The Sellout: A Novel

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ruffin, Kim, Tshuma, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Un-su Kim, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great bookscoverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Cast a Shadow: “Ruffin’s brilliant, semisatirical debut stars an unnamed narrator who’s all but consumed by his blackness. Forced to become the ‘committed to diversity’ face of his law firm and the pawn of an insidious ad campaign headed by powerful, flirtatious shareholder Octavia Whitmore, the narrator suffers through one indignity after another. He endures a routinely racist police stop and learns that Octavia ‘fantasized about wearing blackface’ and then there’s the historical revisionism at the school his mixed-race teenage son Nigel attends, where teachers insist that ‘every schoolboy knows the Civil War didn’t start because of slavery.’ The narrator only wants Nigel to be spared the dread of being young and black in America. In fact, he’s been forcing Nigel to apply skin-lightening cream over the objections of his wife, Penny, and is planning to submit Nigel to an experimental plastic surgery procedure that he hopes will visibly erase his heritage and break the long chain of prisons, prejudice, and limited career options that characterize the narrator’s own forebears (his father is incarcerated, a fact that brings the narrator nothing but shame). And yet this is only the setup for a story that suddenly incorporates the violent interventions of a militarized cell of protesters, and hastens the narrator, Nigel, Penny, and Octavia toward a set of separate fates that are both harrowing and inevitable. Though Ruffin’s novel is in the vein of satires like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and the film Get Out, it is more bracingly realistic in rendering the divisive policies of contemporary America, making for a singular and unforgettable work of political art.”

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about House of Stone: “Set in 2007 Zimbabwe, Tshuma’s darkly humorous debut follows Zamani, a 20-something lodger who decides to integrate himself into the lives of his landlords after their teenage son, Bukhosi, vanishes while accompanying Zamani to an anti-Mugabe political rally. As parents Abednego and Agnes search for the teen and emotionally tailspin, Zamani begins calling the duo his surrogate parents and listens to their histories. After plying recovering alcoholic Abednego with booze and drugs over several nights, Zamani learns of the man’s first love, Thandi, as well as Abednego’s involvement in an unsolved murder. The lodger manipulates Agnes into talking, after a drunk Abednego beats her one evening, and hears of his surrogate mother’s own first love, a reverend, and of her arranged marriage to Abednego. Zamani strings his host family along by creating a fake Facebook account for Bukhosi and sending reassuring messages from the boy, all the while working to take Bukhosi’s place in the family’s home—his motivations for which are revealed late in the story. Though the tangents are sometimes overlong, Tshuma’s novel bounces through time and bursts with an epic’s worth of narratives. This is a clever, entertaining novel.”

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Plotters: “Korean author Kim makes his U.S. debut with a powerful, surreal political thriller, in which assassination is a business ‘driven by market forces.’ The faceless plotters of the title employ hit men such as Reseng, an orphan found in a garbage can who was adopted by a man called Old Raccoon. The bookish Reseng grows up in Old Raccoon’s library—a place ‘crawling with assassins, hired guns and bounty hunters.’ In the first chapter, Reseng kills a retired general from the days of South Korea’s military junta after spending a sociable evening at the old man’s house. The complex plot, in which Reseng becomes involved with a more polished, CEO-like hit man named Hanja, builds to a highly cinematic and violent denouement. Most memorable, though, is the novel’s message about the insidiousness of unaccountable institutions, from those under the military junta to those that thrive in today’s economy. The consequence of the pervasive corruption is an air of existential despair. This strange, ambitious book will appeal equally to literary fiction readers.”

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The End of Loneliness: “Wells’s satisfying first book to be translated into English hints at an answer to a struggle most people confront—being, or feeling, alone—but ultimately suggests there isn’t one. The story is the account of three siblings: Jules Moreau, the narrator, and his older siblings Liz and Marty. The trio lose their parents in a car accident when Jules is 11, and all move from Munich to boarding school. They grow apart; Marty throws himself into his studies, and Liz falls in with a fast crowd. Jules retreats into himself, until he meets Alva, another child dealing with family troubles of her own. Alva and Jules are inseparable for years; but when their friendship hints at becoming romantic, Alva balks for reasons even she can’t articulate, and they fall out of touch. Jules tells his story retrospectively, until his narration catches up to his present, in which he is drawn back into Alva’s complicated life when she unexpectedly answers an email of his and invites him to visit her. Touching and timeless, the story is expertly and evocatively rendered, in prose both beautiful and sparse enough to cut clearly to the question at the novel’s heart: how one copes with loss that isn’t—or doesn’t have to be—permanent.”


