For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, was called, “spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching,” by critics and widely lauded for his careful handling of the tough subject of sexual abuse. As The New Yorker put it, “by balancing its anguish with fantasy and Korean folk tales, he keeps a sad story from becoming maudlin.”
I’ve been feeling the buzz about Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night (Feb 2) since the summer. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a legendary soprano who is offered the last big accolade she has yet to gain in her singing career, a libretto written just for her. When she realizes that the libretto is based on her life, she knows that someone is trying to reveal the secrets of her past, but who? An early review says that the novel, “feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.”
The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst?
What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it’s all worth it in the end. I interviewed Chee by email.
The Millions: Since Edinburgh was published, you have done a few things, like been named one of Out Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, been published in Granta, Tin House, and Guernica, written for The New York Times, won fellowships, awards, and taught for Wesleyan, University of Leipzig, and Princeton, to name just a few. But, you have not published a second novel. Why did you keep us waiting?
Alexander Chee: Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like a lot. But I feel much as I did the last time, with Edinburgh — I remember telling a friend it felt like digging a tunnel to freedom and arriving at a party.
I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel — teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time.
And so as I went on tour, I felt celebrated and also robbed simultaneously. I switched agents then, and my agent was able to get me half of the remaining paperback money owed to me. But I’ve never recouped that loss. And while this may seem small, perhaps — what is a year among 13? — well, it was the first one, it set the tone. It said, you could work all this time and at the end have everything taken from you.
There’s something else, an essay I’ve tried to write for a while, in my next, next book — a book of essays I’m collecting now — about a recovered memory I had in that first year the novel was out. I remember a guy at book club asking me why I hadn’t written a memoir. I said, “I don’t remember all of it.” This was how I learned to articulate something about fiction writing: that you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.
So I wrote Edinburgh. I wrote to fit the shape of what I knew to be true, but what I found was, I hadn’t dealt with what it described. And then once the book was out, the missing pieces came back. It was as if I’d cornered myself to force the truth out of me.
For example, the night before Edinburgh’s official pub day, I understood I hadn’t ever told my mother I’d been through something like what the novel describes. And the novel just couldn’t be the way she found out. So I called her and told her.
TM: Was the time in between your two novels a frustrating period, or was it fruitful?
AC: Both. Fruitful work periods are full of frustration, I think.
Marilynne Robinson once observed to me something like, “Great works of art are never created out of self esteem.” I think that may be true.
There was a brief moment when I remember feeling so excited about showing the world what I could do with a novel now that I’d published Edinburgh. But, in addition to the aforementioned psychic crisis, I was also just burnt out. And so as much as part of me was so excited by the idea of writing more novels, that soon became, “You want me to do all this again?”
What happened next is, I won two prizes that fall — the Whiting Writers’ Award and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship — prizes that on their own would have meant for an amazing year. At the level of magical thinking, it felt like the universe making up some for what bankruptcy court had taken away from me. And as I had won the N.E.A. for an excerpt of The Queen of the Night, the prize seemed like a finger pointing at me and saying, “Go and do this.”
So, I did…sort of.
It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine, Charles D’Ambrosio-style, writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months.
And then I showed my agent what I had and she sold The Queen of the Night as a partial in 9 days. This shocked me. It had taken two years to find a publisher for Edinburgh.
I moved out, spent the summer researching in Paris, spent a year in Rochester as a disgruntled faculty spouse to a man I was trying to love, and when that fell apart, got a job at Amherst College, where I had the honor of being their Visiting Writer for four years. I wrote much of the novel there. When that ended, I moved to New York again, where it seemed as if all that had troubled me about the city before had bleached away in the weather.
But the writing schools in New York all pay terribly — they can have anyone they want for adjunct money — we should all go on strike actually and force them to give raises. Anyway, you have to constantly leave town to make enough money to live. Thus my stints at Iowa, Leipzig, and Austin. These were productive, but the moves slow the writing down.
I wrote many other things besides the novel to make a living — nonfiction is one of my day jobs. I did a lot of research, maybe too much. I was haunted by that review you get from a historian who claims your novel is stupid because of one minor historical mistake.
TM: Did you hit a low while writing The Queen of the Night?
AC: The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I’d found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev — both characters in the novel. In particular, it was information on how she was composing operas as her voice faded, and he was writing the libretti — he loved her, believed in her talent, and was urging her to do this.
