Essays, Notable Articles

Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

1. The Gift Economy of Creative Writing McSweeney’s, one of my favorite magazines, is currently holding a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner receives $500. Submitters must pay a $55 entry fee. Critic Ron Charles says the hefty fee “passes the smell test because everyone who enters gets a year-long subscription to McSweeney’s, which normally costs $60.” He’s correct about the subscription cost, but assumes students who submit work to literary magazines also subscribe to those magazines. I hope that working writers financially support literary magazines, but don’t expect the same of students. I feel guilty telling students to subscribe to literary magazines, particularly if that money is coming from their own pockets. Literary magazines typically request that submitters become familiar with their publications. They suggest writers purchase an issue, or better yet, subscribe. This mantra is repeated by writers, including myself. But such mantras, like supposed writing rules, need to be occasionally reconsidered. Of course a writer should be familiar with a magazine before submitting. But the economy of literary magazines is weak, and needs some interrogation. First of all, is it unreasonable to hope that a major American literary magazine could offer a larger monetary prize for such a high entry fee? My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity? These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms--and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing. Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent. Let me be clear that I do not think there is a vast creative writing conspiracy, filled with professors who don’t care about their students. I have only encountered compassionate, knowledgeable professors in this discipline. But I do think some self-reflection is in order. Few other academic programs are marketed or discussed in such spiritual terms. Writing students are given “time” to write, to find themselves. While feeling almost new age in its promises, creative writing speak retains working-class metaphors. Writers must be agrarian when they “cut the chaff.” They are to be craftsmen and craftswomen, carpenters of words. If writers are spoken to as skilled artisans, it should follow that they not only produce beautiful and useful creations, but that they also know how to sell those creations. This does not happen. It is reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline. An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality. Could writers learn from carpenters? I think so, but in ways less metaphorical than literal. Charles Blackstone, the managing editor of Bookslut and author of the novel Vintage Attraction, thinks writers need to know more about the business of their art. He says during the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read “an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.” Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce “absurd results.” Becoming a realist takes time. When Blackstone “was teaching, not that far from being a student myself, I believed that it was all about the art, and that beautiful sentences made work publishable, marketplace be damned, and so on. My years of publishing my own books and editing Bookslut has only reinforced the folly of this kind of romantic thinking. I now know that platform is king.” Often writers--and teachers of writing--forget “everyone still has profit and loss to consider. There's no getting around that. Without grants and donors, the literary altruists would be out of business too. There has to be a reasonable expectation that something's going to make some kind of return on investment in order to justify the risk.” When Blackstone received unsolicited submissions of book galleys from publishers, he “could fill a fairly long and wide dining table in about two weeks.” And I didn't even give my address out to a lot of publicists.” Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover. Blackstone thinks “the Internet has made publicists careless and inefficient, just as it has aspiring writers.” So what can be done? Blackstone thinks writers need to learn independently. As a writer, he “paid attention to rejections and tried to free myself from the delusion that my work was brilliant and misunderstood as quickly as possible. I worked to find my own answers.” I agree with Blackstone, and that’s a problem for me as a teacher. I know that my students have to fail to succeed. Although I was lucky to attend creative writing programs that familiarized students with the business of writing, I was never coddled. I come from a blue-collar Catholic aesthetic. There is a difference between “good works” and, well, work. You get paid money for work. That is why I cringe when I see writing “jobs” shared online, followed by the inevitable admission that “we are unable to pay.” I know young writers have to work their way up the ladder, but more often the business of writing looks like writers climbing those rungs to nowhere. It has been said that poetry, in particular, is a gift economy. Unfortunately, that gift benefits readers and writers less than it perpetuates the creative writing system, a system that makes promises it is unable to keep. 2. A Checklist for Teaching the Business of Creative Writing How can we prepare students for the reality of this profession? I spoke with other teachers who engage the business element of the art in their courses. Mary Biddinger teaches a graduate course as part of the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio MFA) program titled “MFA Craft and Theory of Poetry: Revising, Editing, Publishing.” Biddinger finds that “revealing the working stages of a manuscript from draft to shelf” helps demystify publishing, and “shows students that revision skills, and active reading, are tools valued beyond the classroom.” She shares galley proofs of new books from the Akron Series in Poetry, as well as typeset pages from her own forthcoming books or journal publications. Writing students need to see their teachers as working writers, and to see publication as a meticulous, collaborative, and often slow process. At James Madison University, Jay Varner includes the professional world of writing in his introductory creative non-fiction course. Students read “pieces about the actual business of writing,” including “No” and “Yes” by Brian Doyle, “Diary of a Mad Fact Checker” by James Pogue, and “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup” by Richard Morgan. Biddinger, Varner, and all the other teachers I spoke with stressed that a “fundamental understanding of both the form [across genres] and the process of creating [literature] comes first,” but discussion of the business elements of writing is necessary to debunk myths. Varner’s students are “routinely shocked that months of work on an essay would net them $50” and contributor copies. They are also surprised to learn that “slick magazines might pay them several thousand--but once the process and time spent on a project is explained, they are surprised for other reasons.” Catherine Pierce, co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, avoids business talk in introductory courses, instead saving her “professionalization unit for the last few weeks of the semester” within an advanced poetry workshop. Students present research about a literary magazine they enjoy. Afterward, they submit a packet of poems to one of the markets researched by their peers. Pierce thinks “having this as a requirement of the class helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about sending out their work for the first time,” and it gives her the “opportunity to talk candidly about rejection.” This sense of toughness might be lost on a generation of students raised on rubrics. Perhaps more than any other discipline, students must learn that there is a profound difference between being a successful student writer and a successful professional writer. Students receive grades, which are meant to be reflections of growth and mastery of material. The relationship between writer and teacher and writer and editor is not comparable. Magazine editors might begin as purists, but even purists need to eat. Editors want to sell magazines, gain advertising revenue, and attract the best writers. As students, all of us have moments where we did just enough to earn a grade. Students need to know that as writers, they must be excellent to even have a shot. Kris Bigalk stresses this transition from student to independent writer in a course within Hamline University’s MFA program. Her students “develop short and long-term artist development plans, in which students identify their artistic strengths and weaknesses, ways they wish to grow as writers once they leave the program, and publication and career goals related to writing.” Many students “have a hard time leaving the role of ‘student’ and moving into the role of ‘artist,’ where they must manage their own development.” Students read biographies of writers to see how a writer’s career develops, and “how that development is often independent of the employment that sustains them.” In a lecture given to students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman discuss this “slow and steady path” to magazine and book publication. Madden focuses on the magazine end, and advises that since so much is beyond the control of writers, they should focus on taking tangible steps. Students should read magazines for enjoyment, inspiration, but also as a form of reconnaissance. They can become part of the magazine publishing world by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, and joining the staff of a literary magazine (VCFA students work on Hunger Mountain). It helps when teachers of the business of creative writing have worked as editors. Cara Blue Adams, former editor of The Southern Review and fiction editor of The Sonora Review, teaches at Coastal Carolina University. In one graduate course, “Forms of Fiction,” students consider “how to build a writing practice and write and publish a cohesive book--as opposed to crafting individual stories.” Students examine the “publication, marketing, and critical reception of the book side-by-side with the craft of writing.” Adams notes “these questions are not directly addressed in graduate school. The assumption sometimes seems to be that simply reading books is enough to teach an apprentice writer how to write a book, and that each person must forge a writing practice and learn about the publication process for him- or herself. People sometimes say apprentice writers are not yet ready to think about publication. I disagree. Guided attention to these questions does much to help students to develop a plan to get to where they would like to be.” Her useful approach mediates between the creative and the realistic by helping “students to question how other writers have carved out time to write by reading interviews with practicing writers and studying their lives. This is often tied in interesting ways to those writers’ aesthetic choices: their chosen forms, their material, their themes. We also learn about the various economies at play in the writing world through reading and discussion. Writing doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum. Nor does publication. Studying the context in which writing is produced and [how it] finds readers allows students to productively think through the dialogue between their own lives and their writing practice.” She recommends two books as case studies: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Victoria Chang’s The Boss, noting “both writers have jobs aside from writing--teaching at a number of institutions, working in business--and both have children. Both reinvented their forms in light of strictures on their time. Offill wrote her novel while teaching and parenting, dismantling a more traditional novel in favor of a novel written in fragments to more accurately examine the ‘collision of art and life.’ Chang wrote her poetry collection while waiting for her daughter to finish her Saturday Chinese lessons.” These doses of reality are meant to strengthen, not dissuade, students. How can we not be honest with them? We can start by being honest with ourselves, as teachers of this discipline. Here is a checklist of 10 skills related to the business of creative writing that students should have when they graduate. Graduates of creative writing programs should be able to do the following: 1. Identify the aesthetics of contemporary literary magazines, both print and online. 2. Contribute to the production of a literary magazine or blog, either as a submission reader, editor, designer, or by marketing on social media. 3. Prepare a manuscript for magazine submission, including industry standard formatting and a cover letter, as well as gain proficiency with an electronic submission system, such as Submittable. 4. Prepare a manuscript for book submission (arranging stories/essays/poems in a collection, or writing a query letter/synopsis for novel/memoir manuscript). 5. Pitch article/essay ideas as a freelance writer. 6. Apply close reading and editing skills learned during workshops toward copyediting. 7. Identify the language of contemporary publishing (from how genres are catalogued to the differences between independent and self-publishing). 8. Prepare a résumé/CV that highlights their writing skills and experiences. 9. Write a book review. 10. Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities. 3. Our Responsibilities to Students There is no one path to success in creative writing, as there is no prototypical student of the discipline. Enormous demographic and pedagogical differences exist among undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. A single classroom will contain novices and veterans. Alexander Chee, currently a visiting writer at UT Austin, recalls that when he was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, many students published in magazines, but only one or two of his peers had sold or published novels. When he returned as an instructor, two of his students had the same agent as him. Iowa’s pedigree aside, Chee’s point is well-taken. Rising writers have access to more information, faster, but they still need guidance. Chee reflects on taking a course with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan in 1989. Dillard used the “Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing.” She told students to see where essays or stories in the anthologies were originally published, and if the work’s style neared their own, remember the magazine as a possible market. Such legwork might seem antiquated in the days of resources like Poets & Writers and Duotrope, but I fear that ease of information has enabled laziness. In an essay on her site, “Last Lecture: Am I a writer?”, Cathy Day offers some tough love for students. Day believes a “writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long . . . [starting when students take] writing seriously--meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.” I can appreciate Day’s sentiment. Often students want to simply publish a book, and do so for the wrong reasons. There is a time and place to introduce the business of writing to students, and it should not happen before they are competent storytellers. But if we don't talk about the business of creative writing, we perpetuate the myth that money always stains art. Does it often? Of course. Yet pretensions toward artistic purity hurt students. Writing can become a perpetual unpaid internship. Doing something "for the love of it" has made countless people--not the least of whom are teachers--see their generosity and good nature be rewarded with mediocre pay and respect. I owe it to my students to get them ready for the professional world of writing. If they ignore my advice, that is their problem. We should talk about money with creative writing students because, even though we wish it were different, money equals value in our culture. If you doubt that, try buying your next dinner with a well-recited poem. I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art. It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages. Many students will fold those pages and put them in drawers. They will be better readers and more careful thinkers, but will never publish their work. But we do owe those students who want to publish--the ones who are willing to fight--a little training for their real battles. Image: frankjuarez/flickr
Notable Articles, Quick Hits