The Falconer by Dana Czapnik
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Falconer: “In her flawed first novel, Czapnik recreates the New York City of 1993 as seen through the eyes of Lucy Adler, an Upper West Side high school student who lives for basketball. Lucy is a member of her school’s girls’ basketball team and also plays pickup games in Riverside Park—where she is often the sole girl on the court—with her wealthy friend, Percy Abney, who seems oblivious to the fact that Lucy is in love with him. Also playing major roles in Lucy’s life are her best friend and teammate, Alexis Feliz, and two downtown female artists, Violet and Max, who share an apartment in SoHo and impart to Lucy important lessons about life, love, and art. Lucy spends most of the book wandering around Manhattan, giving her story a plotless feel. And Lucy and her friends sound way too mature and savvy for their teenage years. (Lucy, for instance, describes a character having a beard ‘that belongs on a Hasidic rabbi from Warsaw circa 1934.’) Despite a lived-in sense of place, this coming-of-age novel seems to be about jaded young characters who have already come of age, leaving them—and the reader—with little room for emotional development.”

Black Is the Body by Emily Bernard
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Is the Body: “Bernard, a University of Vermont professor of English and race and ethnic studies, intimately explores her life through the lens of race in this contemplative and compassionate collection of personal essays. As a Yale graduate student, Bernard was the victim of a mass stabbing, an event at the center of the book’s opening essay, ‘Beginnings,’ and her premise that writing about and remembering a traumatic past is a process ‘fundamental in black American experience.’ She aims to ‘contribute something to the American racial drama besides the enduring narrative of black innocence and white guilt,’ in essays that include ‘Teaching the N-Word’ and ‘Motherland,’ about adopting and raising two girls from Ethiopia with her white husband. Bernard’s voice throughout is personable yet incisive in exploring the lived reality of race. By examining her family’s Southern roots and her present life in Vermont, in ‘Interstates,’ she explores the differences and the bridge between white and black in her life. In ‘Black Is the Body,’ a beautiful reflection on racial difference and disparities, she acknowledges how race has informed ‘everything I do, and everything I write.’ Bernard’s wisdom and compassion radiate throughout this thoughtful collection.”

Laird Hunt Grapples with the Past: The Millions Interview

1.
I read a lot, and so do you.  We read books, and we read about books.  Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.

This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month.  Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier.  In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media.  In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.

2.
Seven novels.  In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career.  The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles.  Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively.  In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods.  Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.

What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness.  There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough.  It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy.  In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.

Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse.  A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.”  In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology  — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts.  And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.

Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences.  For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations.  As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.

Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule.  We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. 

The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style.  I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases.  When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?

Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana.  Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience.  Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.

At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.

TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown.  Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?

LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything.   The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.

TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better?  Worse?  Both?

LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.

Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”

TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?

LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.

TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.

LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write.  This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.

Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.

TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings?  Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?

LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal.  Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.

In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century.  The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions.  It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.

All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.

TM:  White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence.  Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?

LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.”  In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it.  This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing.  Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.

I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.

TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly.  Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.

LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all.  As in just don’t do it.  As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on.  How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?

Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things.  Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past.  They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.

TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth?  Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”

LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter.  These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.

I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it.  I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2017


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Norwegian by Night
3 months

2.
4.

The Trespasser
5 months

3.


Lincoln in the Bardo
1 month

4.
5.

Moonglow
4 months

5.
6.

The North Water
3 months

6.


Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
1 month

7.
8.

Commonwealth
5 months

8.


A Separation
1 month

9.
4.

The Underground Railroad
6 months

10.
7.

