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Most Anticipated: The Great Summer 2024 Preview

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Summer has arrived, and with it, a glut of great books. Here you'll find more than 80 books that we're excited about this season. Some we've already read in galley form; others we're simply eager to devour based on their authors, subjects, or blurbs. We hope you find your next summer read among them. —Sophia Stewart, editor July Art Monster by Marin Kosut [NF] Kosut's latest holds a mirror to New York City's oft-romanticized, rapidly gentrifying art scene and ponders the eternal struggles between creativity and capitalism, love and labor, and authenticity and commodification. Part cultural analysis, part cautionary tale, this account of an all-consuming subculture—now unrecognizable to the artists who first established it—is the perfect companion to Bianca Bosker's Get the Picture. —Daniella Fishman Concerning the Future of Souls by Joy Williams [F] If you're reading this, you don't need to be told why you need to check out the next 99 strange, crystalline chunks of brilliance—described enticingly as "stories of Azrael"—from the great Joy Williams, do you? —John H. Maher Misrecognition by Madison Newbound [F] Newbound's debut novel, billed as being in the vein of Rachel Cusk and Patricia Lockwood, chronicles an aimless, brokenhearted woman's search for meaning in the infinite scroll of the internet. Vladimir author Julia May Jonas describes it as "a shockingly modern" novel that captures "isolation and longing in our age of screens." —Sophia M. Stewart Pink Slime by Fernanda Trías, tr. Heather Cleary [F] The Uruguayan author makes her U.S. debut with an elegiac work of eco-fiction centering on an unnamed woman in the near future as she navigates a city ravaged by plague, natural disaster, and corporate power (hardly an imaginative leap). —SMS The Last Sane Woman by Hannah Regel [F] In Regel's debut novel, the listless Nicola is working in an archive devoted to women's art when she discovers—and grows obsessed with—a beguiling dozen-year correspondence between two women, going back to 1976. Paul author Daisy LaFarge calls this debut novel "caustic, elegant, elusive, and foreboding." —SMS Reinventing Love by Mona Chollet, tr. Susan Emanuel [NF] For the past year or so I've been on a bit of a kick reading books that I'd hoped might demystify—and offer an alternative vision of—the sociocultural institution that is heterosexuality. (Jane Ward's The Tragedy of Heterosexuality was a particularly enlightening read on that subject.) So I'm eager to dive into Chollet's latest, which explores the impossibility of an equitable heterosexuality under patriarchy. —SMS The Body Alone by Nina Lohman [NF] Blending memoir with scholarship, philosophy with medicine, and literature with science, Lohman explores the articulation of chronic pain in what Thin Places author Jordan Kisner calls "a stubborn, tender record of the unrecordable." —SMS Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner [F] In this particular instance, "Long Island Compromise" refers to the long-anticipated follow-up to Fleishman Is In Trouble, not the technical term for getting on the Babylon line of the LIRR with a bunch of Bud-addled Mets fans after 1 a.m. —JHM The Long Run by Stacey D'Erasmo [NF] Plenty of artists burn brightly for a short (or viral) spell but can't sustain creative momentum. Others manage to keep creating over decades, weathering career ups and downs, remaining committed to their visions, and adapting to new media. Novelist Stacey D’Erasmo wanted to know how they do it, so she talked with eight artists, including author Samuel R. Delany and poet and visual artist Cecelia Vicuña, to learn the secrets to their longevity. —Claire Kirch Devil's Contract by Ed Simon [NF] Millions contributor Ed Simon probes the history of the Faustian bargain, from ancient times to modern day. Devil's Contract is, like all of Simon's writing, refreshingly rigorous, intellectually ambitious, and suffused with boundless curiosity. —SMS Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel by Yoko Tawada, tr. Susan Bernofsky [F] Tawada returns with this surrealist ode to the poet Paul Celan and human connection. Set in a hazy, post-lockdown Berlin, Tawada's trademark dream-like prose follows the story of Patrik, an agoraphobe rediscovering his zeal for life through an unlikely friendship built on a shared love of art. —DF The Anthropologists by Ayşegül Savaş [F] Savaş’s third novel is looking like her best yet. It's a lean, lithe, lyrical tale of two graduate students in love look for a home away from home, or “trying to make a life together when you have nothing that grounds you,” as the author herself puts it. —JHM The Coin by Yasmin Zaher [F] Zaher's debut novel, about a young Palestinian woman unraveling in New York City, is an essential, thrilling addition to the Women on the Verge subgenre. Don't just take it from me: the blurbs for this one are some of the most rhapsodic I've ever seen, and the book's ardent fans include Katie Kitamura, Hilary Leichter, and, yes, Slavoj Žižek, who calls it "a masterpiece." —SMS Black Intellectuals and Black Society by Martin L. Kilson [NF] In this posthumous essay collection, the late political scientist Martin L. Kilson reflects on the last century's foremost Black intellectuals, from W.E.B Dubois to Ishmael Reed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that Kilson "brilliantly explores the pivotal yet often obscured legacy of giants of the twentieth-century African American intelligentsia." —SMS Toward Eternity by Anton Hur [F] Hur, best known as the translator of such Korean authors as Bora Chung and Kyung-Sook Shin (not to mention BTS), makes his fiction debut with a speculative novel about the intersections of art, medicine, and technology. The Liberators author E.J. Koh writes that Hur delivers "a sprawling, crystalline, and deftly crafted vision of a yet unimaginable future." —SMS Loving Sylvia Plath by Emily Van Duyne [NF] I've always felt some connection to Sylvia Plath, and am excited to get my hands on Van Duyne’s debut, a reconstruction of the poet’s final years and legacy, which the author describes as "a reckoning with the broken past and the messy present" that takes into account both Plath’s "white privilege and [the] misogynistic violence" to which she was subjected. —CK Bright Objects by Ruby Todd [F] Nearing the arrival of a newly discovered comet, Sylvia Knight, still reeling from her husband's unsolved murder, finds herself drawn to the dark and mysterious corners of her seemingly quiet town. But as the comet draws closer, Sylvia becomes torn between reality and mysticism. This one is for astrology and true crime girlies. —DF The Lucky Ones by Zara Chowdhary [NF] The debut memoir by Chowdhary, a survivor of one of the worst massacres in Indian history, weaves together histories both personal and political to paint a harrowing portrait of anti-Muslim violence in her home country of India. Alexander Chee calls this "a warning, thrown to the world," and Nicole Chung describes it as "an astonishing feat of storytelling." —SMS Banal Nightmare by Halle Butler [F] Butler grapples with approaching middle age in the modern era in her latest, which follows thirty-something Moddie Yance as she ditches city life and ends her longterm relationship to move back to her Midwestern hometown. Banal Nightmare has "the force of an episode of marijuana psychosis and the extreme detail of a hyperrealistic work of art," per Jia Tolentino. —SMS A Passionate Mind in Relentless Pursuit by Noliwe Rooks [NF] In this slim volume on the life and legacy of the trailblazing civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune—the first Black woman to head a federal agency, to serve as a college president, and to be honored with a monument in the nation's capital—Rooks meditates on Bethune's place in Black political history, as well as in Rooks's own imagination. —SMS Modern Fairies by Clare Pollard [F] An unconventional work of historical fiction to say the least, this tale of the voluble, voracious royal court of Louis XIV of France makes for an often sidesplitting, and always bawdy, read. —JHM The Quiet Damage by Jesselyn Cook [NF] Cook, a journalist, reports on deepfake media, antivax opinions, and sex-trafficking conspiracies that undermine legitimate criminal investigations. Having previously written on children trying to deradicalize their