you to do your work as a novelist?

AH: Yes, it was very hard. (laughs) But you’re right, if I had written a more substantial outline of all the stuff it might have felt different. But actually being in uncertainties seemed to be somehow part of it. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps I could have written it much more quickly if I had outlined it all.

TM: But did you consciously decide that there were things that you yourself wouldn’t know when you started the book?

AH: Yes, I suppose so. It’s so peculiar talking about unknown things in stuff that is fiction. In a way, I feel I don’t know anything about my books except what’s on the page. It’s not completely true, because in the process of writing there are projected scenes that don’t get written and scenes that do get written that get cut out. So there’s a slight blurring of that idea. People often come up and ask what happened to characters in The Folding Star and it’s not just me being tediously teasing when I say, “I don’t know.”

TM: So there’s Paul Bryant in The Stranger’s Child and Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. They’re similar characters in that they’re likable as we see them. We read them from their point of view. Nick is something of a moral coward. Paul is covered in moral turpitude. In both novels, I’ve heard you say before you don’t like to tip your cards, you don’t like to make moral judgments. And yet there’s a moment at the end of both novels where you snap the reader awake to the point where they realize these characters may be worse than they have been presented as being.

AH: But there’s a complicated moral thing going on. I don’t like to seem as a novelist to be rewarding and punishing. I hope the reader is led on these complicated processes of identifying with the character instead. I deprived Paul of all sorts of things which Nick has. That came from a determination not to keep writing characters who shared all my own enthusiasms and experiences. He has no understanding or appreciation of music at all.

I hoped that in the long confrontation with Daphne in the end, we would have two characters the reader had an inward relationship with and now were head-to-head with each other. Neither behaves terribly well. The reader might not know where their sympathies lie.

TM: But there’s a trigger in both. Why do you wait to the end to give us this little knock?

AH: I guess it seemed to me quite effective. I’m trying to get away from certain novelistic stereotypes not to write books where the last minute revelation of a secret explains everything else. But nonetheless it’s hard to resist putting it in.

TM: I didn’t much care for the television adaptation of The Line of Beauty. I thought the book was very funny, but when I saw the adaptation I saw moment after moment that seemed to suck the comedy dry from the book.

AH: Well it was different in a lot of ways. I did sometimes feel that even the characters who more or less had the lines in the original book didn’t quite seem to get them. It would be a bit invidious to pick out people who don’t live up to my expectation. I think I hear the tone of things in my head and I’m gratified when readers do. But I don’t think they do necessarily. And the shooting script is such an exiguous thing. It’s this tiny little column. The dialogue is so pared-back. I think it worked best in the things that weren’t funny at all. My feeling was it got better after a rather clunky start. I was actually quite moved by the third episode. It’s a very constrictive sort of medium, the TV.

TM: I interviewed Colm Tóibín a few years ago and he went on a rant a bit about John Updike’s infamous review of The Spell. He said that it just showed that Updike had a “super-developed heterosexuality” that just “eats” into his work. I thought I would just let you respond to the review yourself.

AH: Well, it was deplorable in various ways, but I also remember being very amused by it. There was this person who had gone to rather extraordinary lengths in his details of heterosexual sex and for whom the analysis of sexual behavior seemed to be so fundamental to his work as a novelist. But who was giving the impression in this review that everything he knew about homosexuality he gleaned from my novels, like he had never come across it in real life at all. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary, therefore so absurd, the old way he put it about the animating chirp of the female presence or something that he so missed in my books. It was terribly silly. It showed that he had chosen to emphasize his own failure with this large and interesting aspect of human behavior.

TM: You have a lot of very good-looking characters who seem to enjoy this aristocratic privilege of their good looks. I know so many gay men, who no matter how good-looking they are, are extremely uncomfortable with their looks, simply because they are subject to the interests of other men. So why do you keep returning to this character who I don’t believe exists in real life?

AH: (laughs) Yes, well, I suppose vanity is a form of insecurity isn’t it. It’s true. Nick is uncertain about his looks. He looks in a mirror when he’s going on his first date. And he’s seeing what could be attractive to someone else. That’s the fundamental thing that’s happening at that point. But really he is magnetized by what seem to be the greater attractions of other men. Perhaps people rather lose themselves in the worship of beautiful people. You think these characters should be more neurotic? (laughs)

TM: Well, maybe it’s again what I like about your books. There’s a certain indulgence of fantasy and then a deconstruction of it. You have these characters for whom the obtaining of and the act of sex is so easy.