Homesick for Another World
2 months

We sold so many copies of The Sellout over the past seven months that Paul Beatty’s novel is now off to our Hall of Fame, and if current trends hold it looks like it’ll soon by joined by Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, too, has the Hall of Fame in its sights, although it’ll need to hang on for one more month, and momentum is not on its side – it dropped five spots on our list this month.

Newcomers on this month’s list include George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin. All three were previously featured on our Great 2017 Book Preview.

“Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo,” wrote Louise McCune in her recent review for our site, which bound the novel – Saunders’s first – to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of “something other than death.”
It is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train.
Scratch, meanwhile, concerns itself with something far more immediate: money, and the making of one’s livelihood. The collection includes more than 30 essays, each focused on writers’ precarious quests to earn income from their craft. Its appearance on our list was no doubt aided by “Ghost Stories,” an excerpt from Sari Botton’s contribution to the anthology, in which the author highlights some of her “most memorable deals from almost two decades in the [ghost writing] trenches.”
For me, ghostwriting is a job — one I wouldn’t do if I didn’t need the money. Like any job, it has its pros and cons, its ups and downs — lots of freedom, the satisfaction of helping someone tell their story; but also, frequently, having to handle intense personalities with kid gloves.
Dropping out of this month’s list were Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which was not exactly celebrated on our site (citation), as well as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which most certainly was (citations 1, 2, 3, and 4). Until next month, I’ll leave it to y’all to sort that out.

This month’s near misses included: The NixSwing Time, and Hillbilly Elegy. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2017


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Norwegian by Night
2 months

2.
2.

The Sellout
6 months

3.
4.

The Underground Railroad
5 months

4.
3.

The Trespasser
4 months

5.
5.

Moonglow
3 months

6.
9.

The North Water
2 months

7.


Homesick for Another World
1 month

8.
7.

Commonwealth
4 months

9.


Homegoing
1 month

10.
8.

Here I Am
5 months

New year, same frontrunner: Norwegian by Night, no doubt propelled atop our list on the strength of Richard Russo’s recommendation, begins the year in first position. On its heels, The SelloutThe Underground RailroadThe Trespasser, and Moonglow jostle around. Swing Time drops out of our rankings, which was perhaps a result of Kaila Philo’s underwhelmed review for our site:

Ultimately, while Swing Time makes admirable artistic choices  — who doesn’t love a nonlinear narrative? — the main issue I take with this novel has to do with how these choices don’t mesh well to create the relevant masterpiece it could have been. The whole does not amount to the sum of its parts, in other words.

Ascending to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, is Ninety-Nine Stories of God, the latest collection from Joy Williams, praised by our own Nick Ripatrazone (who provides a scant fifty reasons) here.
All of this action freed up spots for two newcomers on this month’s list, both of which were featured on our book previews: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (2017 Book Preview) and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016 Book Preview).
In Moshfegh’s case, the timing is logical. The book was previewed, it came out this past month, and y’all promptly bought it. But what explains Gyasi’s debut on our list almost a full year after we first previewed it, and half a year since it first published? Well, it recently won the John Leonard Prize for best debut novel. So there you go.
This month’s near misses included: The NixPond, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, and The Lyrics: 1961-2012. See Also: Last month’s list.

The System Is Rigged: The Millions Interviews Leland Cheuk

I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits — a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve.

After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more.

The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them?

Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads.

For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity.

TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press?

LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy.

My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back.

We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up.

TM: It can be hard, though — what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end — Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white “wokeness” that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough.

LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it.

Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before.

TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing?

LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out.

I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere.

TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction?

LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse.

TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies?

LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.]

I’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug.

There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books.

TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book.

LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies.

The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they?

On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow.

TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes’s new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) — what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter.

LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first.

Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today.

It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards.

TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes — the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me — I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like — it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces — appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening.

LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above.

I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue — from all possible angles.

TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it — it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down.

LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym.

Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management.

TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between.

LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing.

I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo.

Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list.

LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times.

LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Norwegian by Night
1 month

2.
1.

The Sellout
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
3 months

4.
4.

The Underground Railroad
4 months

5.
5.

Moonglow
2 months

6.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
6 months

7.
7.

Commonwealth
3 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
4 months

9.