QAnon-believing parents and social media influencers who blend banal content with frightening Q views, here Cook focuses on five families whose members went down QAnon rabbit holes, tragically eroding relationships and verifiable truths. —Nathalie Op de Beeck In the Shadow of the Fall by Tobi Ogundiran [F] Inspired by West African folkore, Ogundiran (author of the superb short speculative fiction collection Jackal, Jackal) centers this fantasy novella, the first of duology, on a sort-of anti-chosen one: a young acolyte aspiring to priesthood, but unable to get the orishas to speak. So she endeavors to trap one of the spirits, but in the process gets embroiled in a cosmic war—just the kind of grand, anything-can-happen premise that makes Ogundiran’s stories so powerful. —Alan Scherstuhl The Bluestockings by Susannah Gibson [NF] This group biography of the Bluestockings, a group of protofeminist women intellectuals who established salons in 18th-century England, reminded me of Regan Penaluna's wonderful How to Think Like a Woman in all the best ways—scholarly but accessible, vividly rendered, and a font of inspiration for the modern woman thinker. —SMS Liars by Sarah Manguso [F] Manguso's latest is a standout addition to the ever-expanding canon of novels about the plight of the woman artist, and the artist-mother in particular, for whom creative life and domestic life are perpetually at odds. It's also a more scathing indictment of marriage than any of the recent divorce memoirs to hit shelves. Any fan of Manguso will love this novel—her best yet—and anyone who is not already a fan will be by the time they're done. —SMS On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ [F] Flashbacks to grad school gender studies coursework, and the thrilling sensation that another world is yet possible, will wash over a certain kind of reader upon learning that Feminist Press will republish Russ’s 1980 novel. Edited and with an introduction by Cornell University Ph.D. candidate Alec Pollak, this critical edition includes reminiscences on Russ by her longtime friend Samuel R. Delany, letters between Russ and poet Marilyn Hacker, and alternative endings to its lesbian coming-out story. —NodB Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow by Damilare Kuku [F] The debut novel by Kuku, the author of the story collection Nearly All the Men in Lagos Are Mad, centers on a Nigerian family plunged into chaos when young Temi, a recent college grad, decides to get a Brazillian butt lift. Wahala author Nikki May writes that Kuku captures "how complicated it is to be a Nigerian woman." —SMS The Missing Thread by Daisy Dunn [NF] A book about the girls, by the girls, for the girls. Dunn, a classicist, reconfigures antiquity to emphasize the influence and agency of women. From the apocryphal stories of Cleopatra and Agrippina to the lesser-known tales of Atossa and Olympias, Dunn retraces the steps of these ancient heroines and recovers countless important but oft-forgotten female figures from the margins of history. —DF August Villa E by Jane Alison [F] Alison's taut novel of gender and power is inspired by the real-life collision of Irish designer Eileen Gray and Swiss architect Le Corbusier—and the sordid act of vandalism by the latter that forever defined the legacy of the former. —SMS The Princess of 72nd Street by Elaine Kraf [F] Kraf's 1979 feminist cult classic, reissued as part of Modern Library's excellent Torchbearer series with an introduction by Melissa Broder, follows a young woman artist in New York City who experiences wondrous episodes of dissociation. Ripe author Sarah Rose Etter calls Kraf "one of literature's hidden gems." —SMS All That Glitters by Orlando Whitfield [NF] Whitfield traces the rise and fall of Inigo Philbrick, the charasmatic but troubled art dealer—and Whitfield's one-time friend—who was recently convicted of committing more than $86 million in fraud. The great Patrick Radden Keefe describes this as "an art world Great Gatsby." —SMS The Bookshop by Evan Friss [NF] Oh, so you support your local bookshop? Recount the entire history of bookselling. Friss's rigorously researched ode to bookstores underscores their role as guardians, gatekeepers, and proprietors of history, politics, and culture throughout American history. A must-read for any bibliophile, and an especially timely one in light of the growing number of attempts at literary censorship across the country. —DF Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia [F] Valencia's debut short story collection is giving supernatural Southwestern Americana.  Subjects as distinct as social media influencers, ghost hunters, and slasher writers populate these stories which, per Kelly Link, contain a "deep well of human complexity, perversity, sincerity, and hope." —DF Mourning a Breast by Xi Xi, tr. Jennifer Feeley This 1989 semi-autobiographical novel is an account of the late Hong Kong author and poet Xi's mastectomy and subsequent recovery, heralded as one of the first Chinese-language books to write frankly about illness, and breast cancer in particular.—SMS Village Voices by Odile Hellier [NF] Hellier celebrates the history and legacy of the legendary Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, which he founded in 1982. A hub of anglophone literary culture for 30 years, Village Voice hosted everyone from Raymond Carver to Toni Morrison and is fondly remembered in these pages, which mine decades of archives. —SMS Dinosaurs at the Dinner Party by Edward Dolnick [NF] Within the past couple of years, three tweens found the fossilized remains of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex in North Dakota and an 11-year-old beachcomber came upon an ichthyosaur jaw in southwestern England, sparking scientific excitement. Dolnick’s book revisits similar discoveries from Darwin’s own century, when astonished amateurs couldn’t yet draw upon centuries of paleontology and drew their own conclusions about the fossils and footprints they unearthed. —NodB All the Rage by Virginia Nicholson [NF] Social historian Nicholson chronicles the history of beauty standards for women from 1860 to 1960, revealing the fickleness of fashion, the evergreen pressure put on women's self-presentation, and the toll the latter takes on women's bodies. —SMS A Termination by Honor Moore [NF] In her latest memoir, Moore—best known for 2008's The Bishop's Daughter—reflects on the abortion she had in 1969 at the age of 23 and its aftermath. The Vivian Gornick calls this one "a masterly account of what it meant, in the 1960s, to be a woman of spirit and intelligence plunged into the particular hell that is unwanted pregnancy." —SMS Nat Turner, Black Prophet by Anthony E. Kaye with Gregory P. Downs [NF] Kaye and Downs's remarkable account of Nat Turner's rebellion boldly and persuasively argues for a reinterpretation of the uprising's causes, legacy, and divine influence, framing Turner not just as a preacher but a prophet. A paradigm-shifting work of narrative history. —SMS An Honest Woman by Charlotte Shane [NF] As a long-time reader, fan, and newsletter subscriber of Shane's, I nearly dropped to my knees at the altar of Simon & Schuster when her latest book was announced. This slim memoir intertwines her experience as a sex worker with reflections on various formative relationships in her life (with her sexuality, her father, and her long-time client, Roger), as well as reflections on the very nature of sex, gender, and labor. —DF Mina's Matchbox by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen B. Snyder [F] Mina's Matchbox is an incredible novel that affirms Ogawa's position as the great writer of fantastical literature today. This novel is much brighter in tone and detail than much of her other, often brutal and gloomy, work, but somehow the tension and terror of living is always at the periphery. Ogawa has produced a world near and tender, but tough and bittersweet, like recognizing a lost loved one in the story told by someone new. —Zachary Issenberg Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Reuben Woolley [F] The Grey Bees author's latest, longlisted for last year's International Booker Prize, is an ode to Lviv, western Ukraine's cultural capital, now transformed by war. A snapshot of the city as it was in the early aughts, the novel chronicles the antics of a cast of eccentrics across the city, with a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. —SMS The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya [F] I loved