I knew if I didn’t find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most.
TM: Did you experience any pressure from your agent or publisher?
AC: Yes. And they were well within their rights. My original contract was for a book due in 2006. Everyone involved has been remarkably patient and supportive, though there was a period when my agent would punch me in the arm whenever I saw her out. Other writers in this situation have been cancelled, so I would never complain about the pressure. While it often made me feel guilty, I tried to understand it as a way of being loved.
TM: Did you feel commercial pressure, or worry about your own livelihood?
AC: This is a constant under capitalism though, right? But nothing in the book is there to make it more commercial or I would have used quotation marks around the dialogue. Other people may be able to write cynically, but when I do I want to die. Which was never the point of writing.
The biggest pressure was when I had run out of the money. I was paid for this book, everything else was essentially unpaid work during which time I also had to work to pay bills. And the longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life — my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years.
The novel also ruined every family holiday vacation for a decade, too — typically the down time between semesters when you can get writing done.
Right near the end, I had a student write a story about the workshop, in which she was unkind to everyone in the class except herself, who she portrayed as a talented writer and a great beauty. This is something that happens at least once in every writing teacher’s life — the student who thinks it is brilliant to write about the class and make everyone talk about what she thinks of them. Me? She portrayed me as a failed writer who couldn’t sell his new book.
All I can say is, I look forward to when this happens to her.
TM: Edinburgh came out with Picador, while The Queen of the Night is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, why did you change publishers? Did it have anything to do with the gap between them?
AC: This was pretty ordinary. Picador was nothing but supportive of Edinburgh and kept it in print well after anyone else would have. I can say nothing but good things about them. The publisher at the time declined to bid on The Queen of the Night. I think they knew I was likely to follow my editor at the time, who had left Picador for Houghton.
The Queen of the Night took so long to write that I was orphaned three times. My current editor, Naomi Gibbs, is my fourth, the former assistant to the third, promoted now to associate. And she really did much of the trench work on the novel at the end, assisting me with the insertions I made. A painstaking task I will owe her for forever.
TM: Were you concerned that you might be “forgotten” as a novelist?
AC: Definitely. I would sometimes come across blog posts praising the first novel and saying things like, “It seems like he’s stopped writing.” That was hard to read. But, I understand. Eventually, I accepted that I was known more for personal essays and social media than for my first novel, especially after my idea for the Amtrak Residency became a real thing thanks to Twitter. But, this all makes the reception of this novel thus far really gratifying.
My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book — people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book — and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record.
TM: Facebook didn’t exist, let alone Twitter or anything like that when Edinburgh came out. Does it feel like a very different world to publish a novel into?
AC: Sure, like different planets. I laughed recently to remember those post cards I was asked to make. How I would leave them at the yoga studio I worked at, and then would feel guilty if they blew onto the floor, guilty again when I had to recycle them for having gotten dirty on the floor, etc. Such a mess.
But in addition to the postcards, back in 2001, I also had a website, made for me by a friend who is an early adopter — which I remember people treated it as a bit of a curiosity. I remember the moment my webmaster said, “You should have a blog, something to keep your readers coming back for,” something I couldn’t imagine at first. It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and everyone there seemed to have a blog that I began blogging as a way to work out of burnout.
I never found out why everyone in L.A. was blogging, but I remember people sometimes mocked me for having a blog, saying it was something serious literary writers didn’t do.
Sarah Manguso and Susan Steinberg, one night at MacDowell, the writers colony, kept chanting at me “delete your blog delete your blog.” But by 2006, hiring committees told me it helped them hire me — that it showed I was a thinker in a bigger way than the books and submitted essays did — and by 2008 I found I had a reputation as a literary writer who used the Internet like a blogger, with a blog that had a reputation for literary quality. I began consulting with writers and literary organizations, teaching them how to use Twitter and Facebook, blog strategies for publication that supported their launches and tours.
It’s become popular to mock writers’ use of social media again, but everyone is using it. If we disdain it, how will we know what people’s lives are like? Almost no one lives in the way these critics are asking writers to live, offline and shuttered away. Anything you write from that position will be literally blinkered.
Social media makes it much easier to get attention as a writer and to be relevant between books — in my case, a very long time. It has also leveled the playing field for LGBTQ writers and writers of color. Yes, I too hate the weird sort of wedding toast atmosphere that can come over Facebook. But, at least when I write about it in fiction, I won’t be guessing what it is like.