The North Water
1 month

10.


Swing Time
1 month

Richard Russo wasn’t kidding when he wrote in our Year in Reading series that the best novel he’d read this autumn was “a bit of a sleeper, though its fans are oh-so-passionate.” For evidence of said passion, look no further than the top-spot debut for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night on this month’s list. Billed by Russo as “one of those books that completely transcends its genre,” it focuses on a transplanted New Yorker suddenly on the run in Norway. “If you like those other Scandihoovian thriller writers,” Russo wrote, “this is your book.”
The rest of the December list remains largely unchanged from the one we saw in November, owing perhaps to the long tail of the aforementioned Year in Reading series, which will no doubt start influencing subsequent lists as early as next month. Meanwhile, we welcome two newcomers on the lower half of our list this month, which are likely to rise as the Year in Reading dust settles, and as holiday gift cards are spent.
In ninth position is Ian McGuire’s The North Water, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by the New York Times’s editors as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year. The novel is a thriller set on a nineteenth-century Arctic whaling ship with a killer aboard, which sounds to this Top Ten writer like a very distinct flavor of Hell.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time occupies the tenth spot. Smith’s novel, her fifth, is complicated. As Kaila Philo noted in her review for our site, its protagonist “has no name, no signifiers, no grounding, only to be figured out through her relationships, interactions, and circumstances.” She continues:

Our protagonist here is so nebulous she becomes an idea for the reader to grasp at and attempt to put together, like a puzzle made of stardust, but once the reader finishes the puzzle they’re left with a sparkling cloud reminiscent of nothing.

(Bonus: If you haven’t yet, you should read the text of Smith’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.)
Lastly, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins graduates to our Hall of Fame this month, becoming the 20th title to ascend to those hallowed ranks in the year of 2016. Here’s to a new year!
This month’s near misses included: The NixThe Daily Henry James, and The Gene: An Intimate History. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Chris Bachelder

This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)

This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.

The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck.  I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.

And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching.  This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen

I read a lot of books this year (around 100), but if I’m completely honest, I spent more time reading Book Twitter than anything else.

The makeup of Book Twitter resembles the makeup of publishing itself: critics, authors, booksellers, and a mix of people who work in publishing proper. Which is to say that Book Twitter is extremely white. And in a year where even people who love books had an opinion about racism, Book Twitter was patronizingly white.

With the election impending, this became the year of performative wokeness. When you see tweets of people praising The Sellout (“it’s funny!”) but not really saying anything about it of substance (“it’s about… race”), you start to wonder if people like the book or just want to be seen as the kind of person who would like Paul Beatty. Maybe it came from a place of white guilt or insecurity, but Book Twitter mostly looked like people saying, “There are bad white people, but I am a good white person because I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.” When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read. How this declaration of allyship benefits people of color I have no idea, but I’m sure it makes a lot of Book Twitter feel better about itself.

Still, it was easy to overlook the superficial conversation taking place about these books. Hell, I think a lot of us were just glad people were talking about The Underground Railroad at all. But Book Twitter found an even flimsier look after the election. The immediate reaction turned into abundance of tweets reinforcing how important books were in country that was soon to be led by a racist demagogue. I’ll pick on Gary Shteyngart, since he has a good sense of humor:

Shteyngart was far from the only person projecting this shallow sentiment. The logic of Book Twitter is: Books are inherently good. Therefore, if we’d all just read more books, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. If you believe that books have the power to do good, you also have to believe that they can do just as much harm. After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?

Instead, there was just a lot of self-congratulatory tweets like Shteyngart’s that read like a call to action but really only urged Book Twitter to keep doing what it was already doing. Book Twitter doubled down on its unending positivity and back patting, which amounted to a lot of white people tweeting the equivalent of “All Books Matter.”

At this point, you’re thinking, Does Book Twitter reflect the greater publishing culture? To which I would say: It’s worse IRL.