Hamya's 2021 debut novel Three Rooms, and her latest, a sharp critique of art and gender that centers on a young woman who pens a satirical play about her sort-of-canceled novelist father, promises to be just as satisfying. —SMS A Complicated Passion by Carrie Rickey [NF] This definitive biography of trailblazing French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda tells the engrossing story of a brilliant artist and fierce feminist who made movies and found success on her own terms. Film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate writes, "One could not ask for a smarter or more engaging take on the subject." —SMS The Italy Letters by Vi Khi Nao [F] This epistolary novel by Nao, an emerging queer Vietnamese American writer who Garielle Lutz once called "an unstoppable genius," sounds like an incredible read: an unnamed narrator in Las Vegas writes sensual stream-of-consciousness letters to their lover in Italy. Perfect leisure reading on a sultry summer’s afternoon while sipping a glass of prosecco. —CK Survival Is a Promise by Alexis Pauline Gumbs [NF] Gumbs's poetic, genre-bending biography of Audre Lorde offers a fresh, profound look at Lorde's life, work, and importance undergirded by an ecological, spiritual, and distinctly Black feminist sensibility. Eloquent Rage author Brittany Cooper calls Gumbs "a kindred keeper of [Lorde’s] lesbian-warrior-poet legacy." —SMS Planes Flying Over a Monster by Daniel Saldaña París, tr. Christina MacSweeney and Philip K. Zimmerman [NF] Over 10 essays, the Mexican writer Daniel Saldaña Paris explores the cities he has lived in over the course of his life, using each as a springboard to ponder questions of authenticity, art, and narrative. Chloé Cooper Jones calls Saldaña Paris "simply one of our best living writers" and this collection "destined for canonical status." —SMS The Unicorn Woman by Gayl Jones [F] The latest novel from Jones, the Pulitzer finalist and mentee of Toni Morrison who first stunned the literary world with her 1975 novel Corregida, follows a Black soldier who returns home to the Jim Crow South after fighting in World War II. Imani Perry has called Jones "one of the most versatile and transformative writers of the 20th century." —SMS Becoming Little Shell by Chris La Tray [NF] When La Tray was growing up in western Montana, his family didn’t acknowledge his Indigenous heritage. He became curious about his Métis roots when he met Indigenous relatives at his grandfather’s funeral, and he searched in earnest after his father’s death two decades later. Now Montana’s poet laureate, La Tray has written a memoir about becoming an enrolled member of the Chippewa Little Shell Tribe, known as “landless Indians” because of their history of forced relocation. —NodB Wife to Mr. Milton by Robert Graves (reissue) [F] Grave's 1943 novel, reissued by the great Seven Stories Press, is based on the true story of the poet John Milton's tumultuous marriage to the much younger Mary Powell, which played out amid the backdrop of the English Civil War. E.M. Forster once called this one "a thumping good read." —SMS Euphoria Days by Pilar Fraile, tr. Lizzie Davis [F] Fraile's first novel to be translated into English follows the lives of five workers approaching middle age and searching for meaning—turning to algorithms, internet porn, drugs, and gurus along the way—in a slightly off-kilter Madrid of the near future. —SMS September Colored Television by Danzy Senna [F] Senna's latest novel follows Jane, a writer living in L.A. and weighing the competing allures of ambition versus stability and making art versus selling out. The perfect read for fans of Lexi Freiman's Book of Ayn, Colored Television is, per Miranda July, "addictive, hilarious, and relatable" and "a very modern reckoning with the ambiguities triangulated by race, class, creativity and love."—SMS We're Alone by Edwidge Danticat [NF] I’ve long been a big fan of Danticat, and I'm looking forward to reading this essay collection, which ranges from personal narratives to reflections on the state of the world to tributes to her various mentors and literary influences, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. That the great Graywolf Press published this book is an added bonus. —CK In Our Likeness by Bryan VanDyke [F] Millions contributor Bryan VanDyke's eerily timely debut novel, set at a tech startup where an algorithm built to detect lies on the internet is in the works, probes both the wonders and horrors of AI. This is a Frankenstein-esque tale befitting the information (or, perhaps, post-information) age and wrought in VanDyke's typically sparkling prose. —SMS Liontaming in America by Elizabeth Willis [NF] Willis, a poet and professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, plumbed personal and national history for last year’s Spectral Evidence: The Witch Book, and does so again with this allusive hybrid work. This ambitious project promises a mind-bending engagement with polyamory and family, Mormonism and utopianism, prey exercising power over predators, and the shape-shifting American dream. —NodB Creation Lake by Rachel Kushner [F] I adore Kushner’s wildly offbeat tales, and I also enjoy books and movies in which people really are not who they claim to be and deception is coming from all sides. This novel about an American woman who infiltrates a rural commune of French radicals and everyone has their private agenda sounds like the perfect page-turner. —CK Under the Eye of the Big Bird by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Asa Yoneda [F] Kawakami, of Strange Weather in Tokyo and People in My Neighborhood fame, returns with a work of speculative fiction comprising 14 interconnected stories spanning eons. This book imagines an Earth where humans teeter on the brink of extinction—and counts the great Banana Yoshimoto as a fan. —SMS Homeland by Richard Beck [NF] Beck, an editor at n+1, examines the legacy of the war on terror, which spanned two decades following 9/11, and its irrevocable impact on every facet of American life, from consumer habits to the very notion of citizenship. —SMS Herscht 07769 by László Krasznahorkai, tr. Ottilie Muzlet [F] Every novel by Krasznahorkai is immediately recognizable, while also becoming a modulation on that style only he could pull off. Herscht 07769 may be set in the contemporary world—a sort-of fable about the fascism fermenting in East Germany—but the velocity of the prose keeps it ruthilarious and dreamlike. That's what makes Krasznahorkai a master: the world has never sounded so unreal by an author, but all the anxieities of his characters, his readers, suddenly gain clarity, as if he simply turned on the light. —ZI Madwoman by Chelsea Bieker [F] Catapult published Bieker’s 2020 debut, Godshot, about a teenager fleeing a religious cult in drought-stricken California, and her 2023 Heartbroke, a collection of stories that explored gender, threat, and mother-and-child relationships. Now, Bieker moves over to Little, Brown with this contemporary thriller, a novel in which an Oregon mom gets a letter from a women’s prison that reignites violent memories of a past she thought she’d left behind. —NodB The World She Edited by Amy Reading [NF] Some people like to curl up with a cozy mystery, while for others, the ultimate cozy involves midcentury literary Manhattan. Amy Reading—whose bona fides include service on the executive board of cooperative indie bookstore Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y.—profiles New Yorker editor Katharine S. White, who came on board at the magazine in 1925 and spent 36 years editing the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Janet Flanner, and Mary McCarthy. Put the kettle on—or better yet, pour a classic gin martini—in preparation for this one, which underscores the many women authors White championed. —NodB If Only by Vigdis Hjorth, tr. Charlotte Barslund [F] Hjorth, the Norwegian novelist behind 2022's Is Mother Dead, painstakingly chronicles a 30-year-old married woman's all-consuming and volatile romance with a married man, which blurs the lines between passion and love. Sheila Heti calls Hjorth "one of my favorite contemporary writers." —SMS Fierce Desires by Rebecca L. Davis [NF] Davis's sprawling account of sex and sexuality over the course of American history traverses the various behaviors, beliefs, debates, identities, and subcultures that have shaped the way we understand connection, desire, gender, and power. Comprehensive, rigorous, and unafraid to challenge readers, this history illuminates the present with brutal and startling clarity.  —SMS The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo, tr. Douglas Weatherford [F] Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, so it's no surprise that his 1953 story collection The Burning Plain—which depicts life in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and Cristero Revolt—is widely seen as Mexico's most significant (and, objectively, most translated) work of short fiction. —SMS My Lesbian Novel and TOAF by Renee Gladman [F/NF] The perpetually pitch perfect Dorothy, a Publishing Project is putting out two books by Renee Gladman, one of its finest regular authors, on the same day: a nigh uncategorizable novel about an artist and writer with her same name and oeuvre who discusses the process of writing a lesbian romance and a genre-smashing meditation on an abandoned writing project. What's not to love? —JHM Dear Dickhead by Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne [F] I'm a big fan of Despentes's caustic, vigorous voice: King Kong Theory was one of my favorite reads of last year. (I was late, I know!) So I can't wait to dig into her latest novel—purported to be taking France by storm—which nods to #MeToo in its depiction of an unlikely friendship that brings up questions of sex, fame, and gendered power. —SMS Capital by Karl Marx, tr. Paul Reitter [NF] In a world that burns more quickly by the day—after centuries of industrial rapacity, and with ever-increasing flares of fascism—a new English translation of Marx, and the first to be based on his final revision of this foundational critique of capitalism, is just what the people ordered. —JHM Fathers and Fugitives by S.J. Naudé, tr. Michiel Heyns [F] Naudé, who writes in Afrikaans, has translated his previous books himself—until now. The first to be translated by Heyns, a brilliant writer himself and a friend of Naudé's, this novel follows a queer journalist living in London who travels home to South Africa to care for his dying father, only to learn of a perplexing clause in his will. —SMS Men of Maize by Miguel Ángel Asturias, tr. Gerald Martin [F] This Penguin Classics reissue of the Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan writer's epic novel, just in time for its 75th anniversary, throws into stark relief the continued timeliness of its themes: capitalist exploitation, environmental devastation, and the plight of Indigenous peoples. Héctor Tobar, who wrote the forward, calls this "Asturias’s Mayan masterpiece, his Indigenous Ulysses." —SMS Good Night, Sleep Tight by Brian Evenson [F] It is practically impossible to do, after cracking open any collection of stories by the horror master Evenson, what the title of this latest collection asks of its readers. This book is already haunting you even before you've opened it. —JHM Reservoir Bitches by Dahlia de la Cerda, tr. Julia Sanches and Heather Cleary [F] De la Cerda's darkly humorous debut story collection follows 13 resilient, rebellious women navigating life in contemporary Mexico. Dogs of Summer author Andrea Abreu writes, "This book has the force of an ocean gully: it sucks you in, drags you through the mud, and then cleanses you." —SMS Lost: Back to the Island by Emily St. James and Noel Murray [NF] For years, Emily St. James was one of my favorite TV critics, and I'm so excited to see her go long on that most polarizing of shows (which she wrote brilliantly about for AV Club way back when) in tandem with Noel Murray, another great critic. The Lost resurgence—and much-deserved critical reevaluation—is imminent. —SMS Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin [F] Who could tire of tales of Parisian affairs and despairs? This one, from critic and Art Monsters author Elkin, tells the story of 40 years, four lives, two couples, one apartment, and that singularly terrible, beautiful thing we call love. —JHM Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro [F] The bold first entry in Miro’s sweeping Victorian-era fantasy was a novel to revel in. Ordinary Monsters combined cowboys, the undead, a Scottish magic school, action better than most blockbuster movies can manage, and refreshingly sharp prose astonishingly well as its batch of cast of desperate kids confused by their strange powers fought to make sense of the world around them—despite being stalked, and possibly manipulated, by sinister forces. That book’s climax upended all expectations, making Bringer of Dust something rare: a second volume in a fantasy where readers have no idea where things are heading. —AS Frighten the Horses by Oliver Radclyffe [NF] The latest book from Roxane Gay's eponymous imprint is Radclyffe's memoir of coming out as a trans man in his forties, rethinking his supposedly idyllic life with his husband and four children. Fans of the book include Sabrina Imbler, Sarah Schulman, and Edmund White, who praises Radclyffe as "a major writer." —SMS Everything to Play For by Marijam Did [NF] A video game industry insider, Did considers the politics of gaming in this critical overview—and asks how games, after decades of reshaping our private lives and popular culture, can help pave the way for a better world. —SMS Rejection by Tony Tulathimutte [F] Tulathimutte's linked story collection plunges into the touchy topics of sex, relationships, identity, and the internet. Vauhini Vara, in describing the book, evokes both Nabokov and Roth, as well as "the worst (by which I mean best) Am I the Asshole post you’ve ever read on Reddit." —SMS Elizabeth Catlett by Ed. Dalila Scruggs [NF] This art book, which will accompany a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum organized by Scruggs, spotlight the work and legacy of the pioneering printmaker, sculptor, and activist Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), who centered the experiences of Black and Mexican women in all that she did and aspired "to put art to the service of the people." —SMS The Repeat Room by Jesse Ball [F] I often credit Jesse Ball's surrealist masterpiece A Cure for Suicide with reviving my love of reading, and his latest got me out of my reading slump once again. Much like ACFS, The Repeat Room is set in a totalitarian dystopia that slowly reveals itself. The story follows Abel, a lowly garbageman chosen to sit on a jury where advanced technology is used to forcibly enter the memories of "the accused." This novel forces tough moral questions on readers, and will make you wonder what it means to be a good person—and, ultimately, if it even matters. —DF Defectors by Paola Ramos [NF] Ramos, an Emmy Award–winning journalist, examines how Latino voters—often treated as a monolith—are increasingly gravitating to the far right, and what this shift means America's political future. Rachel Maddow calls Defectors "a deeply reported, surprisingly personal exploration of a phenomenon that is little understood in our politics." —SMS Monet by Jackie Wullshläger [NF] Already available in the U.K., this biography reveals a more tempestuous Claude Monet than the serene Water Lilies of his later years suggest. Wullschläger, the chief art critic of the Financial Times, mines the archives for youthful letters and secrets about Monet’s unsung lovers and famous friends of the Belle Époque. —NodB Brooklynites by Prithi Kanakamedala [NF] Kanakamedala celebrates the Black Brooklynites who shaped New York City's second-largest borough in the 19th century, leaving a powerful legacy of social justice organizing in their wake. Centering on four Black families, this work of narrative history carefully and passionately traces Brooklyn's activist lineage. —SMS No Ship Sets Out to Be a Shipwreck by Joan Wickersham [NF] In this slim nonfiction/poetry hybrid, Wickersham (author of National Book Award finalist The Suicide Index) meditates on a Swedish warship named Vasa, so freighted with cannons and fancy carvings in honor of the king that it sank only minutes after leaving the dock in 1682, taking 30 lives with it. After Wickersham saw the salvaged Vasa on display in Stockholm, she crafted her book around this monument to nation and hubris. —NodB Health and Safety by Emily Witt [NF] I loved Witt's sharply observed Future Sex and can't wait for her latest, a memoir about drugs, raves, and New York City nightlife which charts the New Yorker staff writer's immersion into the city's dance music underground on the cusp of the pandemic—and the double life she began to lead as a result. —SMS [millions_email]