AH: Well, I’ll certainly ponder it when I write my next book. There’s a yearning for a world of superb sex and beauty, but there’s often quite a lot of anxiety and comedy about the failure to attain that. Will’s adventures in The Swimming-Pool Library are quite farcical

TM: In your profiles you say you don’t want to be seen as a gay writer. I guess the best defense of that is that you don’t wish to be seen as a herald of your people.

AH: Yes, I don’t feel able or have any desire to take on any representative role or take on anyone else’s agenda. I always wanted to write my own books about rather odd people. This came up again recently in an interview in The Guardian with someone who didn’t really understand what I meant. I was so hoping that we could get beyond the whole gay writer thing now, which I feel stuck in. It’s a very changed sexual world in which we live now. It’s changed a lot from when I started writing. [Being gay] just wasn’t such a significant thing anymore. But I’m afraid the interviewer adhered to the type of broad-minded straight bloke who had come to interview this demon of perversity and that was the story. There’s a strong desire in the media to maintain these types. I believe that article was entitled “Sex on the Brain.” And there was nothing in it about sex. [It was] the idea that gay books have to be dangerously and obsessively sexual.

TM: But being dangerous is part of what has made being gay a rich and interesting literary subject for so long. So if it ceases to be dangerous can an interesting novel still be written about homosexuality?

AH: I see your point absolutely. I think that’s why I keep going back to write about periods in which being gay was more challenging, more emphatically critical of the status quo. That thing E.M. Forster said about Maurice that being gay is what saved him because it turned him into a critic of his own society. That’s always been rather fundamental to me actually.

But I was bored with the association of gayness and licentiousness in the straight imagination. I feel a certain thinness in the social subject of gayness at the present moment.

TM: Do you laugh at your own jokes when you write?

AH: Yes. But not absurdly…Wit is a quality which I really appreciate in novelists. I don’t mean telling jokes. You get it in James. You get it in George Eliot. This wonderful play of intelligence which I really prize, which often finds things funny in something more serious. That’s something I admire and strive to maintain.

The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child

I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.

But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)

The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)

The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.

The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.

At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:

She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.

A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.

A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?

We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2011 Booker Longlist

With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2011 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is usually the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The lone past winner (for The Line of Beauty) is Alan Hollinghurst, and longlisters Sebastian Barry and Julian Barnes have gotten shortlist nods in the past. At the other end of the experience specturm, four debut novelists make the list: Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards, and Patrick McGuinness.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (excerpt [pdf])
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (excerpt)
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)
Far to Go by Alison Pick
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

The Prizewinners 2010/2011

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, P
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

A Year In Reading: Jenny Davidson

Fifteen things about my year in reading:

1.   My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles.  Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.

2.  My other most immersive reading experience, magically transporting in a perfectly satisfying fashion: rereading War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

3.  The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

4.  The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.

5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

6.  Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great.  The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.

7.  The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

8.  The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design.  The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.

9.  The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse.  In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)

10.  I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.

11.  Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.

12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.

13.   Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books.  (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)

14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.

15. In September, I got a Kindle.  It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better.  The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.

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

The Prizewinners 2009/2010

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson’s Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

Of Lists, Generally

Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time – which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile – we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”

The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.

Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to – lists that not only collect objects but rank them – would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):

They are always incomplete – either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?

Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “Best Of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred – one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself – but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.

Of One List, More Particularly

We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, – as Gass knows – is fun.

We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.

Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant – logically, unfairly – that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.

Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.

Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.

To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.

We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.

Can Anything Be Learned from a List?

For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections,  and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.

Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free – for better or for worse – with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.

Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list – a piece of potential evidence to mull over – seemed to increase the volume and the heat.

Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.

Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.

Of Lists, Personally

As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.

As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.

To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.

I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose – either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit – an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.

The Prizewinners 2008/2009

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.

Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic.

Here is our methodology:

I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N
4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – C, N
4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – B, I
4, 2007, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha – B, I
4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N
4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I
4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I
4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C
4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W
4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C
4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C
4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I
4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I
4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P
4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W
4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N
4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P
4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W
4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I
4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W
4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P
4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I
4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W
4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I
4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I
4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W
4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W
4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N
4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I
4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W

The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland

The Prizewinners Revisited

A while back, I put together a post called “The Prizewinners,” which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the “best” books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original “Prizewinners” post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W

The Prizewinners

The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one’s yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year’s National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of “big name” literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I’d love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)

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