TM: What is the biggest difference for you this time around?
AC: I don’t know how to describe it yet. Mostly, I’m trying to focus on what’s next. I have my essay collection, plus ideas and pages for a nonfiction book as well as four novels. And a screenplay I’ve adapted with my partner, Dustin Schell. We’ve adapted Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, and we have high hopes for it. Dustin has never known me until now without me working on this novel and feeling like I would be killed by writing it. So I’m introducing him to that guy. The one who finished and survived it.
TM: There is huge buzz about The Queen of the Night. How did it start?
AC: Well, thanks. This answer is just an educated guess but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has some serious game, I have to say. Their strategy was to begin with galleys early, to give people time to read it, and to make the cover into something physically beautiful — a galley that was also an object of desire. Anyone who says a cover doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. Michelle Triant there and Hannah Harlow were the galley masters. But I have to give a lot of credit to Liberty Hardy first of all, and her partner in crime, Rebecca Schinsky over at Book Riot, who were early champions of the novel. Liberty even made a countdown clock. Rachel Fershleiser, of Tumblr, Lisa Lucas, of Guernica, Maris Kreizman over at Kickstarter, Michele Filgate, Stephanie Anderson (aka Bookavore), and Sarah McCarry — what we call the Bookternet, basically. Women in cool glasses who read crates of books.
Plus Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll, of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Saeed Jones and Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed. And of course, The Millions. It has to have helped to have the novel on your most anticipated list for several years. I’m just glad it is really finally coming out.
And then the writer Maud Newton, who will be in conversation with me at my launch at McNally Jackson on February 2. She has consistently written about me and the novel over the years, even read an early draft — she’s a great friend and when I thought of who to do this first event with, she was my first choice. I’m really looking forward to talking to her about it.
TM: The Queen of the Night comes out on February 2. How do you feel right now?
AC: I feel great. For a while I was telling people, “It could never be worth it,” in terms of the time and sacrifices. Now it feels like maybe it was. We’ll see.
After the titular canines of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs are miraculously blessed with human intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before one of them uses his newfound powers to crack the first dog joke: “How is a squirrel like a plastic duck? They both squeak when you bite them.”
Hardly worthy of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, but that’s the point. A real joke that humans found funny wouldn’t be funny to dogs. Human intelligence bestowed upon dogs doesn’t fully translate into dogs who think like humans. Here and elsewhere, Alexis’s curious, absorbing novel is full of translational failures — between “changed” dogs and regular dogs, dogs and humans, gods and mortals — that ultimately steer Alexis’s whimsical conceit toward the tragic.
This may sound portentous of a work in which a conniving beagle is taught to read William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (in the pages of which he finds a similarly scheming heroine) or a poodle watches Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but the absurdity is always darkened by violence or infused with melancholy. The cineaste poodle, for instance, “could not stand to see so many distant worlds without being able to smell them.” Even aesthetic experience contains a unique form of anguish, a sensory as well as emotional ache.
As if often the case, meddling gods are the root cause of the trouble. Apollo and Hermes are at a Toronto bar, where they are having a few beers and talking about that endlessly fascinating subject (even to deities), humanity. Strolling outside afterwards, they debate whether granting human intelligence to animals would render them happy or unhappy. Apollo wagers that the “change” will make them miserable, Hermes stakes the opposing position, and the two choose 15 dogs inside a vet clinic as their subjects. Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff dreaming about killing squirrels and rabbits, instantly awakes after having the “vivid and unprecedented” thought that the animals in his jaws might experience pain. With human intelligence comes a sympathetic identification that troubles the pleasure and instincts of doghood.
After the poodle, Majnoun, figures out how to open the cages and doors, 12 of the dogs escape into a world at once “new and marvelous” and “familiar and banal.” The three dogs who choose to remain at the clinic lead unhappy lives, some briefer than others. One whippet and weimaraner mix, already high-strung before “the change,” is tortured by her new awareness of time, “each moment like a scabies mite crawling under her skin.” The eight hours she spends alone while her owners are at work prove too much for the creature, who “chances on a typically human haven from suffering: catatonia,” and is put down shortly thereafter. Score one for Apollo.
The pack sets up a den in a park. Some dogs, obsessed with their old lives, opt to suppress any expressions of their enhanced intelligence and maintain the pack hierarchy the old-fashioned way: through dominance. But no matter how convincingly they behave like unaltered dogs, they remain “dogs imitating dogs:” canine performativity in action, to put it in academese.