Turn the Page: Your Next Rock ‘N’ Roll Book Club

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My wife carries the distinction of being, among many other things, the world’s most ardent fan of the southern California folk-rock band Dawes. If they’re playing a show within 100 miles of our home, she will unquestionably be there; when they announce the release of a new recording, she pre-orders it as soon as she can. And if they offer a book club -- in which, every other month, a member of Dawes sends out a paperback, along with an explanation of why he chose that book -- she will become a member, excessive cost be damned. Since she joined in August, we’ve received three Dawes-approved titles: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “[Miller] leans heavily on some of the pre-existing tenets of eastern religion,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith writes in his “Dawes Book Report,” “particularly the idea that an individual’s happiness is not only contingent upon where they are in the world, but also upon a confluence of internal emotions.” To put it mildly, such knottiness is not what my wife expected from her fluffy-haired purveyors of golden-hued singalongs. (And I can’t really blame her; in college, I abandoned Sometimes a Great Notion after 15 flummoxing, headache-inducing pages.) All I can do is clear out shelf space for her new and difficult books -- and suggest, politely, that she join one of the following competing rock 'n' roll reading clubs, which, of course, include their own book reports. Ozzy Osbourne: Of Mice and Men So, Of Mice and Men, it’s got this big dumb wanker, Christ, I can’t remember his name -- wait, wait, it’s Denny, no, Lenny, that’s it -- and his mate, this teensy little shitter, George. This George fellow is like the Oates to Lenny’s Hall, if that makes any sense. I don’t think it does. Fucking “Maneater,” innit. Anyway, they’re all kinda walking around and what, like, camping? And the big one, he’s always killing the animals ‘cos he’s so fucking big. Like, you ever see that guy, whatsit, Joey Ramone? I met him once in Boston, or like Tokyo? He was fuckin’ huge, and that’s who I kept thinking of when I was reading this book. At the end of the book, the guy from the Ramones kills this kind of hooker-type bird in a barn, and that was pretty much that. Christ, I don’t know what this book was on about. Bob Dylan: Twilight Twilight is a book about a girl who falls in love with a boy who, I’ll tell you right now, just happens to be a vampire. Life is funny like that sometimes. But this girl, her name is Bella. And she can’t do anything about this love of hers; she just can’t put it through. Some hoodoo about magic powers, is what I’m gathering. Young love is like that, I’ve found -- untrustworthy at its heart and cold where it shouldn’t be. The book asks a certain kind of question, one that the wise men have been wrestling since the days of Plato, since the days of Little Richard, banging out his mystic sounds: is true love possible? And if not, how about vampire love? Now, I don’t know if it is or not, since I never was able to finish the book. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, to be honest on all fronts. It’s really long -- longer than the mighty Mississippi, where you can hear that steam whistle blow, far off into the night. Out beyond them sycamore trees standing out in the dark. A sound to scare the vampires, if there are any vampires around to scare. Jimmy Buffett: American Psycho Maybe you weren’t expecting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to be the first selection of my book club. Jimmy, I hear you plead, you’re the bard of the beachfront, the Wordsworth of the waves. You once released an album called License to Chill; you write songs about delicious cheeseburgers. Why kick things off with a harrowing, full-bore descent into the savage, blood-spattered heart of our long-dead modern dream? Why confront us with this jagged, debauched journey into a pornographic, torturous vision? Why not give us something easy, something by Carl Hiaasen or, you know, Dave Barry -- or better yet, one of your own books, like the lounge-chair-ready A Salty Piece of Land or Where is Joe Merchant? My response is this, my faithful Parrotheads: beneath every placid exterior lies a festering, maggot-ridden core, a hellish pit of snakes and raw-boned, scalding pain. Stare into those waves lapping gently against the shore long enough, and soon enough you’ll see the nihilism in their relentless pounding; that water at your sunburned feet should remind us all of the steady encroachment of death. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes -- I hope you dig the book! Up next after this one: The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly! Adam Levine: Ulysses Hey, Maroon 5 Book Clubbers! This month’s super-cool novel is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hugely important to me, and not just because it’s the most prominent landmark in modernist literature -- or that in 1998 the Modern Library named it the best English-language novel of the 20th Century! I chose Ulysses because it’s a work in which life’s complexities are depicted with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity. (Seriously, guys, it is!) But that’s not all: in its characters we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence! Isn’t that rad? All right now, Fivers, get to it -- I hope you love it as much as I did! ‘Cause I totally read it -- and other books, too! I didn’t just have my assistant cut and paste lines from Wikipedia to make it seem like I had read Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, which, I have to say, depicts life's complexities with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity! Image Credit: Wikipedia/jon rubin.