If I sound mad, it’s because I’m exhausted. A few months ago, I mostly stopped going to book events. There is a bland sameness that has started to pervade them. You hang out with a familiar group of people — many of whom I like a lot, some I am supposed to like. And if you think Book Twitter is white, try going to a book event. These are almost exclusively white spaces, and being a person of color in them has become increasingly anxiety inducing. You drink with familiar people and strangers and just wait for someone to say something kinda fucked up to ruin your night. Just because my last name is Nguyen doesn’t mean I want to talk about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I am not interested in hearing you talk about how attractive an Asian-American debut novelist is. And for the last time, as much as I love Ed Park, we really, really do not look alike.

2016 had one bright spot: the National Book Awards. I’ve been to the ceremony five years in a row, and this was the first time I would say it was really good. In fact, it was great, and I’ll credit that to Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s new executive director. Publishing take note. This is what happens when you put a person of color in charge of something important: it becomes more vital, more relevant.

This year’s host was Larry Wilmore, which is pretty remarkable upgrade over 2015’s dad joke machine Andy Borowitz, and an even bigger improvement over 2014’s Daniel Handler who couldn’t resist making an unbelievably racist joke on stage. Each acceptance speech thoughtfully contextualized what Trump’s America meant for them. “We have seen a black president,” poet Terrance Hayes said, “and we have seen what kind of president comes after a black president.”

Though there were more people of color than I’ve ever seen at the National Book Awards, the room was still mostly white. After Ibram Kendi gave his acceptance speech, Wilmore took the stage again to joke that “the National Book Foundation is woke.” There was laughing and clapping, lots of white people nodding along to show that they got it.

And I wonder if they did get it. That in a room — and industry and community — that is overwhelmingly white, just proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Madeleine Thien

I mentioned Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine in an earlier “Books of the Year” piece for The Guardian. I think both books are ones that take a long time to absorb; they are profoundly powerful not only in their observations and stories, but in how courageously and carefully they speak to our present moment.

Other resonant books I read this year are Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which I wept through, as happens for me with the most revealing satire; Anosh Irani’s courageous The Parcel, about the life and desires and compromises of Madhu, a hijra in Kamathipura, Bombay; Chester Brown’s very personal and searching meditation on the sex trade, Paying for It; Katherena Vermette’s bold, beautiful, polyphonic novel, The Break; and James Gleick’s Time Travel, which bends time and movement around us and, through literature and the written word, within us.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Anthony Marra

Looking back at the year, the book that has stuck with me most is The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer, a social anthropology of grifters, swindlers, and confidence artists in the first half of the 20th century. Though published in 1940, it provided me an unexpectedly useful lens to view Donald Trump. Maurer was a linguistics professor and The Big Con began as a treatise on underworld slang before evolving into an exploration of manufactured fantasies and how they distort our understanding and expectation of the realities we inhabit. He lucidly describes the human propensity to believe convincing fictions over inconvenient facts. Every good con, in Maurer’s telling, is a story fine-tuned to touch the vulnerabilities and vanities of its audience. The con artists he documents view themselves as legitimate artists, an amalgam of showman, thespian, and playwright whose successes depend on transforming Pullman cars, betting parlors, and brokerages into elaborate stage sets where their scripted dramas unfold.

Maurer doesn’t treat the con artist’s marks as victims, but as accomplices to their own demise. “Once a man admits complete and unshakable faith in his own integrity,” Maurer writes, “he is in an excellent frame of mind to be approached by con men…often his rationalization mechanisms are so perfectly developed that he never admits, even to himself, that he is fundamentally dishonest.” Beyond all this, it’s a terrifically entertaining read (large sections of The Sting were drawn from Maurer’s work). Who knew that Benito Mussolini fell victim to an enterprising American confidence man, who would later be written about by Saul Bellow? Or that big cons sometimes ended with “the cackle-bladder,” a staged murder involving blood filled chicken bladders? Afterward, I read The Mark Inside by Amy Reading, which chronicles the life of J. Frank Norfleet, a rancher who lost his savings to a gang of confidence men and then became something of a confidence artist himself in his efforts to bring them to justice.

I’ve been reading up on Billy Wilder for a new project and highly recommend On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder for any Wilder fans, particularly because its author finds the fictions Wilder created to account for his life as worthy of study as his real biography. In a similar vein, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich is a book I’ve been rereading throughout the year, partly to compensate for “You Must Remember This” podcast withdrawal, and partly because it’s hands down the best history of Los Angeles I know of.