Proving that it can make something as well as nothing happen, poetry splinters the pack for good. Language becomes a new tool to secure status, which means it’s also a threat. (In a nice touch, the word for “cat,” is hard to pronounce, “the sound of something caught in the throat”). Prince, the jokester of squeaky toy fame, recites a poem of his own devising and thereby riles up a philistine pack member, who wonders: “[He] had been speaking for speaking’s sake. Could there be a more despicable use for words?” The ensuing dispute leads to a violent, “flawlessly done” purge that forces some dogs to try their luck with human masters.
As if in response to the dogs’ belief that humans are inherently unpredictable, the narrator is determined to remain preternaturally calm. Alexis maintains the same flat tone whether describing brutal canine assaults or a beagle looking on as his master adopts a submissive sexual role with his girlfriend. (The beagle, a “student of dominance,” understands the impulse intuitively.) Alexis is at his best when he enters into the mind of a creature divided between opposing impulses, or zooms in on some dried bird shit to explain its appeal (“hard salad sautéed in goose fat”). The sketchy allegorical passages about society formation and increasingly obtrusive mythological machinery are less successful. But rather than harping on them, best to conclude with a killer one-liner from the pack’s resident jokester:
Why do cats always smell like cats? Oh look! A Squirrel!
Alexis’s conceit, in which dogs are caught between human and canine worlds, in a sense reflects their real-life predicament: dogs are creatures upon whom owners project distinctly human intelligence and emotions. J.R. Ackerley reflects on this phenomenon towards the end of My Dog Tulip, an exquisitely wry and unabashedly sincere love story between a man and his alsatian, his occasionally maddening “imperial bitch.” He reflects on the
strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend.
Ackerley’s memoir, which makes a nice companion to Fifteen Dogs, recounts the efforts of a man attempting to ease that strain and anxiety and give his dog the fullest possible life. This “full life” includes sex and motherhood, which means that Ackerley must secure her a suitable male. He finds one prospective mate for Tulip, Max, another alsatian who plainly runs the household: “To have offered him any kind of familiarity, it was plain, would have been as shocking a breach of etiquette as if one had attempted to stroke the butler.” Determined not to offend man or beast, Ackerley avoids meeting Max’s eye when he delicately inquires of his owner as to whether the “heavy, handsome” dog is a virgin.
A very British bit of tact, but one that, however comically, speaks to Ackerley’s deep respect for dogs — a respect stemming from his passionate devotion to his own. When Tulip spies Ackerley urinating in the woods and hastens to pee on the same spot, he is ecstatic, interpreting the act as a form of communion: “…I feel that if ever there were differences between us they are washed out now. I feel a proper dog.” However, that extreme identification makes his failures — real or perceived — all the more unbearable. During one of Tulip’s heats, those “cruel” periods in which “the whole of a creature’s sexual desire [is] concentrate[d], like a furnace…into three or four weeks a year,” Ackerley castigates himself for refusing to let her mate. He can’t even meet her gaze:
The look in hers disconcerts me, it contains too much, more than a beast may give, something too clear and too near, too entire, too dignified and direct, a steadier look than my own. I avert my face.
The more intensely the distinguished man of letters identifies with her desires, the more awesome she becomes: neither dog nor human but almost divine in her wisdom.
As the new owner of a basset hound puppy, I can only hope to experience such sublimity. What terrible wisdom, I wonder, will be revealed in those drooping jowls and soulful eyes?
One such famously mischievous writer, J.M. Coetzee, does just that in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. After acclimating to Novilla, the hellishly placid utopia in which he has landed, Simón asks his friend and sometimes sexual companion, Elena, if, “hypothetically,” she would ever consider someone like him as a husband. Elena’s reply makes it clear that good citizens of Novilla are not prone to idle conjecture: “If that is your way of asking whether I would marry you, then the answer is yes, I would…When would you want to do it? Because the registry office is open only on weekdays. Can you get time off?”
In stripping the marriage proposal of any trace of romance, seduction, and emotion, The Childhood of Jesus spurred me to think about similarly uninspired literary declarations of love. These offers, always disappointing and often unacceptable, dispel the excitement implicit in the expression, “to pop the question,” which conveys how asking for someone’s hand in marriage is tied to a sense of surprise, and by extension, a narrative surrounding that surprise: an engagement story. If all proposers pale in comparison to Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd, who tells his prospective bride quite the tale about the pleasures of Arcadian life, we nonetheless hope for something more memorable than Simón and Elena’s coolly rational courtship.
