The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story

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On Spinach and the National Book Awards

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I, for one, am thankful for Laura Miller’s article in Salon last month about the alleged irrelevance of the National Book Awards. Miller demonstrates passion—which in my book is almost never a bad thing—for good fiction and, in particular, for “ordinary readers.” Miller wants the NBAs to matter, to have impact. She wants the majority of fiction readers to both pay attention and be influenced by them. In 2004, equally (if not more) troubled by the NBA shortlist, Miller wrote in the New York Times that she wanted the awards to play a strong role in directing readers to what they should read:
For people who read, say, four novels a year, prizes help narrow down a bewilderingly vast field of candidates. Awards have become, as the critic James Wood put it, ”the new reviews.”
There is something rather idealistic—in a public service sort of way—about Miller’s position. There are people out there looking for novels they can read and enjoy; let’s give them some. It follows that she is troubled by a generalized cynicism about awards. A.O. Scott wrote about this cynicism back in 2005:
 [T]he prizes, transparently trivial, implicitly corrupt and utterly detached from any meaningful notion of literary value, will be greeted with cynicism, derision and, if we’re lucky, a burst of controversy. It will escape no one’s attention – not even the winners’ – that the very idea of handing out medals and cash for aesthetic and intellectual achievement is absurd, if not obscene. Furthermore, the selections will inevitably reflect the rottenness of the literary status quo, which is either hopelessly stodgy and out of touch, or else distracted by modish extraliterary considerations – hobbled, that is, either by conservative complacency or by political correctness.
But the National Book Awards, Miller argues, are not playing the role of trusted arbiter; rather, they have become, as she puts it, the spinach of literary awards: established fiction writers (the five judges, a different group annually) telling the reading (non-writing) public what they “should” be reading, regardless of what they might “like” to read.  Her use of spinach as the metaphor implies, it would seem, finger-wagging paternalism. Read this; you will be an improved, healthy, stronger person. Enjoyment? Pleasure? Well, frivolous reader, no pain no gain.

Despite my admiration for Miller’s relentless crusading on behalf of “a lot of people,” i.e., “nonprofessional readers,” my personal response to Miller’s argument is fraught; not because of my “professional” status as a reader, but rather due to my relationship with spinach. You see, I love spinach. It is possibly my very favorite food. If I have spinach as part of every meal—raw or cooked, chopped or whole, plain or smothered in something cheesy or creamy or eggy—I am a happy person, my meals are pleasurable. It is in fact challenging for me to conceive of why anyone would hate spinach or need to be forced to eat it or would associate it with the pain that leads to gain. (For the record, I also like liver and other innards, Brussels sprouts, beets, and anchovies; but (ironically?) no brains, please.) When I mentioned this to a friend, he asked me if it was my favorite food, or my favorite vegetable; and my answer is the latter. I love bacon burgers, and I love spinach, and I love them especially together; in my world, there is no carnivore-herbivore hierarchy.

If I think back to childhood, no one ever had to tell me to eat my spinach. Or, put another way, no one ever told me that spinach was something that people needed to be told to eat. Sometimes for lunch we had peanut butter sandwiches, or tuna fish, and Doritos (or school rectangular pizza with soggy tater tots); sometimes (when there was more money), we had roast beef on rye and a piece of fruit. My sisters and I ate it all, and liked it, and we’re all in pretty good health now. I never remember thinking, Ew, peanut butter, where’s my roast beef?

My partner was raised mostly by his father, who loved food but couldn’t afford luxuries, so he gathered the five children up to hunt for morels and shitakis, pick watercress, dig for razor clams and oysters at the shore (this was in the Pacific Northwest). They kept chickens, which the kids were responsible for feeding and eventually slaughtering, so there were fresh eggs and sometimes chicken meat (including the feet, necks, gizzards) and always broth in the freezer. They ate well but it was also hard work. And so a “gourmet meal” for him now can be anything from grilled American cheese on buttered white bread, to noodles and dumpling soup, to oysters and Sancerre.