In fiction, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, and the first two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet are all novels that left me whistling with awe and inspired to write. On my nightstand right now is The Mountain and the Wall by Dagestani author Alisa Ganieva. Her novel was published in English two weeks after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. Now it feels even more relevant. It revolves around Russia’s plans to build a massive wall across its southern end to seal off the Muslim population of the Northern Caucasus. So far it’s a brilliant book, and a reminder that the problem with good speculative fictions is that history has a way of proving them prophetical.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Top Ten: November 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Sellout
4 months

2.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
2 months

4.
6.

The Underground Railroad
3 months

5.


Moonglow
1 month

6.
5.

Barkskins
6 months

7.
10.

Commonwealth
2 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
3 months

9.
7.

Pond
3 months

10.
9.

Innocents and Others
5 months

How fitting it is for Don DeLillo’s Zero K to move on to our Millions Hall of Fame in this, the month of November, the time of no baseball and, thus, no Ks. (I will not apologize for this joke; No I Said No I Won’t No.)
Speaking of baseball, others have pointed out the accuracy of Back to the Future II’s foretelling of our current American predicament — the Cubs winning the World Series; Biff Tannen ascending to a position of unimaginable power — and so in that regard, it’s fitting that an author who got his start around the time that movie came out would grace our latest Top Ten. Michael Chabon, of course, requires no introduction, and least of all from someone who’d build a strained Back to the Future II reference upon the foundation of a corny baseball joke. Nevertheless here we are.
Moonglow, is a welcome addition to this month’s list. In her preview for our site last summer, Tess Malone wrote:

We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date.

A few weeks ago, Chabon expanded on this balancing act between novel and memoir in an interview for our site:

[Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.

That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Elsewhere on the list, a few titles jostled around, but nothing dropped out altogether. Stay tuned for next month’s list, which will likely be influenced by our ongoing Year in Reading series.

This month’s near misses included: The Daily Henry JamesThe NestHeroes of the Frontier, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and The Girls. See Also: Last month’s list.

Modern Library Revue #5: Brave New World

 

On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.

But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.

After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.

In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers).  Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.

I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.

There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.

We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.

Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”

Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:


This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”

I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.

So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.

People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Sellout
3 months

2.
4.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
4 months

3.


The Trespasser
1 month

4.
5.

Zero K
6 months

5.
6.

Barkskins
5 months

6.
7.

The Underground Railroad
2 months

7.
10.

Pond
2 months

8.
9.

Here I Am
2 months

9.
8.

Innocents and Others
4 months

10.


Commonwealth
1 month

How to rule The Millions’s monthly Top Ten list:

Write and publish a great book.
Have the book’s protagonist’s voice praised for being “as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s.”
Win the Man Booker Prize.

Congratulations, Paul Beatty, you’ve done hit the trifecta!

We also welcome two newcomers to our list this month: Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, both of which had previously been featured on our Most Anticipated list.

French’s novel, the sixth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, focuses on the murder of a young woman ostensibly preparing for a date. Around here at The Millions, it’s tough to pick a resident Tana French expert – both Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki hold legitimate claims to that title — so site readers interested in a taste of French’s work should start by reading the author’s recent interview for our site, focusing on her penchant for using police interrogations as literary devices; Lepucki’s piece on French’s plotting; a conversation between both Edan and Janet about French’s writing; and the author in her own words recounting her Year in Reading.

Patchett’s work, too, is familiar to Millions staffers and readers alike. In her blurb for our Most Anticipated list, Lepucki wrote of Commonwealth:
A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades.
Meanwhile, this month we graduate two Top Ten mainstays to our Hall of Fame: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. Fare thee well in Valhalla!
This month’s near misses included: The GirlsHeroes of the FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Nest, and The Unseen World. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Sympathizer
6 months

2.
2.

Mr. Splitfoot
6 months

3.
9.

The Sellout
2 months

4.
7.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
3 months

5.
4.

Zero K
5 months

6.
6.

Barkskins
4 months

7.


The Underground Railroad
1 month

8.
8.