Then again, some proposals are perhaps better forgotten. The following unromantic, bizarre, poorly delivered or conceived proposals elicit reactions less like Molly Bloom’s orgasmically affirmative “yes I said yes I will Yes!” and more like this underwhelmed response to a lackluster offer in David Stacton’s A Fox Inside: “You might at least pretend…that I’m a person. After all, I move and talk like one the best way I can.”
Uriah Heep, the scheming, writhing, oleaginous villain of David Copperfield, demonstrates why asking a potential bride’s father for permission is risky. Heep has already wriggled his way into Mr. Wickfield’s house and business, partly by encouraging the latter’s dipsomaniac tendencies, when he decides to go after Wickfield’s daughter: “I’ve an ambition to make your Agnes my Agnes.” The dissolute father doesn’t take the news particularly well: “He was mad for the moment; tearing out his hair, beating his head…not answering a word, not looking at or seeing any one; blindly striving for he knew not what, his face all staring and distorted — a frightful spectacle.” Heep’s ambitions — marital and professional — go unfulfilled, but not before Wickfield has voiced what many a prospective father-in-law might wish to: “But look at him!…Look at my torturer.”
While the variously insulting, ridiculous, and romantic marriage proposals directed towards Elizabeth Bennett are well known, Jane Austen’s Persuasion boasts of its own, subtler failed bid. Anne Elliot, despite the “early loss of bloom and spirits,” receives a sly proposal in the midst of a party from her cousin, the dashing but unscrupulous Mr. Elliot: “The name of Anne Elliot…has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Pretty smooth as far as cousin-to-cousin proposals go, but to his misfortune Anne gets distracted by hearing someone utter the name of her true love, Wentworth, “which rendered every thing else trivial.” Unlike other characters in this novel of second chances, Mr. Elliot misses his only shot, and his ignored avowal raises an interesting philosophical question: if a proposal falls on deaf ears, is it still a proposal?
Tom Sharpe’s The Great Pursuit treats us to a proposal scene considerably raunchier than a Regency tea party. A literary agent, Frensic, is hunting down the anonymous author of Pause O Men for the Virgin, an “odyssey of lust” that goes into “exquisitely nauseating detail” about the affair between a teenage boy and an octogenarian woman. Frensic eventually locates the manuscript’s typist, Cynthia, whom he must seduce in order to get vital information about her secret client. The problem is that Frensic isn’t in great shape: “Driven frantic by Cynthia’s omnivorous sexuality he had proposed to the woman. It had seemed in his whisky-sodden state the only defense against a fatal coronary and a means of getting her to tell him who had sent her Pause.” Frensic’s quick-thinking proposal proves yet again that the heart wants what the heart wants, which is first and foremost to avoid a myocardial infarction.
Alcohol can hurt or hinder a swain’s cause. Whisky spurs Frensic to action, but in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, overindulging in punch disables Becky Sharp’s suitor and gives rise to one baggy monster of a novel. Or as Thackeray puts it: “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history.” Becky has devoted all of her considerable charms in her attempt to get Jos Sedley, the longwinded “ex-collector of Boggley Wollah” to propose. A Vauxhall party provides a propitious setting to settle the matter, until Jos singlehandedly gulps down an entire bowl of rack punch. The effects are initially stimulating to Jos’s connubial urge, as the “fat gourmand” drunkenly resolves to wake up the Archbishop of Canterbury the next morning and marry Becky, but as the world-wise Thackeray informs us: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning?” Mortified by his orgiastic outburst, Jos decamps and leaves Becky to make her way through Vanity Fair unescorted.