How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers

Eudora Welty edited her writing with scissors in hand to cut out and re-pin sections of text. Truman Capote fancied himself a horizontal writer: he would only work lying down, with a glass of sherry close at hand. Anthony Trollope maintained a rather more industrial regimen, beginning his day promptly at 5:30 a.m. and pacing himself with a watch to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Then there’s Friedrich Schiller, who occupies an idiosyncratic camp all his own. Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk. When Goethe found them, Charlotte Schiller explained that her husband couldn’t write without the putrid aroma wafting through his study. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, Celia Blue Johnson details the secret formulas and sources of creative inspiration. These bizarre minutiae of the writing process are an attempt at answering the age-old questions about artistic creation: where does inspiration come from? What conditions make masterpieces possible? How do great minds work? The ancients explained poetry and art in terms of the muses, which was not an explanation so much as an affirmation of the sacred mystery. In the age of how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, we’re eager to shed light on the intricacies of practice and method, to find the patterns in the big data. The irony of these juicy anecdotes is that in their attempt to get behind the mystery, they end up re-mythologizing the creative process all over again. To be sure, there are some useful lessons to extract. For instance, a surprising number of writers took vigorous daily walks long before science had connected exercise to productivity and creative output. Some walked to get away from work, to clear the mind of words and embrace direct experience; others, to ruminate on their scribbled pages and return to the pen with renewed vigor. Wallace Stevens actually wrote while walking, composing poetry on slips of paper. Daily word quotas are also popular (1,000 for Jack London; 3,000 for Norman Mailer; and 1,800 for Thomas Wolfe), as are pets. Edgar Allan Poe granted his tabby, Catterina, the status of literary guardian, while Flannery O’Connor kept the company of domestic poultry and Colette studied the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, until she felt ready to write. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work charts the schedules of visionaries from Mozart to Milton and Thomas Mann in order to figure how they found time to “do it all.” (The underlying promise is that by studying their schedules, maybe you can figure out how to do it all too.) Many worked for brief but intense blocks of time, either in the morning or late evening. Coffee seems to have been a popular creative stimulant, but so was alcohol and tobacco. In other words, our creative heroes did many of the same things that non-geniuses do. Artistic production is marked in equal parts by idiosyncrasy and mundane routine, but neither perspective gets much closer than the Greeks did to answering the question. If anything, the attempt to unveil THE PROCESS shows how fascinatingly—almost theologically—opaque the origins of art really are. The close cousin of the great minds exposé is the artist’s self-help book—books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They, too, are interested in process and how to cultivate the habits that make inspiration possible. Tharp, a world-famous choreographer, tries to bust the myth of genius by insisting on practice and hard work, while Cameron, writer and ex-wife of Martin Scorsese, offers a comprehensive twelve-week program to recover your creativity. The books mean well, no doubt, but they’re made profane by their resemblance to, say, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And they’re fraught with tension—the tension between discipline and creativity, between outlining a formula for artistic success and highlighting the many eccentricities of the successful. Why try to engineer masterpieces anyway? The idea smacks of our tendency to make a science out of every imaginable pursuit—to break down creation into actionable insights, to imitate—with the help of models and charts—what is, by definition, inimitable.  The Greeks got something right when they neglected to explain inspiration. They let art be art—the divine in man, not the data-crunching.
Essays, Notable Articles

Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece

Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities. But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader -- indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text. I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk -- one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos. Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire -- all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism. The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story -- I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories -- and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre -- yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf. In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky -- this time of his short novel The Gambler -- but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t...but Calvino can. In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity -- I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.
Lists, Notable Articles

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2014 Book Preview

2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we're especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers -- Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel -- will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet) Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he's pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill's essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)   The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan) Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael) Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann's obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann's psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth) High as the Horses' Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner's Whitfield, Ellison's Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk's transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)   The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)   Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York's best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she's been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)   The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: "And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi." In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.) August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami's previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin) We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael) Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth) The Kills by Richard House: House's vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)     Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill) Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he's kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)   Flings by Justin Taylor: "Our faith makes us crazy in the world"; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and "an inspired treatise on the American government's illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia." (Nick R.) Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author's lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher's Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they've come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It's a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.) Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children's tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis's childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written ("hoodoo" = "how do you do" and "gammy" = "illness," e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.) September: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it's her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel's intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne) The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you're smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)   Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan) The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt) The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth) 10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark) Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood's typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan) The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth) The Dog by Joseph O'Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael) Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist's journalist and one of the New Yorker's most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he's written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length. Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer's trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer's concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)     The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt) Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael) Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill) Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.) Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known... every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya) Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan) Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark) Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet) My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark) Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson's stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes "We Walked on Water," winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and "L'Etranger," shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)   On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg's first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)   The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis's second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)     How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet) On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we're interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily) October: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America's most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne) The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia) Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.) Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco's kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme's for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories "map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind," says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco's latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a "slapstick parable" that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the "unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon" and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can't think of a better one I've read this century." (Edan)   Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne) Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael) Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard's second novel — her first was 2011's The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It's a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)   A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc's first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband's obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems "mythic and essential." (Anne) 300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño's 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne) Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke's new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70's Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse's family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — "We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning" — but they've drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)   Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt) Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya) The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman's birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They're also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman's talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey's Millions essay.) (Thom) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)   Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella's brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children's mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess) November: The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as "kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene." Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily) Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)   Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)     Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together... peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya) Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia) A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin's sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)     All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews's sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She's a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It's a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)   Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn't enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It's the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess) Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d'Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D'Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D'Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, "a solace to me like the thought of home." In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D'Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily) Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill) The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth) Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, "Preserves," a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where "woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable." Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.) The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there's gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum's editor in a piece on editors' first buys. (Thom) December: The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author's commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia's most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author's. (Anne) Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago's so-called "lost work," which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate's death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)     January: The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth) Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard's star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with "Things I Told My Mother," an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard's work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne) Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk's latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)   Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt) February: There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill) Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan) Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.) Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg's fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg's recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy's resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King's The Stand and Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne) March: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, "The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand." (Kevin) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Lists, Notable Articles

55 Thoughts for English Teachers

All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer. For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing. I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them. There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told. I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English. 1. You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy. 2. Students can sense a lot of things. 3. Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath. 4. Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens. 5. “Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” -- Zachary Schomburg 6. Create a space for safe confusion. 7. Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder. 8. Show them that poetry is about being surprised. 9. Remember why you are doing this. 10. Your students are not data. 11. Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised. 12. Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share. 13. Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote. 14. Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom -- which is not your role -- and being an activist for your profession and your students. 15. Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line. 16. Students have a reason for everything they do. 17. You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep. 18. You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period. 19. You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention. 20. Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity. 21. Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself? 22. Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them. 23. Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism. 24. Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete. 25. You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor. 26. Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page. 27. Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold. 28. If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that. 29. Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it. 30. Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.” 31. Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful. 32. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” -- “The Dead” by James Joyce. 33. You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly. 34. Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation. 35. Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection. 36. Create meticulous plans for each day. 37. But be alive in the classroom. 38. “Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” -- Andre Dubus 39. Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly. 40. Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show. 41. Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world. 42. There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear. 43. Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal. 44. Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics. 45. You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help. 46. Read aloud. Every day. 47. Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful. 48. Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard. 49. For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect. 50. Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation. 51. Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you. 52. This is not supposed to be easy. 53. Remember that you, also, are not data. 54. One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not. 55. For some students, you are their only light. Image via Jayel Aheram/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs

1. They tortured him of course. 2. More precisely, they carved up his face – “sfregio,” it was called, a ritual disfigurement intended to inflict permanent and visible dishonor on one who had disrespected the wrong people. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was no stranger to this code of vendetta. In his earlier Roman years, he had run with whores who were known to take the occasional blade to the face of a rival. Now in Naples, towards the end of his strange and violent life, it was his turn to be branded. 3. With so many enemies, it was difficult to know who had carried out or ordered the hit. Was it the clan of Ranuccio Tomassoni, the Roman pimp Caravaggio had murdered in a duel in 1606, precipitating the flight and 19 months of wanderings that had led to this squalid bloodletting outside a notorious brothel? Or was it the work of Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Maltese Knight Caravaggio had seriously wounded in a fracas two months earlier and who just might have tracked him down through the Straits of Messina and the Gulf of Salerno? Or was it any number of other lowlifes, nobles, rivals, or patrons he might have crossed along his furious way? 4. Whoever it was, the assailants slipped back into the night, never to be known or apprehended. They had done their work. Nor was it any common street thug they had mutilated, perhaps partially blinded. The victim of this assault outside the Osteria del Cerriglio, where poets and artists mingled with courtesans, rentboys, and cut-throats, was the greatest painter of the age, one of the greatest of any age. He never really recovered. 5. You can see the damage in “The Denial of Saint Peter,” executed in Naples during his convalescence and one of his very last works. It’s still a Caravaggio -- the peasant earthiness of Peter’s features, the flaring chiaroscuro, the heightened drama of sin and redemption. But the reductive simplicity of the composition, the shallow, featureless space, the coarse description of Peter’s hands -- this too is Caravaggio at the end of his life. Either he couldn’t see what he was painting anymore or his hands were shaking. 6. He would die soon, trying desperately to get back to the place where, once, it had all gone right: Rome. 7. Before there was Rome there was Milan, where the adolescent boy apprenticed under a feeble imitator of Titian named Simone Peterzano. And before there was Milan there was Caravaggio, the sleepy backwater on the Lombardy plain that would ultimately give Michelangelo Merisi the name by which he is (mistakenly) known today. 8. Caravaggio did have one thing going for it: patronage. The local marchese, Francesco Sforza, was connected to the Pope; his bride, the marchesa Costanza Colonna Sforza, was the daughter of the military commander who had triumphed over the heathen “Turks” at the Battle of Lepanto. And Fermo Merisi, the father of Michelangelo, had the good fortune to work for them. 9. Nominally, Fermo was their house architect. In fact, he was more like a majordomo, but what matters to history is the alliance formed between the marchesa and her majordomo’s intriguing son, who somehow touched her maternal heartstrings. Given his penchant for wildly destructive behavior in later life, Caravaggio would need friends in high places. The marchesa, at crucial times, would be that friend. 10. Despite this useful connection, the lowborn Merisi children would have to make their way in the world, especially after Fermo was carried off by the plague while still a young father. In three years (1576-1578), it carried off about a fifth of the city of Milan along with him. Such was life in early modern Europe. 11. Caravaggio knew a lot about plague. It spared his mother, who died of other circumstances in 1589, but took his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and an uncle. The late, sepulchral “Resurrection of Lazarus” clearly draws on memories of the ravages he would have seen as a boy. So much for the lofty idealism Peterzano would have tried (unsuccessfully) to instill into his recalcitrant apprentice. 12. After mother Lucia’s death, the children were cared for by relatives and the Colonnas. They had a small inheritance to help them stake their place in the world. Sister Caterina married well and had six children. Brother Giovan Battista became a priest. The eldest, Michelangelo, rose from his humble origins (according to Karel van Mander, a Dutch artist who knew him) “through his industry and by tackling and accepting everything with farsightedness and courage, as some people do who refuse to be held down through timidity or through lack of courage.” 13. Years later, when Caravaggio had established himself in Rome and Giovan Battista came calling, the flourishing artist denied knowing him. “Brother,” Giovan Battista said, “I’ve come such a long way to see you, and now that I’ve seen you I’ve had what I wanted. May God grant that you do well.” He did do well. And he never saw his brother again. Was Giovan Battista being insufferably holy or Caravaggio being willfully perverse? Or was it a bit of both? Life imitates art. Maybe that’s why, years later, Caravaggio painted “The Denial of Saint Peter.” He had lived it 14. By the time of that fraternal rebuff (witnessed by his protector, Cardinal Del Monte), Caravaggio’s truculence was a long enforced habit. Little is known of his apprenticeship in Milan, but his early years in Rome were hungry and hardscrabble. He had arrived in 1592, a young man on the make like thousands of others. Hopefuls from all over Italy and beyond were flocking to Rome to cash in on the visual propaganda blitz known as the Counter Reformation. Caravaggio would surpass them all, but in the beginning there was only penury, rejection, and hackwork. 15. The hackwork -- mostly copying small devotional pictures -- was supervised by a miserly house steward, who lodged him but barely fed him. (“Monsignor Salad,” Caravaggio called him, after the starvation rations he received.) Caravaggio’s lot improved when he joined the workshop of the renowned Giuseppi Cesari, who assigned him still life details and other piecework on the many commissions that came his way. Caravaggio must have seen that he was already better than the gentlemanly Cesari would ever be, but for now he had somewhat steadier work and a foot halfway in the door. 16. But all this hustling took a toll. Around this time, Caravaggio painted for himself a “Self Portrait as Bacchus,” which shows the hunger and ill health that would have been his daily lot. Never had a Greek god looked more sickly. The ash colored lips, the swollen left eye, the filthy thumbnail, even the moldy grapes that Caravaggio as Bacchus holds in his right hand: there would have been thousands of desperate hustlers and street people in the city, and some of them would have looked just like this. 17. If Counter Reformation Rome was Hollywood on the Tiber for artists and architects, Caravaggio was about to be “discovered” by the Eternal City’s equivalent to a powerful casting agent. It happened in 1595 when Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the Medici’s smoothly adroit fixer in Rome, spotted Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps” in a second hand dealer’s shop near the Piazza Navona. Del Monte had the money and the taste to acquire pretty much whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was not just the painting. He wanted the painter. 18. So Caravaggio moved into Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama on Piazza de San Luigi and joined his circle of artists, scientists, musicians, connoisseurs, and very expensive courtesans. He brought with him as an assistant Mario Minniti, the meltingly beautiful teenage boy who had posed for him in the picture that had caught Del Monte’s eye. Like his newly acquired painter, the cardinal, it would seem, liked boys too. [caption id="attachment_66126" align="aligncenter" width="570"]  [/caption] 19. At any rate, Del Monte commissioned one or two of the outrageously provocative canvases of overripe male adolescents that Caravaggio produced in the next several years. Mario Minniti was subsequently replaced as Caravaggio’s boy model and studio assistant by Francesco “Cecco” Boneri, the naked, splay-legged figure posing as a laughingly corrupt Cupid in “Omnia vincit Amor.” It was of this painting than an English traveler, picking up on rumors still current, wrote in 1650, “Twas the body & face of his owne boy or servant that laid with him.” 20. If Caravaggio is Exhibit A in the queer studies wing of art history departments, the loving attentiveness he lavished on the earthly beauty of his Madonnas and female saints somewhat complicates that claim. That all these Madonnas and saints were well-known prostitutes who worked with him regularly implies a level of intimacy beyond the professional. Of course Caravaggio slept with his models. Whether they were male or female didn’t much matter to him. [caption id="attachment_66127" align="aligncenter" width="570"]  [/caption] 21. One such prostitute was Fillide Melandroni, as beautiful as she was violently temperamental (the Roman police, or sbirri, were all too familiar with her outbursts) and the model for the serenely majestic “Saint Catherine” and the holy assassin Judith in “Judith and Holofernes.” Like Mario Minniti, she remained loyal to the wayward genius she had known for a few years in Rome and will reappear at the end of this story. 22. Caravaggio stayed at Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama for the next six years, doing some of his very greatest work under the cardinal’s protection -- in fact, becoming a star, the kind of artist who changed the rules and attracted schools of imitators. Artemesia Gentileschi (who would have known him from her girlhood as a friend of her painter father’s) would have been inconceivable without Caravaggio, and Rembrandt wouldn’t have been quite the Rembrandt we know. 23. In Rome, being a lot better than everybody else (with the sole exception of Annibale Carracci) and loudly proclaiming it to the world wasn’t necessarily a wise career move. The long knives came out. 24. Trouble had started as early as Milan, where Caravaggio had been a less than obedient pupil of Petrerzano. There were dark reports of his involvement in quarrels and even in a murder in that turbelent city. By the time he got to Rome he was already intimate with the sort of thieves and hustlers he depicted in his early cabinet pictures. There was nothing worked up in Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism. It was the life he lived. 25. It was and had been for some time a double life -- on the one hand, conversing with intellectuals and cultured aristocrats in Palazzo Madama, on the other hand, swaggering around the streets with a crew of like-minded hotheads. “When he’s worked for a fortnight,” wrote his contemporary van Mander, “he goes out for a couple of months with his rapier at his side and a servant behind him, moving from one tennis court to another and always looking for fights or arguments, so he’s impossible to get on with.” 26. He looked the part, too, wearing the rich silks and velvets favored by the Roman bravi -- except that he wore them until they were in tatters. Then he’d acquire a new suit and wear that one out too. If any of his cohorts thought his eccentricities merited comment, they probably knew enough to keep their mouths shut. 27. This particular hothead, with his striped taffeta and poniard, happened to be a genius. When he got the commission for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, his genius would be put to its greatest test. Caravaggio had never before attempted anything on this scale -- three multi-figured, wall-sized narratives on the life of the Apostle Matthew. He struggled at first, and had to redo the smallest of the three, a depiction of an angel guiding Matthew in his writing of his Gospel. With the other two, especially “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” he changed Western art forever. 