What is my point here? What I am saying is that we do a disservice to “ordinary readers” and “professional” ones alike, by calling a book spinach and attaching good-for-you but not good-in-itself to that metaphor. We are telling readers, This is spinach, didn’t you know, and you won’t like it; over here, this is ice cream, you’ll definitely like this. Herein lies a more insidious kind of paternalism. In dividing the world among writer-readers, critic-readers, and reader-readers, we assume that—to completely mix my metaphors here—a reader-reader (Miller’s “people waiting for the bus”) would find the literary equivalent of raw oysters or shitaki mushrooms to be esoteric or elliptical or poetic in a way that puts them off. I have caught myself in this mistake myself: when I lived in the South Bronx, I would often be surprised when I saw someone on the 6-train, north of 96th Street, reading something literary. It was important to ask myself why I was surprised. And it happened often enough (and I’m not talking about Mott Haven artists or hipsters) that I knew something was wrong with a world view I’d absorbed thoughtlessly.

I want to live in a world—and I believe that if we look and listen closely, we’ll recognize that we’re closer than we think—where “the reading public,” regardless of the inside-baseball interferences of literary professionals, consumes, likes, and engages with many different kinds of literary nourishment; and where writers, teachers, and critics trust and even expect readers to do so…

…And in this sort of world, it’s a good thing to have an award like the NBA whose winner is specifically selected by writer-peers; along with an award like, say, the National Book Critics Circle Award, that is selected by some 25 book critics, and by systematic vote as opposed to the NBA’s small-group consensus. Having different awards, with different selection processes and juries, seems to me to keep the process—the parties involved—optimally honest; it allows everyone to be themselves and not have this be a liability. One wonders what Miller would have NBA novelist-judges do, short of intentionally selecting books that don’t genuinely or particularly excite them, simply because those books have gotten a lot of media and Amazon-reader attention?

I don’t and can’t know what really happens in those closed-door discussions, what baggage or agenda each judge might bring, but it would seem much more highly suspect to me—in a cynical, power-brokering, old boys club sort of way—if all the writers and critics in America were indeed selecting the same five favorite books in a given year. On what planet of readers does that happen, honestly? Given how many books each judge must read (315 this year for the NBA), and how quickly, it would seem that the specter of group-think could loom. That such pressures instead seem to push favorites to the fore for each judge in a more idiosyncratic way—you’d be looking for what grabs you—is a tribute to the individualized intelligence and diverse aesthetic interests of these judges and board members. (See Victor LaValle’s riposte to Miller at Publisher’s Weekly for one NBA judge’s confirmation of this.)

A side-by-side comparison of the finalists and winners in fiction for the NBA and NBCC since 2004 reveals both complete divergence (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010) and also significant overlap (2005, 2008, 2009).  (Note: one might assume we’d see more overlap if the NBCC was also limited to American writers). I’m not sure why this is a bad thing for anyone, whether you consider yourself a reader-reader, critic-reader, writer-reader, or all of the above; especially since we now all have access to so much literature-specific social media—Amazon and Goodreads, for example—for recommendations from mostly “nonprofessional” readers who share one’s tastes.

It also does not follow, by the way, that the more “professional” you become as a writer, the more “writerly” (by which Miller means a love of “beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states”) your reading tastes become. I think about the book that made me want to become a writer, long before I’d actually written anything: Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I would guess that Laura Miller hates this book, if she’s read it, or at least hates it for an award (it won the Pulitzer) and would not recommend it to an “ordinary reader.” It is dense, and ponderous, and theological, and there is no “story” apart from the “esoteric” story of humanity and existence, a young woman examining her tiny corner of the natural world with a magnifying glass and meditating on meaning. Then I think of what I’m reading now: everything by William Gay, and Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World—bootleggers, murders, car chases, thwarted love for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks; storytelling at its best, artful and muscular language. And I can’t get enough.

I was not being facetious or rhetorically sly in praising Miller for continuing to write passionately about the NBAs. I try to be on the side of idealism over cynicism generally speaking, which is more and more challenging as I get older. In this case my position is ultimately more idealistic than Miller’s: I have faith in the pleasures of spinach, in the folks waiting for the bus and riding the 6-train, and even in the possibility of a world where we all read more than four novels a year.


Image credit: anathea/Flickr

A Year in Reading: Jennifer Gilmore


One favorite book I’ve read all year?  Impossible.  But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010.  This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances.  These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts.

Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year.  I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing.  My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.”  Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways.

Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men.   Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.)  With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis.  The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically.

Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year.  This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child.  I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience.  What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages.  McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking.

There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia.  I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son.  It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories.  And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them.  Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy.

Who hasn’t been unmoored?  Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning.  It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss.  Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011…

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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