Fifty Shades of Sociological Commentary

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In her new book, Hard-Core Romance, Eva Illouz has published the first serious, book-length academic analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey. The critically-panned Fifty Shades trilogy, originally a Twilight fan fiction, has sold 32 million copies in the US so far. At The New Republic, William Giraldi seizes the opportunity for a brutal send-up of author E. L. James and the “dreck” she represents. "At least people are reading,” he writes, “You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.” Pair with The Millions’ essay on literary predecessors in published fan fiction.

Nathaniel P. Gets the Fanfic Treatment: On Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s”

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Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story - George Lucas's Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight - and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it's called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there's no reason literary fiction can't have its own fan fiction - and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own. To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. "New Year's" is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away. I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers. Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him. It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character. We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin. When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done. What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t. Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems. For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection. It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web. At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.

Teaching the ‘Law and Order’ Short Story

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At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing. The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first. Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously. Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading. This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do. What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume. I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them. When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens: “It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —” “Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.” (General murmurs of approval.) “Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?” “That one is amazing.” Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson. My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny. I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover. Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen. Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan. What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share. One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading. I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares. Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this. Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own. Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students. Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree. In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome. My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay. They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.

Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List

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In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I'd have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don't plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don't deny the positive aspects of that choice. Below I've outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can't predict the future, though I'm sure I'll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It's in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding? 1. I Guess I'm Not a Hater People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are "another bright spot" in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!) Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous -- and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won't. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there's the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors -- new and mid-list -- are bound to get lost in this system. And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don't always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: "I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to." 2. I Write Literary Fiction Before you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don't consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it's simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can't think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That's not to say that it can't -- and shouldn't -- happen, it's only to point out that it's a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren't seeking out self-published books. Why not? That's for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don't see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon. 3. I'd Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision (nominated for this year's National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house. In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way: I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers' attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options - "Others who bought this item also bought...." Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few "designated" titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been "designated" your reality can become pretty stark. Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books -- to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren't always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I'm often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn't true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors. A year ago, I published my novella If You're Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press's risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press's LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom. Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game. Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers. 4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he's built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It's much harder to create a readership out of nothing. I'm interested to see how Neal Pollack's latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don't need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them. 5. I Value the Publishing Community I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he's ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he's a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he's a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me: True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I'm not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience. What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope: Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can't, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself? This -- this! -- I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor's notes on it -- notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate -- were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen? 6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don't want to be Amazon's Bitch Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can't see myself taking that route, however, because I don't own an e-reader, and I don't have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway... I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn't be able to buy my own book -- I mean, shouldn't I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don't mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don't mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I'm simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it's naive to believe that a self-published author is "fighting the system" if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they've rejected "The Big 6" for "The Big 1." 7. Is it Best for Readers? In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn't sold, he said, "Please don't self-publish!" He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he'd buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he'd happily ignore my novel in search of something he'd read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is. Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller's humorous and perspicacious essay, "When Anyone Can be a Published Author," in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes: Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile? As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with. 8. I'm Busy. Writing. Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn't go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I've given up; I say, I'm just getting warmed up. I'm still writing, aren't I? My career isn't one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.   Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr

Nobody Wants to Go Home: A Unified Theory of Reality TV

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I. In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment.  It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star.  It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying.  No, I'm not talking about the internet, I'm talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television.  Reality TV was supposed to devour television.  It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades.  Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war.  These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form.  They were the beginning of the end of the world.  Except that they weren't.  They didn't really do any of the things they were feared to do.  And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous. We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade.  We've largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions.  We're scapegoating Twilight now, and we're all terrified of the internet. Or we're terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet.  Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter.  We've all moved on to Twitter.  But it wasn't too long ago when none of this seemed possible.  It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end.  It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them. II. MTV wanted to make a soap opera.  Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours.  America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up.  Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations -- the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world -- while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day. MTV had tried a few different things to kill time -- most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety  -- but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture:  the eternal fountain of disposable income.  MTV's dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show.  Their solution was brilliant -- they'd simply make a show without actors or writers -- two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera. The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement:  "This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real."  That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World.  Not only is it the longest running program in MTV's history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today. III. The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today's most successful scripted programming.  At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan.  A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts.  The casting logic of the show was fairly simple:  find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure.  In this way, the cast member's situation wasn't unlike that of today's bloggers and vloggers -- they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career.  For some it did; for others, not so much. The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension.  We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate.  This balancing act -- with help from some racial tension -- blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show.  In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show. Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years.  It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation.  The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment.  The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show's premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws.  It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time. The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more.  Again we saw characters who desired fame and success -- singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon -- and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension.  This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David "assaulted" Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear.  For this crime -- something kids at camp do every summer -- David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely. Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting.  Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke.  While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it's pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn't a big deal.  It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import.  One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami's request for safety and removed David. Secondly, it's no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men.  The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded.  Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show's run. While the house may have been split on David's departure, the audience ate it up.  Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season.  This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was.  No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid.  The producers' disgust with Jon must've been intense.  How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything? If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it.  When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree.   Here, long before the phrase "voted off the island" became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come.  If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode? Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four's setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own).  In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still).  The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house. IV. It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt.  Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives.  The emotion on the show seemed real.  When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible.  There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling.  Something might happen; this was the "real world" after all.  (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way.  One has to imagine the network wasn't pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.) In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur's dream.  These people were fascinating!  Watching them do the most basic things -- eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed -- felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique.  Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did. And when they revealed something unique about themselves -- such as Heather B.'s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson ("Larry Johnson is so fine!") -- it was revelatory.  Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument "Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?"  That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence.  It's certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world. Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with "reality" didn't last.  A few things broke the spell.  For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real.  Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked.  The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be.  They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go. This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show.  It can't be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase "here for the right reasons" on their own, can it?  Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America's Next Top Model learned to scream "Tyra Mail!" every time the show's producers drop off one of their cryptic missives.  In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted.  They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as "Nobody wants to go home," and "I'm not here to make friends," but the result is the same. For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable -- if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance.  It's affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner.  And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly "This is real, okay?", all the better. For other shows, the effect is less desirable.  Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of "reality."  It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine.  It's no wonder that the show's "characters" seem to burn out after a few seasons.  It can be difficult to keep up the illusion. At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real.  Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking.  Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.  The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing.  It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation. The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn't unique to The Real World.  Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was).  Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements.  Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America's Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World's great revelation than American Idol has:  that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking).  Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process.  In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies. The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal.  Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we'd already watched them do something.  Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape).  The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called "anthropological shows," programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead.  Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this.  Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows.  Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to. Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character.  One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing... well, anything.  With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence.  Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse -- think about the craze created around The Situation's summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) -- but it's not like it was.  For a few years there, watching people's lives was all we really wanted to do. V. Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours.  That isn't to say that reality TV's influence isn't felt in a variety of programs.   The confessional, perhaps The Real World's most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom.  The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address.  These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama.  They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV. It's difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television.  My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real.  After we'd seen that, reality was dead, so to speak.  We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves.  HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire.  These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen.  Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age.  Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24. It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of "quality" scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case.  Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom.  Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV. If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it's no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation.  Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon.  As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist.  In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right:  "There is no new thing under the sun." [Image credits: MTV]

A Year in Reading: Dana Goodyear

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This was the year in which I read Twilight, in something less than forty-eight fevered hours, and thought: Tantric rape fantasy. And: Wait, is this a Volvo ad? This was also the year in which I read Tender Morsels, a young-adult novel by the Australian writer Margo Lanagan. It was a revelation, a dark, engrossing fairy tale whose intricacies and images are as haunting and impossible and psychologically freighted as a dream. The opening of Tender Morsels is brutal: thirteen-year-old Liga, whose mother has been dead for several years, is unknowingly pregnant with her father’s child. She has a miscarriage, brought on by the herbs of a local “mud-wife,” added by her father to the fire in their dilapidated cabin at the edge of town. The narration, in the third person at this point in the story, sticks close to Liga’s perspective, betraying how little of what is happening she comprehends. From the confusion—the consequence of her father’s inexplicable aggression and abuse, compounded by her isolation and her ignorance—Liga’s own eccentric voice emerges like a quirky, irresistible melody. It is a voice in love with language and its idiosyncrasies, that has no problem ginning compounds or changing nouns to verbs, that sees the herb smoke “cauliflowering out of the fireplace, fogging the air.” And she has an ear. Her second abortion, this one brought on by bitter tea, takes place on a “blossomy, bosomy, rotting night. . . [b]ut in from that night kept sidling the thin black witch who was the pain.” After her father is trampled by a horse and dies, Liga, pregnant again, stands over his dressed corpse “all mix-feelinged and waiting.” Soon the novel turns fabulous. Liga, by now fifteen and the mother of two (one her father’s child, one the result of a gang rape by five boys from town), disappears into a world of her own invention, which, the reader comes to understand, is her personal heaven: a snug cabin in the woods where she can do her sewing (repairing, repairing) and her daughters can grow up graceful and unafraid. This is where the magic of Lanagan’s plotting begins to take effect, when the thin membrane separating Liga’s heaven from the real world is punctured. The novel argues for language and its salvific possibilities, and explores the relationship between trauma and the imagination. In Lanagan's moral framework, fantasy is the consolation for sex, but fantasy's seductions are potentially the more dangerous and damaging. It is the best kind of book: a book that makes you want to write, but pins you to your chair and demands that first you finish it. More from A Year in Reading