Innocents and Others
3 months

9.


Here I Am
1 month

10.


Pond
1 month

The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty’s satirical novel to lead the pack.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead’s universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am.
By now, Whitehead’s novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:

After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.

Yet by contrast, Safran Foer’s Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan’s Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: “With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ is kitsch at best.”
Meanwhile, one title — The Nest — dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other,” and noted how “much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise.” That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself.

This month’s near misses included: Heroes of the FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Girls, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

Booker Prize Offers Up Eclectic 2016 Shortlist

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The Booker Prize has whittled down its longlist to an intriguing shortlist, and none of the authors tapped has previously won the Prize. As was the case in prior years, two Americans make the shortlist this year: Paul Beatty and Ottessa Moshfegh. They are joined by the UK’s Graeme Macrae Burnet and Deborah Levy, and Canadians David Szalay and Madeleine Thien. The bookies suggest that Levy, the only author remaining to have previously landed on a shortlist, is the favorite to win.

All the Booker Prize shortlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Ottessa Moshfegh’s Year in Reading)
All That Man Is by David Szalay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien


The Millions Top Ten: August 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Sympathizer
5 months

2.
1.

Mr. Splitfoot
5 months

3.
4.

Girl Through Glass
6 months

4.
5.

Zero K
4 months

5.
6.

The Lost Time Accidents
6 months

6.
7.

Barkskins
3 months

7.
9.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
2 months

8.
8.

Innocents and Others
2 month

9.


The Sellout
1 month

10.
10.

The Nest
3 months

“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner, who may have been unconsciously foreseeing Tessa Hadley’s novel, and its six-month run on our site’s Top Ten. While at times the book seemed likely to drop from our rankings – it began in tenth position and only once cracked the top three – it was nevertheless a gritty and determined run, now punctuated by its ascendance to our Hall of Fame.
Most of the other titles on our list bumped up a spot to fill The Past‘s void, and a solitary newcomer emerged this August in our ninth spot. There, Paul Beatty’s satirical novel, The Sellout, joins our list for the first time.
The Sellout has been mentioned fairly often on our site, dating back to last December when staff writer Michael Schaub called it, “One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read.” (Knowing Schaub, he’s going to take full credit for the book’s appearance on our list now, nevermind the fact that it’s been a year since he wrote that line.)
But the praise didn’t end there. Several months after Schaub selected The Sellout in his Year in Reading, fellow Millions staff writer Matt Seidel wrote:

Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. … It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind.

Still more recently, Alcy Levya traced a through-line between some of Beatty’s lodestars – Richard Pryor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Chapelle – to investigate the circumstances of the book’s creation, as well as its enduring importance:

In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This month’s near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the WorldHeroes of the FrontierThe Queen of the NightHomegoing and The Underground Railroad. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2016 Booker Longlist

In the third year that the Booker Prize has been open to U.S. authors, five American authors again make the longlist, including National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Paul Beatty. Double winner J.M. Coetzee is the lone former winner on the list, while Elizabeth Strout is the most celebrated American to be tapped. Other notable names include A.L. Kennedy and David Means, and four debut novels made the list.

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

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Hystopia by David Means
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Ottessa Moshfegh’s Year in Reading)
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Elizabeth Strout’s Year in Reading, A Millions Top Ten book)
All That Man Is by David Szalay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Habitual Line-Steppers: Tracing Paul Beatty’s Influences

“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.

In The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”

In a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.

When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.

In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.
The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”
Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.

Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:
You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.
Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.

With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.

Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:
“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”
Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.

Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”

Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.

In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.

So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”

The Millions Top Ten: April 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Fortune Smiles
5 months

2.


The Sympathizer
1 month

3.
4.

What Belongs to You
4 months

4.
5.

My Name is Lucy Barton
4 months

5.
6.

The Past
3 months

6.
3.

The Big Green Tent
6 months

7.
8.

Girl Through Glass
2 months

8.
10.

The Lost Time Accidents
2 months

9.
7.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
5 months

10.