28. Matthew the tax collector sits in the backroom of a tavern or inn with assorted thugs, pretty boys, and hangers-on. Christ has entered with Saint Peter at right and is calling Matthew to a new life with a simple pointing of a finger. In a moment Matthew will rise, follow his Savior out of the room, and never look back. You must change your life, Rilke said. This is how it happens. 29. Among the throngs who flocked to the see the installation in 1599 was Giovanni Baglione, a grasping second rater who played the role of Salieri to Caravaggio’s Mozart. Baglione tried very hard to be unimpressed, which didn’t stop him from aping Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro without approaching anything like Caravaggio’s originality, humanism, subtlety, and above all profound understanding of the interpenetration of the sacred and the profane. Anyone else might have ignored the ugly backtalk that Baglione stirred up. Caravaggio wasn’t anyone else. 30. Like all the other painters in Rome, Caravaggio and Baglione were competing for the same commissions and the same patrons. It was bad enough to lose, as he sometimes did, to a hack like Baglione -- worse still to lose to a hack who slavishly imitated him while slagging him to anyone who would listen. Caravaggio might have hit back violently. Instead, he had one of his crew compose and circulate a couple of scurrilous poems. They weren’t very subtle or even literary, but anybody who was anybody read them, or knew about them. Baglione, the poems, said, couldn’t paint for shit. 31. One of the few moments of levity in the otherwise terrible saga of Caravaggio’s life is the spectacle of the aggrieved Giovanni Baglione mustering all his dignity before the Governor of Rome in a libel suit he new brought against Caravaggio and his friends. Asked by the magistrates to identify the documents in question, he replied with the ingenuousness of a village idiot, “that which begins ‘Johnny Baggage’ and ends ‘an insult to painting’ and the other that begins ‘Johnny Prick’ and ends ‘otherwise he’d’ve been a fucking prick.’” 32. This commedia del’arte imbroglio wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t helped to establish a precedent: trouble with the authorities and a few weeks in the Governor’s prison before the whole mess was straightened out, perhaps through the intervention of Del Monte or some other art-loving patron. Nor did it allay growing suspicions in some quarters that this jumped up genius might be more trouble than he was worth. 33. Caravaggio was still the leading painter of the Roman avant-garde, and commissions for masterworks like the “Madonna of the Pilgrims” were still ahead. But he was living on his own now, no longer under Del Monte’s stabilizing influence, and his noisy altercations in taverns and on piazzas were starting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Worse still, he was about to see one of his greatest works, “The Death of the Virgin,” removed within weeks of its unveiling from the altar for which it had been commissioned. 34. You can see “The Death of the Virgin” in the Louvre rather than on the altar of Santa Maria della Scala, where it ought to be. And you can also see why the pious Carmelites who commissioned it might have changed their minds. Some said that the beautiful and still youthful Mary that Caravaggio depicted was all too evidently “a courtesan he loved,” but that wasn’t the problem. Everyone knew that painters used whores for models -- who else could they get? -- and everyone knew that Caravaggio’s woman at the time was the much desired courtesan Lena Antognetti. No, the problem with “The Death of the Virgin” was that this Virgin was just too emphatically, transcendentally dead. 35. Caravaggio’s way of dealing with Counter Reformation orthodoxy was to ignore the limp piety and enforced bigotry and to focus instead on the life experiences of humble believers. If he had to throw in an angel or two, that angel would be equipped with dingy, oversized pigeon wings. Almost all his miracles, epiphanies, and crucifixions took place in the workaday world of taverns, sparsely furnished rooms, and darkened, nondescript interiors. His more discerning collectors appreciated this stunning naturalism, but to get away with such heterodoxy, he had better be on his best behavior. And he wasn’t. 36. The infractions were racking up: carrying his sword without a license, insulting a police officer, assaulting (big mistake) a mid-level Vatican functionary. Impossibly touchy where his honor was concerned, he threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter who had made the mistake of serving them with insufficient deference. A Roman police blotter preserves his furious words: “It seems to me, you fucking prick, that you think you’re serving some two bit crook.” 37. Caravaggio’s get out of jail card was his association with Del Monte, but even Del Monte could do only so much. After the bloody attack on the Vatican functionary, Caravaggio betook himself to Genoa, ostensibly to work on a commission for the Duke of Modena, but really to keep a step ahead of the law. In Genoa, relations of Costanza Colonna sheltered him until Del Monte could work out a settlement in Rome, which duly occurred later that summer. Upon his return, Caravaggio swore to the legal authorities an oath of peaceableness. Which he violated almost immediately. 38. This time it was a squabble with his landlady, who had locked him out and thrown out his few belongings. She issued a complaint saying that Caravaggio had come round in the middle of the night, throwing rocks and smashing her window shutters -- trivial enough, except that it boded ill for the fresh start he hoped to be making. 39. Caravaggio’s misfortune’s were Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s main chance. Younger, richer, and, if possible, even less devout than Del Monte, he snapped up the rejected “Madonna of the Palafrenieri” for a song and had it installed in his villa on the outskirts of the city, where it can be seen to this day. Enough influential clients coveted Caravaggio’s work to pull strings for him when needed, and he would need every possible string pulled when his increasingly reckless behavior culminated in the tragedy that was waiting to happen: the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. 40. It might have looked like a mindless eruption of violence over a meaningless tennis match, but trouble between Caravaggio and Tomassoni, a street tough with relatives in high places, had been brewing for some time. Very possibly they were rival pimps. Fillide Melandroni definitely worked for Tomassoni, and maybe Tomassoni felt that Caravaggio was encroaching on his territory. Keeping a small stable of prostitutes would have been a way of ensuring a steady supply of models, not to mention some free sex. All that late night roistering, armed to the gills, might have been partly a matter of business: Caravaggio was looking out for his girls. 41. So the killing wasn’t spontaneous at all. It was a duel. Caravaggio and Tomassoni, accompanied by their “seconds” and supporters (three to each side) met on a tennis court on the Campo Marzio on May 28, 1606. It was all over in a few moments: Tomassoni bleeding to death from a severed artery, Caravaggio with a gash in his head, and Caravaggio’s second, Captain Petronio Toppa, left almost for dead. 42. Caravaggio had always been proud of his swordsmanship, but the coup de grace was a flick of his blade at Tomassoni’s crotch. So much for the gentlemanly art of dueling. After the fatal blow, the duel degenerated into a murderous free for all. Tomassoni’s brother slashed Caravaggio in the head and probably would have killed him if not for the intervention of Petronio Topapa, who barely survived the wounds he incurred. Tomassoni was carried off to a surgeon’s, where he died that night. Caravaggio didn’t wait around to hear the death sentence (bando capitale) pronounced by the Pope. By the following morning he was nowhere to be found. 43. Caravaggio was now a wanted man, exiled from Rome and with a price on his head. He couldn’t have escaped from the city without the discreet assistance of one or more of his patrons, most likely the Marchesa Colonna, now resident in Rome and with a network of family connections in the region. It was to a Colonna stronghold in Zagarolo, about twenty miles southeast of Rome, that Caravaggio made his way, finding refuge with the Duke Marzio Colonna. And there he did what he always did in times of stress: he painted. 44. Under these circumstances, the self-portrait as a decapitated Goliath that Caravaggio now painted for Scipione Borghese (who didn’t much care that his favorite painter was a murderer condemned by in absentia by Borghese’s uncle, Pope Paul V) was a harrowing Act of Contrition. The blood streaming from Goliath’s neck, the saliva pooling in his open mouth, the sightless, half open right eye: Caravaggio painted himself as the brute he knew himself at least partly to be. 45. If Borghese was expecting triumph, which was the way most artists treated the subject, what he got was tragedy. A slender, beautifully lit young David holds out the giant’s head in troubled contemplation. David has reason to look troubled. The model is Cecco Boneri, and he’s gazing at the ruin of his friend and protector. 46. Hoping to gain lost ground and win a papal pardon, Caravaggio moved on to Naples, where Marzio Colonna sheltered him and where avid patrons were already lining up. For the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia he produced one of his greatest altarpieces, “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” But he also produced work like the slackly conventional “Madonna of the Rosary,” which for the first time showed signs of compromise and even desperation. He had taken to sleeping with his clothes on and his dagger at his side. Paranoia? Maybe not. 47. There were interested parties working behind the scenes to smooth Caravaggio’s passage back to Rome. Del Monte, Borghese, and others wanted their man in the art capital of the world, where he belonged and where they might keep him busy creating masterpieces bound for their own collections. And in fact there were signs that the Vatican was softening. The fiction that Caravaggio had killed in self-defense offered a convenient cover for everyone. Just when the machinery seemed to be moving, however, Caravaggio chose this moment -- July 1607 -- to sail to the southern Mediterranean outpost of Malta. There he would create possibly his greatest painting. And throw his life away. 48. Why Malta? Costanza Colonna’s son was there, a former black sheep like Caravaggio himself but now a member of the island’s Venerable Council. Fabrizio Sforza Colonna would be an important contact for Caravaggio, but Malta -- a garrison state controlled by the severely militaristic Order of the Knights of St. John -- nevertheless seemed an odd choice for someone so resistant to authority. Maybe he thought that if he put his shoulder to the wheel and pleased the right patrons, he would be protected by and even welcomed into the fold of the most formidable brotherhood in Christendom. Incredibly, that is just what happened. 49. Once again, Caravaggio’s reputation preceded him. Some of the greatest grandest Knights of the Order of St. John very much wanted their portraits painted by this celebrated prodigy. The greatest, grandest of them all, Alof de Wigancourt, the Grand Master himself, was so taken with his new portraitist that he sat for him twice. 