Yet another English satirist, Evelyn Waugh, sets his black comedy, The Loved One, in Los Angeles, the “quiet limit of the world.” The slim novel presents a classic “Jamesian problem” of American innocence and European experience. In Waugh’s hands, however, there are distinctly un-Jamesian touches: an open-casket funeral of a parrot, a crapulous advice columnist named Guru Brahmin, and an acrid perfume, Jungle Venom, extracted “from the depths of the fever-ridden swamp.” Denis Barlow, a cash-strapped British poet, learns that his memorably named paramour, Aimée Thanatogenos, receives a promotion to become the new female embalmer at Whispering Glades, a funeral parlor featuring mausoleums that are replicas of European edifices. To a European man with no American prejudices about living off his wife, Aimee’s promotion means one thing: “Fifty [dollars a week] is pretty good. We could get married on that.” When Aimee rightly asks why she should marry him, he responds with English aplomb: “Why, my dear girl, it’s only money that has been holding me back. Now you can keep me, there’s nothing to stop us.” Not exactly “Come live with me and be my love,” but amidst the ersatz structures at the “mecca of replicates” that is Whispering Glades, honesty counts for something.
How best to goad one’s partner into proposing is an open debate, but as far as blunt ultimatums go, it’s hard to beat Emma Bovary’s from “The Kugelmass Episode.” In Woody Allen’s classic New Yorker story, a magical box can transfer characters in and out of fictional worlds. Just throw an old paperback in and a reader is free to disport with a character of his or her choice. Kugelmass, an unhappily married humanities professor on the lookout for a discreet affair, shrewdly chooses a pre-Rodolphe Emma Bovary to seduce. He eventually brings her back with him to New York and installs her in the Plaza, but when transporter breaks, Emma voices her expectations with Flaubertian precision: “Get me back into the novel or marry me…”
For those seeking to exploit the romantic potential of rodents, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm is an invaluable guide. In this classic comic novel about yokel relatives, Flora Poste travels from London to stay with the Starkadder clan, among them Urk, a “little, red, hard-bitten man with foxy ears” who once pushed his cousin down a well, and Elfine, a “shy dryad” with a love of poetry and a hatred of houses. Flora grooms Elfine to catch the eye of the local squire, which infuriates Urk, who has long ago, and indelibly, marked her as his: “I put a cross in water-vole’s blood on her feedin’-bottle when she was an hour old, to mark her for mine, and held her up so’s she might see it and know she was mine.” Given this gruesome engagement, it is safe to say that the matriarch Ada Doom saw something nasty in the nursery as well as in the woodshed.
We move from water-voles to “The Monkey,” Isak Dinesen’s story about the aversion of humans and animals to literal and figurative cages (matrimony included). To say that Dinesen’s gothic tale is a marriage plot orchestrated by a demonic chimp only captures some of its lurid weirdness. Briefly, an urbane prioress plots to marry her homosexual nephew to a local nobleman’s daughter, Athena, “a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat.” After Athena rejects the proposal, the Prioress hatches a brutal plan to compromise the young lady and force her into submission, which proves to be beyond her nephew’s sexual and combative powers (and costs him his two front teeth). Nonetheless, the Prioress eventually compels Athena to accept, but with one minor qualification: “I promise you I shall marry him. But, Madame my Aunt, when we are married, and whenever I can do so, I shall kill him. I came near to killing him last night, and he can tell you that.” One can only hope that Athena is allowed to write her own vows.
To conclude, a non-traditional proposal for a marriage of minds, or rather, of follies. In the first cliché in a book that feeds on them, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet experience “love at first sight.” Meeting on a park bench, the two copy clerks cement their friendship over lengthy intellectual and political discussions, visits to Paris’s museums, and by sneaking into an Arabic class at the College de France, where the bemused professor notices “two strangers struggling to take notes.” After coming into some money, Bouvard unexpectedly proposes, or rather asserts, a new plan for the pair: “‘We are going to retire to the country!’ And this statement, which included his friend in his good fortune, struck Pécuchet as beautiful in its simplicity. For the union of these two men was deep and absolute.” Deep and absolute it better be, given the setbacks, frustrations, explosions, disasters, and disloyal servants that will strain that union as the two men pursue their unending studies and experiments.
For anyone mulling over whether to ask the big question via Jumbatron announcement, by conscripting a flash mob, or by reenacting my own clumsy efforts (turtle, horticultural maze), consider the proposal aesthetic espoused by Flaubert: It should be beautiful in its simplicity.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
A recent survey of 19th century British literature uncovered advertising subtly placed within classic texts by authors like Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray. From Vanity Fair, for example: “‘My sisters say she has diamonds as big as pigeons’ eggs,’ George said, laughing. ‘How they must set off her complexion! Surely she avails herself of Madame A.T. Rowley’s Toilet Mask (or Face Gloves)…’” (via Book Bench)
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group”To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club