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Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries of 2017

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Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017.

 

 

Bharati Mukherjee
Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.”

Derek Walcott
Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures.

Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
 Jimmy Breslin
Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”

Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.”

Jean Stein
Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece.

Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.”

Denis Johnson
The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise.

Gregg Allman
Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia:
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.

And oh, I ain’t wastin’ time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.
The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine.

Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.” 

Clancy Sigal
If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died.

Dick Gregory
Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”

Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”

Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.”

Kate Millett
Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women.

The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken.

Lillian Ross
Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen.

But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Jim Clark
Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.”

William H. Gass
William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” 

Simeon Booker
My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people.

Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.”

Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order:

John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head.

J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.”

Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters.

Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek.

Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death.

Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury.

Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade.

Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73. 

Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.” 

Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate. 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.

 

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

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Of Lists, Generally

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

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

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

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

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

Of One List, More Particularly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Anything Be Learned from a List?

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

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

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

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

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

Of Lists, Personally

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

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