50. The surviving portrait of Wigancourt recalls similarly majestic state portraits by Titian, but in a touch entirely typical of Caravaggio, attention falls on the all too human pageboy standing warily at his master’s side. If the boy seems less impressed than he ought to be, Wigancourt didn’t notice. The warrior aristocrat must have felt a strange kinship with the headstrong artist. He would soon bend or break nearly every rule of the Order, going so far as to lobby the Pope personally, to get Caravaggio knighted. 51. In lieu of the tribute money that the generally well-born knights paid for their induction, Caravaggio would paint an altarpiece depicting the beheading of John the Baptist for the oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St. John in the capital city of Valletta. Working as always with no preparatory sketches or studio assistants to block in a background, he created in about three months the largest (10 by 15 feet) and maybe the greatest work of his career. It’s the only picture he ever signed. There, beneath the pool of the Baptist’s blood, inscribed in the same crimson, is the name by which he wanted to be remembered: “F. Michelangelo” – Brother Michelangelo. 52. The executioner hasn’t quite finished the job. Holding his victim prone and reaching back for the dagger that will sever the head from the neck (at this point it’s only half attached), he impassively follows the instructions of the jailer standing beside him, while Salome’s servant holds the plate that in a few more seconds will bear the weight of a human head. No one is taking any particular pleasure in this distasteful task but, well, orders are orders. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. 53. A newly minted Knight of the Magistral Obedience, with the honors and rewards appertaining thereto (a gold chain bestowed by the Grand Master himself, not to mention a couple of slaves for his personal use), Caravaggio chose precisely this moment -- August 18, 1608 -- to go off the rails. It was yet another brawl -- an especially ugly one -- but Caravaggio wasn’t a layman anymore, and the penalties for a brawling Knight of Malta admitted of no extenuation. 54. Exactly what happed outside that house in Valletta is not known, but one of the six or seven disputants -- very likely Caravaggio, in the light of subsequent developments -- ended up firing a small pistol at a higher-ranking Knight, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza. Whatever brought on the quarrel -- an insult to Caravaggio’s honor is not hard to imagine -- a senior Knight of Justice had been shot and seriously wounded. Nobody, not even the greatest painter in the world, could be allowed to get away with that. 55. If Caravaggio had begun to chafe under the Spartan regulations that a knighthood entailed -- no quarreling, no whoring, no leaving the island without express permission -- that was as nothing compared to the straits in which he now found himself. Nine days after the shooting and a hurried investigation, Caravaggio was arrested and locked up in a dungeon in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. There he might have read the graffiti of despairing prisoners who had gone before him -- “imprisoned forever, victim of evil triumphing over good,” reads one -- and reflected on the turn of fortune that had plunged him overnight from the summit of public acclamation to this abyss of deprivation and dishonor. 56. Perfect timing: Caravaggio had been locked up the day before he was to attend, as part of the anniversary observances of the Baptist’s beheading, the official unveiling of his altarpiece in the Oratory of Saint John. As if that irony weren’t sufficiently crushing, three months later he was formally expelled from the Order “like a rotten and diseased limb” in a ceremony that took place, as did all such ceremonies, in the same oratory that housed his monumental canvas. Fortunately, he wasn’t around for that final humiliation. In October, in a move that seems more like a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie than an episode in art history, he had escaped from the well-nigh impregnable fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. 57. That escape would have entailed breaking out of his cell, scaling the castle ramparts, rappelling down a 200-foot precipice to the sea, and swimming to safety. Which he did. Then he would have had to find a captain who could sneak him past the harbor night patrols and, once arrived at the haven of Sicily, he would have had to avoid the murderous bandits on the inland route to the port of Syracuse. Clearly, he couldn’t have got off the island without much plotting and the inside help of a corrupt official or two or perhaps a blind eye turned at the right moment by Fabrizio Sforza Colonna. By mid-October, he had arrived at Syracuse, about as safe -- which is to say, not very -- as he would ever be. 58. Caravaggio had chosen Syracuse as his destination for one compelling reason: Mario Minetti. His former companion, model, and (probably) lover had returned to his native Sicily and prospered as a respectable family man and the master of a fashionable workshop. Violent and volatile as he was, Caravaggio compelled abiding loyalty among a small band of intimates, among whom Mario was one. The younger man succored his old friend, lending him his state of the art studio and spreading the word to his rich and powerful clients. It soon became apparent that the work those rich and powerful clients wanted was Caravaggio’s, not Mario’s. Which was fine. Mario could have had no illusions about who was the greater artist, and he could afford to pass on a few commissions that Caravaggio desperately needed. 59. He stayed in Sicily about a year, moving restlessly from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo and keeping a step ahead of the enemies he imagined -- and in fact, were -- pursuing him. The altarpieces he left behind in those cities were increasingly dark and expressionistic, forfeiting detail and color, but losing nothing of tragic intensity. Local legend had him exhuming a corpse to use as a model for “The Resurrection of Lazarus” and slashing to ribbons a completed canvas that someone had dared to criticize -- unlikely, but his behavior had become more erratic. Always armed and now accompanied by a big black dog he named “Corvo” (Crow), “he looked more like a swordsman than a painter,” as one early biographer wrote. 60. Now more than ever a papal pardon was the goal, not just to remove the death sentence hanging over his head, but also to protect him from the wrath of the Knights of Malta, if they were indeed the ones pursuing him. In September, 1609, he left Sicily for Naples, bringing him one step closer to the capital and ultimate rehabilitation. Caravaggio was a known quantity in Naples, where he stayed once again in the Colonna palace at Chiaia. But neither the Colonnas nor his own wits could save him from what had been in the cards for a long time: the savage and nearly lethal attack that took place outside the Osteria del Cerriglio within a few weeks of his arrival. His enemies, finally, had caught up with him. 61. He never had a chance. Three men held him down while a fourth sliced his face. Afterwards, he was almost unrecognizable. They could have killed him, but they wanted him to live, bearing his scars for the rest of his life. Everyone would know what that meant. 62. So who were “they”? Probably not the Tomassoni clan. They definitely would have killed him if they still wanted revenge for the murder of one of their own -- an eye for an eye. And probably not Wigancourt, the Maltese Grand Master whom Caravaggio had severely embarrassed with his colossal infractions -- a sneak attack outside a louche brothel wasn’t his style. Most likely it was Roero, the aristocratic heavy whom Caravaggio had attacked and injured on Malta. This was how an aggrieved count and Knight of Justice dealt with a mere painter. 63. C remained in Naples another six months, convalescing to the extent he could and dreaming of Rome. He did manage to create one more major work, “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula.” The chiaroscuro that had once dramatically illuminated complex figurations of theme and action had now given way to a depthless and murky field of browns and reds. “And universal darkness buries all,” as a later poet once wrote. 64. From here on, the story gets very hazy. On July 9, 1610, Caravaggio boarded a felucca that would take him north towards Rome and the papal pardon he had reason to believe was imminent. He never got there. What went wrong is the subject of multiple conspiracy theories, some of which have a shred of plausibility. However or wherever it happened, by the beginning of August, all of Rome had heard the news: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was dead. 65. His enemy Giovanni Baglione wrote, “he died miserably -- indeed, just as he had lived.” It pleased Baglione to think so. In his account, Caravaggio had been arrested (no reason given) upon landing at the port of Palo, 20 miles west of Rome. There, he was held in prison for two days while the felucca bearing three of his paintings -- his passport back into the good graces of his patrons in Rome -- sailed on without him. Upon his release he embarked on a suicidal chase along the beach in malarial weather to catch up with the ship at Porto Ercole. He died of a fever along the way. 66. The story doesn’t quite hold. Why would he have been arrested only to be released? And why would the paintings have been disembarked at Porto Ercole, 70 miles north of Rome? Nor was a body ever found. But it’s not hard to believe that Caravaggio had died of a fever exacerbated by the stress of losing his pictures and, more importantly, from the debilitating and improperly treated effects of his nearly fatal wounding. He didn’t die miserably. He died fighting to the last. 67. The poet Marzio Milesi composed some elegies for his deceased friend, which serve to remind us that if Caravaggio was a thug who hung with gangsters and whores, he was also a highly cultured artist no less at home in the company of poets, musicians, scientists, and learned prelates. Milesi genuinely grieved, whereas some of the other principals -- Borghese, Wigancourt, and their underlings -- just wanted to get their hands on the loot. In the unholy scramble that followed Caravaggio’s death, Borghese bullied and threatened his way to the largest share of the takings. 68. One picture that Borghese didn’t get, known as “Portrait of a Courtesan” until it went up in flames during the fighting in Berlin at the end of World War II, remained in the hands of Fillide Melandroni. She held onto this portrait of herself, at her most beautiful and bejeweled, till the end of her days. 69. Fillide had done quite well on the game, until venereal disease caught up with her at the age of 37 or 38. When she made out her will a few years before she died in 1618, she left most of her costly belongings to charity, but the portrait by the passionate artist she had known so intimately she bequeathed to her aristocratic lover Giulio Strozzi. It was her most cherished possession, and she wanted him to have it. End Bibliographical Note: The flavorful translations of the historical documents in this account come from Peter Robb’s impassioned and novelistic M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. The notions that Caravaggio might have had a second career as a pimp and that the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni occurred in the course of a duel derive from the entirely persuasive account of Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Other estimable sources that I’ve used are Helen Langdon’s Caravaggio: A Life, Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio, and Francine Prose’s Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. And, of course, there are always the paintings themselves.
Notable Articles, Sport