Mr. Splitfoot
1 month

If you’re reading this, you survived to bear witness as Donald Trump became the Grand Old Party’s official presidential candidate. (Thanks a lot, William Faulkner!) And if the unpredictable, foreboding days spread out ahead promise nothing if not apocalyptic visions – glimpses of failures personal and societal, as well as cosmic – then take solace in this one thing: the Millions Top Ten abides as ever – safe, regular, and fun.
For here on our list, we celebrate the buying habits of our readers, and we can illuminate the works that bring them joy, inspire them, or whisk their emotions. Surely in these trying times, that’s better to read than, say, any newspaper. Right?
And so let’s begin with the good news. We graduated two – count ’em! – books to our hallowed Hall of Fame this month. First, David Mitchell launched his fourth – count it! – book to immortality, as his latest novel, Slade House, joined three of his others: Cloud AtlasThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Bone Clocks. (Connections abound with that last one, noted Alex Miller, Jr. in his review for our site.) Next, our own Garth Risk Hallberg sent his debut novel, City on Fire, to the Hall as well. Although this is the first time Garth has reached the Hall of Fame as the author of a work of fiction, he did previously reach it as the editor of one of our Millions Originals – Konstantin Kakaes’s The Pioneer Detectives.
Filling those two opened spots are Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Hunt’s work is an “elegantly structured novel,” observed our own Kaulie Lewis in the Great 2016 Book Preview, and it “promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story.” Don’t miss her interview for our site with Adam Vitcavage. Meanwhile Nguyen’s work is “rich, surprising, and often darkly funny,” according to Claire Messud in her most recent Year in Reading entry. (Bonus: Thanh Nguyen contributed his own entry in that same year’s Year in Reading series.) You can read an excerpt from The Sympathizer from our friends at Bloom.
Elsewhere on the list, A Brief History of Seven Killings dropped from seventh position to ninth. Ordinarily I wouldn’t remark about a book moving down our list, but this is a special case because it only needs one more month to reach our Hall of Fame, and frankly I nagged y’all too damn hard for it to drop out when it’s this close. Do your part and buy seven copies immediately, please.
Now, wasn’t that better than reading the political tipsheets?
This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the NightThe Sellout, The Nest, When We Came to the City, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Fortune Smiles
4 months

2.
3.

Slade House
6 months

3.
4.

The Big Green Tent
5 months

4.
5.

What Belongs to You
3 months

5.
6.

My Name is Lucy Barton
3 months

6.
10.

The Past
2 months

7.
9.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
4 months

8.


Girl Through Glass
1 month

9.
8.

City on Fire
6 months

10.


The Lost Time Accidents
1 month

Ascend, ascend Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood! Set forth and lay claim to your spots within our Millions Hall of Fame. For one of these authors, it’s their second time making the list. For the other, it’s their debut. Can you guess which is which? The answer may surprise you.
And with the ascension of Fates and Futures and The Heart Goes Last, we welcome two newcomers to our monthly Top Ten: Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson and The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray.
In his write-up for our Most Anticipated Book Preview three months ago, Matt Seidel described how Wilson’s novel “alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student.” It’s a novel ripe with dramatic tension, and one more than a little fixated on body type, as Martha Anne Toll noted in her recent exploration of women — lost, thin, and small — in fiction.
Joining Wilson on the list this month is John Wray, whose newest novel, The Lost Time Accidents, covers a great many topics, such as physics, the Czech Republic, watch factories, Nazi war criminals, the Church of Scientology (but not really), and science fiction, among others. In her write-up for the Book Preview, Anne K. Yoder called it a “mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic [that’s] both madcap and ambitious.” The novel was also covered by Michael Schaub in a recent edition of The Book Report — come for the overview, but stay for Bong Crosby!
Stay tuned for next month’s list, in which two more newcomers are poised to join our ranks.
This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the Night, Mr. SplitfootThe Turner HouseEternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, and The Sellout. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Tournament of Books

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike got to serve as commentators for The Morning News Tournament of Books. They discuss the results, as well as some of the surprises along the way.

Discussed in this episode: The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, basketball, Fates and Furies and Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Jeff VanderMeer.

Not discussed in this episode: Mike’s unfortunate prediction that A Gronking to Remember by Lacey Noonan would go all the way this year.

Surprise Me!

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