Matt & Kim, Beat & Beckett

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I like to be delighted and watching Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim (Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino) at the El Rey Theatre in downtown Los Angeles last week, I was. If you enjoy anything half as much as these two enjoy performing, count yourself among the blessed. And their pleasure is infectious: you might well feel, as I did—misanthropic soul that I am—a pleasure hardly less than theirs in watching them. The energy of their music and performance style is infectious too, which you'll know if you've heard "Daylight," the duo's best and most popular song (it is, perhaps unfortunately, now featured in a Bacardi commercial). If you haven't, check out the video: While there are bands that will impress you more with musical virtuosity and melody, Matt and Kim's sound—arresting in its beat-driven-ness and bright in its jangly piano and synth-poppiness—has an insistent, invigorating effect.  If you watch the music video for "Daylight," note the scene in which Matt and Kim are sitting in a dumpster, nestled amidst the trash, playing their instruments.  A man throws more trash in on top of them and they continue to play. Kim continues smiling her radiant smile (also a little unsettling in its relentlessness), and keeps pounding her drumsticks on the edge of the dumpster. Watching this, listening to it, I feel strangely as if I am in the presence of a euphoric musical reincarnation of Samuel Beckett: "Quand on est dans la merde jusqu' au cou, il ne rest plus qu'a chanter." (When you are up to your neck in shit, there's nothing left to do but sing.) Beckett's Endgame also comes to mind: Nag and Nell in their ashbins—toothless, legs amputated but still asking for pap.  The duo's other videos—I'm thinking particularly of "Yea Yeah" and "5K"—reveal the world of absurdist comedy and violence to be milieus familiar and comfortable to the Brooklynites. The world may be a nonsensical and painful place, they seem to say, but if we choose to approach it with sufficient energy and humor we might achieve that best of modern states (Beckett again) "I Can't Go On, I Must Go On." Matt & Kim's lyrics have an abstract nonsense quality that evokes e.e. cummings as well—the words might seem not to mean anything but, perhaps, for our time, they mean everything: I have five clocks in my life and only one has the time right I’ll just unplug it for today I'll just unplug it for today Open hydrant rolled down windows This car might make a good old boat And float down grand street in daylight And float down grand street in daylight This is what our life is: Ordered nonsense that we all accept helplessly ("Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah…"), but the horror is lessened if we can approach it with energy, pound the shit out of it with an uncompromising beat. The video for "5K", banned on American MTV,  shares a certain kinship with Daniel Johnston's song "Devil Town," best known in its cover versions by Bright Eyes and Tony Lucca.  For all of the little and not-so-little girls mooning over the creepily paternalistic and Humbert-Humbert-y Edward from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, Matt and Kim's "5K" video speaks much more intelligently of our culture's resurgent love of vampires than does the idiotic and thieving Twilight series.  (We are all vampires now, even authors of vampire fiction.  Twilight is an amalgam of plot elements sucked from the barely dead Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and the still quite alive Sookie Stackhouse novels, with a bit of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte more explicitly snatched and patched in along the way.  Only the faults of Stephenie Meyer's novels are her own--Would that she had imbibed more in the way of character and dialogue from Joss Whedon and Charlaine Harris, or, albeit less probably, from Shakespeare and Bronte.) No, the happy dismemberment of Matt and Kim's "5K" video displays a jolly cannibalistic feast that leaves everyone dead at the end (and recalls in its homemade gorefest effects early Peter Jackson movies like Dead-Alive); in this, it shows us the vampires we have become unbeknownst to ourselves.  We consume violence in our movies, our food (most of which, as it is currently produced, makes the planet and its creatures suffer), our wars, our dependence on cheap consumer goods whose cheapness is the result of exploitative labor practices. We cannot abstain from vampirism, as Twilight's Edward does. To be dismayed by the video—man happily dismembering man with eating utensils—is to see our culture plain, a culture that we cannot but participate in. Our inexhaustible appetite for new stuff, our willingness to countenance inhumanity in the name of efficiency and convenience makes us all petty Draculas. But I digress.  Matt and Kim's bodies proclaim how delighted they are that you are listening to them and it is an experience rare in its authenticity and energy.  Whether Kim's smile, or her biceps, or her sailor's mouth is more impressive (according to her husband/Matt she has been described as having "the body of a 15-year-old boy and the mouth of a 69-year-old sailor") is yours to decide.  I also note that the show at the El Rey is the only one I have been to where crowd surfing was actively encouraged and participated in by the band, as well as tolerated and managed by the stage security.  But don't trust me. I am a paranoid, delusional melancholic with a tendency to over-read.  See for yourself! The band is on tour in the States through October, and then in Europe through December.  Worth a look and a listen, in spite of Rolling Stone's mild dismissiveness.

Summer of My Discontent

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I know it's inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I'm on a losing streak.  Sometimes I'm on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything.  But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs.  It's not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake.  It's that they aren't enjoyable.  They don't make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter.  Perhaps I ask too much.  And perhaps it's unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual). I think it's the books.  Here are the culprits, feel free to judge: A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I'm not sure that I have enough to say.  After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River.  It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV.  Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me.  It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me.  Maybe that was Naipaul's intention.  More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference.  I did really like the last page.  So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages.  Maybe I'll read it again, when I'm feeling more charitable. London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read.  Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel.  (Uppers, maybe.)  To be fair (unfair?), I haven't finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven't finished it is that it's kind of a chore.  It's like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you.  You don't know what's at the end, but you can't be sure that it will be something nice, and it's an awful lot of effort in the meantime.  When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov.  I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo's Americana (another book I didn't care for).  It's exhausting, and I just want it to be over. The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing.  I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained.  Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days.  The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining.  I found it powerful, but unpleasant. I really admired what Lessing did in this novel.  Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious.  It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit.  I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus.  When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness.  That's impressive, but it wasn't fun.  What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady!  How about that? Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately.  Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and "culture" websites.  First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them).  When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, "Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this" and "Shut up."  But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of "romance" and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion.  As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too.  Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook. The Skating Rink:  Sigh.  I was so looking forward to this.  I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order.  But it was lacklustre.  It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student.  Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat.  If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think.  Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty.  So does pre-ordering. Those are my companions in the rut, friends.  I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I'm not sure they are suitable.  First, The Black Book.  I like Pamuk, but I'm not sure he is the one to end a losing streak.  The man is married to melancholy.  Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central.  But it looks heavy (like, heavy).  I'm going to the beach next week.  Will my location be incompatible with my reading material?  I'm sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight.  I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions.  What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella's pick-up truck?  Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn't even know her?  Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington?  How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book? I'll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.

Book Lovers

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It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. "I think you'd like Johnson," I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. "The violence and the tenderness together. 'Emergency' will knock you out." He's never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out. It does (of course). He can't stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson's poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again. We'd talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he's read it, but he hasn't. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we're rolling. He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me "In Memory of My Feelings" by Frank O'Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell's "The Bear." Don't be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio. Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay. Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one - not sequential, not interdependent, but one. More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don't you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage: Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them. My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way. For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can't seem to keep my head in the game - guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much...). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I'd written - Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Borges' A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week. Then, a small thing I notice - a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he'd recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it... he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind - a tiny thought, barely perceptible - I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I've got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I'd ever say such a thing: That book changed my life. He writes that The Name of the World - a minor Johnson novel I'd recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke - didn't speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn't believe in God) that really got me, I'd be interested in Coupland's Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it. I don't know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years. He's reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges - Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write - which he watches and then reports back as "odd" and "all falling apart at the end." We both agree that "Sonny's Blues" is indeed a masterpiece. I don't hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books: If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something's jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune. I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list. I think: what the hell am I doing? He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one's ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don't imagine he'll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.) I think: what the hell am I doing? The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend. You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write. Ah, yes, it's been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time. I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros. He asks me if I am on Facebook. I write yes. Let's be Facebook friends. Yes, let's. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. - grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.) I read on about Erlend Loe: "Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it's 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity." I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.