The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball

[caption id="attachment_65903" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Connie Yori, Ankeny's prolific scorer, putting up a short-range jumper.[/caption] This past March I was sitting on a stool at my local sports bar, waiting for a sandwich and daydreaming about the local team and my son’s alma mater, the Wisconsin Badgers, playing their way into the NCAA finals. (It’s amazing how much loyalty writing four years of tuition bills can instill.) I wasn’t paying much attention to the women’s basketball game on the screen until I noticed the Nebraska coach. I looked closer, and sure enough, I realized I knew the woman in the business suit, standing on the sidelines, directing the Cornhuskers. Actually, I didn’t really know Connie Yori. But I remembered her well. In 1981, I’d watched her throw down 49 points in the Iowa state tournament quarter-finals against Charles City, on the way to leading her Ankeny team into their second consecutive state tournament finals. Girls basketball back then was huge in Iowa. The girls state tournament routinely outsold the boys basketball tournament and the top players were legitimate state celebrities. Like Indiana back in Hoosiers (the movie) days, there was only one big tournament -- none of this modern division stuff. Connie Yori was the best girls basketball player I’d ever seen live. Five-ten, with an honest-to-god, NBA-style jump shot. She seemed to get along famously with her teammates and middle-aged coach, although at the end of practice she’d regularly ask him the same question. “How about letting us play some five-on-five?” He never, to my experience, relented. Because in Iowa, the game that the state was wild about was six-on-six. It was illegal for players to cross the center line. Not like “over-and-back.” Ever. Three girls played all-time defense, three played offense. Dribble three times, and it was a travel. Hold the ball for more than three seconds, turnover. They’d been playing these rules since the '40s, and it created a major uproar when they finally switched to standard rules in 1994. I’d started following the Ankeny girls team in the fall of 1980, introducing myself to the coach, getting permission to visit the occasional practice and scrimmage. I took a lot of pictures. That summer, I’d called the editor of The Iowan magazine, proposing a feature story giving an inside look into this sporting phenomenon by doing a “season on the brink” -- following a girls basketball team from first practice to last game. “Okay,” the editor said, unenthusiastically. “Just don’t spend too much time on it.” I knew what he meant. I was writing regularly for The Iowan and I knew to expect the normal payment, in the low three figures. An extra hundred if I provided the photos, which I certainly planned on doing. I wasn’t discouraged. For me, it would be an adventure, and surely a stepping stone to my dream job on the staff of Sports Illustrated. I began looking for the right team, one within reach of my home base in Ames, Iowa, where the large city high school had no tradition of girls basketball. Girls basketball in Iowa had been the province of small-town Iowa, all the way back to its earliest days, when the basket was a peach basket and, on the rare occasion when a player managed to throw the lop-sided ball inside, a broomstick was required to knock it free. Growing up in Iowa, even in Dubuque, where the only girls high school sports were tennis and golf, girls basketball was part of the culture. Each spring the TV broadcasts from the capacity crowds at the state’s largest arena in Des Moines took over one of the three stations our antenna received, and it was largely from these games that I learned the names of small town Iowa: Grundy Center, Montezuma, What Cheer. I can’t recall a single boys high school player from my childhood outside my hometown, but remember watching in awe as Denise Long of Union-Whitten knocked down 111 points against Daws in the 1968 state tournament. The Des Moines Register, a paper that everyone in state seemed to get, joined in the fun when she was later drafted in the 13th round in 1969 by the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors in a publicity stunt. Women's college basketball wasn’t even in the picture and wouldn’t be for another decade. [caption id="attachment_65904" align="aligncenter" width="570"] The starting Ankeny Iowa six, 1981.[/caption] After considering Story City, to the north of Ames, I decided on Ankeny, a city of 15,000 south of Ames, north of Des Moines. The first time I introduced myself to coach Dick Rasmussen, he seemed a bit leery of the idea of a young reporter following his team all year, but as we chatted he came around. “You ought to see them play softball,” he said. It was only years later than I checked the record book. The basketball girls all played on his softball team as well, winning the previous three state championships. I had stumbled onto an unusually talented group of athletic girls, under the direction of one of Iowa’s legendary coaches. He would later say that Connie Yori, the star of that 1981 team, was the best basketball player he’d ever coached. I would be surprised if she wasn’t. It was a bit odd, at first, watching the three-on-three girls format, especially the somewhat awkward exchanges over the center line from the defensive team to the offensive one. The two dribble rule also made the game pass-centric, if somewhat stuttering. When a team made a basket, a referee hustled the ball to mid-court to a waiting colleague where it was snapped to the offensive player stationed inside the center circle. The result was a fast-paced game, with the number of offensive possessions close to double typical in standard rules and some prodigious offensive statistics. The six-on-six rules were wildly popular in Iowa and Oklahoma. For most of the rest of the country, organized interscholastic girls basketball just didn’t exist and wouldn't take hold until Title IX’s impact in the mid-'70s, which in 1981 was still just beginning to reshape girls and women’s sports. The history of six-on-six rules is a bit obscure. It's hard, with basketball such a huge business these days, to imagine the days when it a casual gymnasium PE activity with a wide variety of fluid rules, like the odd game of capture the flag or kickball. At one time, the court was divided into three areas -- one for offense, one for defense, and a center area where two players did a jump ball after every score. That form of basketball was not destined for prime time. Whatever the exact details, it’s clear that the intent of six-on-six was to limit full-court running, which was felt to be too taxing for members of the fairer sex. In fact, this same sentiment was behind the demise of girls basketball in larger Iowa cities, where the belief that sports would damage young women gathered more support than in the smaller farming communities, where it was probably pretty self-evident that hard work was not the cause of widespread female health problems. In her history of Iowa girls basketball, From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press (Iowa State University Press, 1993), Janice Beran cites anti-basketball advocates stating that competitive basketball fostered “aggressive...unladylike” characteristics. They apparently found plentiful medical experts who believed athletics affected menstrual cycles and the capacity to have children. She quotes a Scientific America article from 1926 which stated, “It may be a good thing that women are not as interested in athletics for feminine muscular development interferes with motherhood.” But despite its dodgy conceptual roots, I grew to enjoy the frequent passing, the ability of a single player to dominate the offensive game, the frustration of teams trying to double-team Yori, only to have her slip passes to her teammates, one of whom would go on to be a Division 1 collegiate basketball guard for Drake. You might say it was the original triangle offense. Yori, unlike the stars of just a decade earlier, had the opportunity for athletic scholarships and inter-collegiate play. She ended up in Omaha, at Creighton, where she became a mainstay among the top scorers in collegiate basketball. [caption id="attachment_65905" align="aligncenter" width="570"] The girls state high school tournament regularly filled the largest auditorium in Iowa, Veterans Memorial in Des Moines. On the floor, the three offensive players wait at half-court for a rebound or a scored goal.[/caption] The 1981 team dominated the regular season and played into the state finals for the second year in a row. The Iowan got me a press pass and it was my first, and only, visit to the tournament. The scene at Veteran’s Auditorium for the state tournament was, pardon the cliché, electric. The place was sold out and raucous. The boys from these small schools seemed to be unabashed fans, the younger kids, face painted in school colors, gave it a carnival atmosphere. I remember chatting with a young Congressman courtside, Chuck Grassley, who was wearing a shiny suit with a wide tie displaying a gigantic knot. He seemed to be having a grand time, meeting and greeting folks in preparation for the launch of his 30-plus-year career in the U.S. Senate. Sports Illustrated was covering the event and had installed flashes in the rafters of the gym, so that its photographers could get perfectly lit photos of the action. I pushed my black and white film setting and shot with a blurry, wide-open aperture, sitting on the floor courtside with all the pro shooters with larger, faster lenses. It was a close contest, with Ankeny losing the game on a final-second basket by Norwalk, reversing the two-point win over Norwalk Ankeny had scored in the finals the previous year. I still have a roll of film shot from the basketball floor after the buzzer, where I, only somewhat shamefully, roamed, capturing the hugs and tears. Four years later, the tournament was broken into two divisions as larger schools joined the Title IX sports revolution. The larger schools played five-on-five, while the smaller schools continued with the old format. These two styles co-existed uncomfortably until 1993, when Atlantic beat Montezuma. The following year, the tournament was split into four divisions, based on enrollment, and they all played by standard modern rules. As for my career as a sports writer, I did, that winter, cover a professional tennis tournament in Chicago for World Tennis Magazine. I watched the Chicago press corps grumble about the free sandwiches they were fighting for, two old rivals, who seemed like grandpas to me, almost coming to blows. They asked the players ridiculous questions in the press conference, including one reporter wondering if John McEnroe feared being shot by a fan. Another reporter went on a tirade because the tournament changed the order of an evening’s program, after he’d gone to press, turning him “into a liar.” That was end of my short, happy life as a sports reporter, and close to the end of my days in Iowa. I never covered another basketball event as a writer, and soon moved away, never to return. That’s made my season on the brink all the more memorable and special. When I think fondly of my home state, in my mind, the three girls on the offensive team are still out there on the hardwood, in their black kneepads, waiting at center court for a defensive rebound and a chance to move the ball, two steps at a time, towards the goal.
Essays, Notable Articles

Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions

William Shakespeare's 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we'd tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn't serve Hamlet well and it's no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard's best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you'll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you'll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that? Hamlet Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers. I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic. From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word "drama." Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh...” -- the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick...” The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And - “the play’s the thing” - the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years. When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to "front" for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down. The Winter’s Tale Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson. For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time. I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time. Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him. Henry V Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography. Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue's opening lines capture the play's energy:  O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry's claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare's most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland). Shakespeare's plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry's moving and eloquent speeches ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers") with the toll of war on common people ("few die well that die in a battle"). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry's threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as "the star of England" yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain. Although all of Shakespeare's plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers. King Lear Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He's written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen. King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man's condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the "sublime," by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms. King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls "unaccommodated man," the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare's protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester's reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare's most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock. How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play's central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world's bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says "nothing" to Lear's demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, "no cause, no cause." At play's end Lear's anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – "never, never, never, never, never" – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain. What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare's willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear's world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play's exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world's most precious resource. Othello Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth's Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance. Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities. Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation. Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona. Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Notable Articles, The Millions Interview

Life is Too Short to Read a Bad Book: A Conversation with My Editor

When I was younger (read: 27) I thought all book editors were either bow-tied bald men or sharp-jawed women in extreme eyewear. Also: mean. (In my mind, they slammed their hands on their desk and screamed about the bestseller list.) My silly assumptions were chipped away over time: I worked with the incomparable (and smiley!) Deena Drewis at Flatmancrooked (now of Nouvella); I began to follow more and more editors on Twitter; I had a drink with one or two. What I found in all of them was a passion for books and reading that matched my own; ask an editor about a manuscript they have just shepherded into print and their eyes will get as glittery as a bookseller's when discussing a staff pick. Editors edit books because they love them. (They also seem to love tote bags.) After I sold my novel to Little, Brown, my editor Allie Sommer and I talked on the phone (for the second time ever). I said, "My parents are so proud of me!" and she said something like, "Mine are so proud of me!" You see, California was Allie's first acquisition, which means that I share my debut with her, and proudly. I learned so much about writing from working with Allie, and my book is better because she edited it. The editorial process was thorough and humbling, and although I always valued revision, I now see just how deeply it can improve my work. (Also: whenever I watch a show like Homeland with random plot holes I turn to my husband and say, "They should hire Allie. She would never let them get away with that!") Assistant Editor Allie Sommer is a wizard, a mentor, a harsh task master, a champion, and a friend. (She is also a former sorority girl who has never smoked marijuana...but we won't hold that against her.) Allie was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her job. The Millions: How did you start working in the publishing industry, and why? Did you always want to be an editor? Allie Sommer: I didn’t always know I wanted to be an editor, but I’ve always been a big reader. My parents claim that “book” was my first word. I’ve been labeled a bookworm my whole life, and so when I was starting to think about what I might want to do for a career, a family friend suggested I might enjoy working as an editor. She recommended me for an internship at a children’s book imprint after my sophomore year of college. While I enjoyed working around books, I still to this day don’t understand what makes a good picture book! The next summer, I got another editorial internship, this time at an adult nonfiction imprint. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be an editor. As soon as I graduated from college, I started applying for editorial assistant positions at adult trade imprints, and ended up in my dream job working for Little, Brown and Company. TM: Can you describe your typical work week at Little, Brown? What exactly do editors do? AS: Lots of reading! There are always tons of manuscripts and proposals on submission, and a huge part of the job is getting through the reading pile. It’s all worth it, though, to find the books you love and will get to publish on your list. Once we buy a book, we have to shepherd it through the publishing process — editing, writing flap copy, suggesting ideas for the jackets, selecting the interior text design, and the many other small steps it takes to turn a manuscript into a finished book. (Today for example, I spent hours going through photos for a nonfiction title — organizing photo captions and credits, confirming text placement, etc.) Editors also serve as the main contacts for the book in-house, coordinating with other departments including production, publicity, marketing, subrights, and sales, among others. Every book is a team effort. Luckily, each title on the list is in a slightly different stage, so there’s lots of variety throughout the week. We will also often go to lunch meetings to build our relationships with literary agents (so we get a little break in the middle of the day!). TM: Nowadays, people love to say "editors don't edit" but that is far from true in my experience. I still recall the first editorial letter you emailed me; it was about 12 pages long and I almost fainted I was so floored by your insights (also, I can now admit: I was terrified by what you asked of me and my book). We worked on California for months; I felt supported and challenged by you, and like no one else in the world knew my book as well as the two of us did. You edit not only the nitty-gritty line-by-line stuff, but also larger questions regarding plot, character, and so on.  Can you talk about your editorial process? AS: Wow, thanks. I should hire you as my spokesperson! When I edit, I try to look at the big picture first. What is this book trying to do? In some cases, it’s telling an exciting story, in others it’s exploring a fascinating set of characters, or in others teaching the reader something new. My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. Is there something a reader might not understand? If so, the author should probably clarify it. Is there something that will make this a more page-turning read? If so, let’s do it. And of course, along the way, you’ll catch smaller things — plot and character inconsistencies, grammar errors, etc. — but it all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader. TM: Do you have a particular philosophy regarding editing? You're an Assistant Editor at Little, Brown, so I wonder if you've adopted specific editing skills and approaches from more seasoned editors? AS: I’ve learned so much from the editors I’ve worked with here at Little, Brown. Everyone is brilliant and talented, and I’m constantly impressed with the caliber of my coworkers. But what’s interesting is that there’s no set way to approach a manuscript. Nobody tells you, “This is how to edit. Follow these steps.” Everyone comes to a manuscript with a different perspective, and you quickly learn that each editor has his or her own personal preferences — conventions they love (and maybe even overuse) and things that are huge pet peeves. Also, every manuscript is unique, and so no one rule could apply equally to all books. Some of my favorite experiences have been providing a “fresh read” for other editors, and when other people provide a “fresh read” for me. After a couple rounds of edits, you can find yourself so close to the text that it’s hard to be objective — and sometimes the thing you need most is someone else to confirm your hunch or point out something you may have taken for granted. The conversations that follow these kinds of reads are better than the best debate you’ve ever had in an English class. Not only can you discuss what you love about the text, but you can change the things you don’t love! It has consistently been an amazing intellectual challenge, and the rush of it keeps me hooked on publishing. TM: You mention that editors have different "pet peeves"--can you give me an example?  What are some of yours? AS: I don’t love when fiction writers narrate in the second person or the present tense. I find these styles are often hard to pull off for an entire book-length work and can be distracting from the story. Another pet peeve is the overuse of parentheses, m-dashes, and exclamation points. They are great tools to have, but in most cases a writer can achieve this same emphasis by restructuring his or her sentence. Then when they do appear, they pack the maximum punch. TM: Can you describe what the acquisitions process at Little, Brown is like?  That is, what has to happen before an editor can make an offer on a book? AS: When one editor falls in love with a manuscript or proposal, he or she will bring it up at our weekly editorial meeting. Other editors will volunteer to read it, and if there is a positive response, the Editor-in-Chief will give the go ahead to bring it to our Acquisition Board. In advance of the meeting, all of the Little, Brown editors read the book, as do representatives from many other departments including publicity, marketing, sales, and subrights. The meeting feels a bit like a book club, with the Publisher leading the discussion. Everyone has an opportunity to provide an opinion about the book and how we might make it work for our list. And if we think we can do a good job with it, the Publisher approves the editor’s offer. TM: What has most surprised you about being an editor and working in the New York publishing world? AS: Everyone thinks that editors get to sit at their desks and read all day. At least, that’s what I thought! Even as an intern, that was mostly my experience. Sadly, that’s not quite how it works. As I mentioned earlier, there are so many other parts of the publishing process we need to manage during the day that reading almost always gets pushed to after hours. I was also surprised by how much you have to schmooze! There’s lots of networking involved — with authors, agents, editors, and other publicity or industry contacts. There’s always someone you need to meet. I thought in an industry full of bookworms, you could just hole up at your desk and get away with being shy, but that’s just not the way it works. Publishing seems to favor the outgoing (or the shy who are good at faking it!). At a party, you have to train yourself to go up to a group of people you’ve never met and introduce yourself, and shamelessly follow up the next day by email. You also have to cold call or email people you’ve never met and ask them out for lunch. And then when you get to lunch, you have to be able to keep the conversation going. Luckily, people are generally very nice about all this (since they are in the same position), but it can definitely be terrifying at times. TM: Do you have a dream catalog of the kinds of books you'd like to acquire and edit? Are there certain types of manuscripts that you connect with, and if so, how and why? AS: Time for my elevator pitch! I love novels that have a great voice and a compelling plot that keep you turning pages. I love literary and upmarket commercial fiction, thrillers, dystopian and speculative fiction, and anything with a great hook. In nonfiction, I love memoir, humorous essays, narrative nonfiction that takes me into a world I know nothing about, and pop-science/psychology. I like books that are fun and accessible to a wide audience — something you’d read in one sitting and immediately want to share with all your friends and family. TM: How has editing changed your reading, outside of work? (Do you even read outside of work?!) AS: It’s funny, when I tell people that I work in book publishing, they get very excited and ask me what they should read next. But often, I’m only reading submissions that haven’t been published, or I’m working on books that won’t come out for another year! It’s hard to find time to read for fun, but it’s something I really try to prioritize. While it may seem as though it’s taking time away from reading I could be doing for work, I think it’s actually incredibly helpful market research. It’s important to know the of-the-moment books — what they are about and why they seem to be working. I can then use these examples as I think about how we are pitching books in-house, and have a good mental library of comparative titles. But really, like it sounds, it’s mostly for fun. After reading so many books on submission that are good, but not quite great, it’s sometimes an even bigger thrill to get lost in the world of an amazing book that’s already been published. However, I read very differently now than I used to. First, I’m extremely picky. I have to prioritize the books I read since I have so little time to do it, and so I don’t impulse buy anymore. I rely heavily on recommendations from friends, colleagues, and reviewers. Still, I always read the first few pages of a book before I buy it to make sure I’ll be able to get into it. Second, once I’m reading, I often think about how I would have edited the book differently. I get frustrated with stories that feel overlong or don’t deliver on plot the way I’d hoped they would. Third, I never finish a book I’m not enjoying. That’s a huge change for me. I used to think I had to finish every book I started. Now I’ve realized that life is too short to read a bad book — especially when there are so many wonderful books out there waiting to become part of your soul and fundamentally change the way you think about the world. Image via Joanna Penn/Flickr
Annals of Japery, Notable Articles

There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…

There are two kinds of novelists, the peckish and the ravenous: those who fastidiously nibble on the pie of human experience (Jane Austen), and those who gorge themselves on its hearty filling (Emily Bronte). (There are also two kinds of pies, but no matter.) I first started making such judgments after a sharp hunger pang interrupted my reading of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Reaching for a half-eaten pastry in the refrigerator, I had stumbled upon the elusive truth: at some point, every writer lands on one side of an aesthetic divide, or as Zadie Smith puts it, travels down one of two paths for the novel. Once possessed of this key classificatory insight and another slice of pie, my literary splicing continued apace. Alice Munro, it struck me, is a hypoallergenic writer, while Joyce Carol Oates is a shedding one; J.K. Rowling a perennial novelist, Robert Galbraith a seasonal one; Cormac McCarthy a novelist who neglects to contact one-night stands after a passionate night of lovemaking, Tom Wolfe one who sends each conquest a handwritten note on monogrammed paper; Salman Rushdie Team Jacob, and Cynthia Ozick Team Edward. John Banville is our most eminent bituminous novelist, whereas his fellow Irishman Roddy Doyle is one who has no idea what that classification means; Martin Amis is a novelist who pees standing up, Karen Russell one who pees in some other manner; and Jonathan Lethem is a novelist colloquially known in locker rooms as a grower, while Jonathan Franzen, the originator of the contract/status writer dichotomy, is by all accounts a shower. Surveying the gluttonous mess I had made, I revised my theory to distinguish between prim novelists (Woolf, Forster), never far removed from a napkin and a DustBuster, and Rabelaisian novelists, who chew with their mouths open, get crumbs stuck in their beard and leave various and sundry colorful stains on their manuscripts (Balzac, Nicholson Baker, if their copyeditors are to be believed). Shutting off the kitchen light, I next reflected that novelists, like bulbs, come in two categories: the incandescent (Pynchon, Barth, Ellison) and the efficient (Marilynne Robinson, John Cheever, Teju Cole), those Energy Star LED certified wonders who are just as illuminating as their more brilliant versions. Should these categories prove too restrictive, a sui generis novelist like W.G. Sebald can in a crisis be compared to a lava lamp. Having gone to bed still a little hungry but satisfied with my theorization, I heard a bump in the night, at which point I continued my conceptual cleaving. There are indeed two kinds of novelists, but appetite, manners or household appliances have nothing to do with it. Rather, there are robust novelists (D.H. Lawrence), who announce their presence by busting down the front door of your literary consciousness to steal your electronics, and insinuating novelists (Willa Cather), who sneak in through a window after you’ve dozed off and raid your refrigerator. Kept awake both by the threat of an intruder and a stiff neck — the result of my aggressive pie-eating — I made a useful distinction between the arthritic novelist, whose plot machinations creak like old bones (Dan Brown), and the lithe novelist, whose manipulations cannot but leave the reader in awe of their balletic grace (Kate Atkinson). When especially hungry, lithe novelists will teach insinuating novelists yogic postures in exchange for food raided from your fridge. The body — its motions and its wants — is very important to novelists. There are those writers who prefer to dwell on the shapely rump of human carnality, and those who find inspiration in the fertile hillocks of the womanly breast; that is, there are ass-men and tit-men. And then there is Philip Roth, who is both an ass-man and a tit-man, the first writer since Shakespeare to so straddle the two categories. And while it is common knowledge that characters can be flat or round, the distinction holds also holds true for novelists, particularly when said novelists become pregnant. (We need not revisit Randall Jarrell’s seminal analysis of innies and outies here, as that great critic’s conclusions primarily concerned the poetic temperament.) Having dragged my own body to a coffee shop after a sleep-deprived night, I continued my bifurcations, this time in a frothier vein. Owing to the vagaries of evolution and animal husbandry, there are lactose intolerant novelists (Dostoyevsky) and those blessed few for whom a latte does not ruin an afternoon (Marguerite Duras). Furthermore, there are those novelists often praised as daring or fearless (Claire Messud), less for their portrayal of searing emotional content than for their willingness to drink eggnog at holiday parties in spite of their digestive problems. Lily-livered novelists, by contrast, studiously avoid life’s hard truths in their fiction and heavy cream in their kitchen. Strolling back with my (black) coffee, I noticed my overgrown yard. It struck me that as novelists spend much of their day watching the grass grow, it is only logical that they can be defined according to their landscaping technique. Thus Donald Antrim is a push-mower novelist, while Rachel Kushner is a ride-mower novelist; and Jonathan Safran Foer cuts grass with an artisanal scythe, as opposed to a writer like Tao Lin, who eats each blade like a ruminant. (NB: There is only one type of cow, but each has four stomachs, making them unlike novelists.) As for the Brits, Evelyn Waugh was the kind of novelist to hire someone to cut his grass, and Kingsley Amis the kind who made his son do it. (Amis fils, if you recall, is one of those novelists who pees standing up, a direct result of his mowing-filled childhood.) V.S. Naipul used pesticides, while Muriel Spark could weed a lawn with one withering look. The connection between proper lawn care and prose style naturally led me to consider larger cosmological issues. Shifting my gaze from my cultivated garden to the stars, I concluded that there are so-called multiverse novelists (James Joyce, David Mitchell), whose many-stranded plots seem to intuit the mysteries of hidden realms, and then a horde of reactionary scribes who cling to the comforting universe model (George Eliot, John Updike). God is of course a writer unto himself and the most famous creationist novelist in history. But alas, one cannot contemplate life’s great mysteries forever. It was time for my annual, disheartening reckoning with the IRS. Playing my usual coy games with TurboTax, I deduced that Saul Bellow was a novelist owing back taxes, while his good friend Richard Stern was one with nothing to declare but his genius; and that Faulkner was a novelist haunted by the past, while John Grisham is one who is well-invested in futures. I write this now from the hospital after my appendix burst from excessive theorizing and audit anxiety, an unfortunate medical emergency which nonetheless led me to reflect on the difference between the vestigial novelist, who revels in the antiquarian (Sir Walter Scott), and the vital novelist, who writes because he has a pathological hatred of the tailbone (Ben Marcus). After nearly 24-hours of intense thinking, I ruefully considered how hard it is for a novelist facing so many clear-cut choices. Laid up though I was in this antiseptic room, I took solace that at least I was only a critic, that endlessly classifying specimen whose depth, complexity, and fine gradations resist all neat distinctions. Image via TheCulinaryGeek/Flickr