Jesmyn Ward hadn’t realized it’s been more than half a decade since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones made her a literary star. That’s because she has been extremely busy, both professionally and personally. Since her Hurricane Katrina-centric novel, the author wrote the raw and emotional Men We Reaped, a memoir about losing five family members and friends to drugs, suicide, and accidents that can only happen to young, poor, black men. She also edited The Fire This Time, an essay and poetry collection about race and identity written by this generation’s brightest talents. She also moved with her husband and children back to DeLisle, Miss., the small, poverty-stricken town where she grew up. She lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina before going to Stanford and the University of Michigan to pursue higher education. Even though Ward was busy producing non-fiction, readers anxiously awaited her fiction followup to Salvage the Bones. Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, returns to similar settings and themes as her previous works, but is wholly original. Set in modern Mississippi, the novel follows Jojo, a 13-year-old of mixed race, and his drug addict mother as they drive to pick up his father from state prison. The mix of harsh reality and magical realism create a sense of wonderment that makes readers question what they know about identity. Ward and I spoke via phone about racial tensions, why history is so important, how hurricanes effect those who survive them, as well as what she hopes readers will remember about her novels. The Millions: I wanted to start our conversation with Salvage the Bones. It came out in 2011 and won the National Book Award. It’s been a little more than half a decade, and I was curious about how your relationship with the book or the characters has changed since the book’s release. Jesmyn Ward: I didn’t realize it had been so long. That’s so crazy. My characters remain with me in one way or another even after I’m done. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to those characters in a sequel, but I definitely still think about them. Especially now with Hurricane Harvey and Houston or whenever we encounter another hurricane and we witness the kind of devastation we are witnessing right now. I think about them lately because I wonder if people who read the book and read about this family who couldn't leave see what is happening currently and think about Salvage the Bones and those characters. Those characters still live with me. I still think about Skeet, Esch, and Big Henry, I actually roped them into the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing and it was nice to see them again. Part of the reason it’s been a surprise to me that it’s been so long since Salvage was published is because whenever I think about those characters, I can only age them by a couple of years. It’s hard for me to think of where they’d be now, 11 years later after Hurricane Katrina. That showed up in Sing because when I was writing that moment when Esch showed up, I felt she was two years older than she was at the end of Salvage and my editor, of course, caught it. She pointed out that the character would need to be 10 years older now. She hadn't aged at all in my head. Maybe that’s a deficiency on my part because I can’t age them. They live with me though as they existed in their books. TM: Were you working on Sing, Unburied, Sing during the entire time since Salvage? JW: No, not really. After I finished the rough draft of Salvage the Bones, which was in 2009, I began working on Sing, Unburied, Sing, but it was a very different book then. When I say I was working on it, I meant I was working on unsuccessful first chapter after unsuccessful first chapter. Jojo’s character was the only character that was present and real to me at that time. I didn’t know anything about his mom, his dad, or the rest of his family. In the beginning his mom was white [as opposed to black in the final version]. My understanding of who the members of his family are changed a lot. I couldn’t write a good first chapter when I didn’t have a clear understanding of who the other characters were. I spent a good four of five months writing bad first chapter after bad first chapter. Then I decided I should work on what would become the memoir Men We Reaped. I just put those bad first chapters away. I set Jojo aside and worked on the memoir. Following that, I edited the collection The Fire This Time. While I was working on The Fire This Time was when I started working on this novel again. I did take a substantial break but I came back to it again. It was very hard with me for Sing to find a successful entryway into the story. I think part of the reason it was difficult was because I couldn’t figure out who the people around Jojo should be and who they were. That’s where I start: I need a vague understanding of who the most important characters are and what their motivations are. That was very hard for me to pin down with this book. It took me a long time. After I finished Men We Reaped was when I returned to Jojo. I threw out everything I had before and I just started again. Once I figured out who Leonie, Pop, and Mam were I gained some traction. I used the momentum to move into the second chapter. Then I was able to move through that first rough draft. TM: This novel has a very serious, realistic undertone, but it also has this notion of ghosts and magical realism thrown in. When did that come into play with the story? JW: From the very beginning, I knew that Leonie was seeing a phantom. In the very beginning, she was seeing a phantom of Michael. For the first four chapters of the rough draft she was seeing a phantom of Michael and it just wasn’t working. I figured out it wasn’t working because his presence didn’t add to the understanding of who she was. Leonie was a very difficult character for me to write because I couldn’t figure out what was motivating her to be such a horrible parent and sometimes a horrible person. All that told me about her was that she was in love with this man and perhaps she was hallucinating because of the drugs she was using. It didn’t tell me anything that I already didn’t know about her and who she loved and valued. It felt like something was wrong. Then I began rethinking that phantom of someone she actually lost; not just a man she loved who was in prison. What if it was a family member she lost. That’s when I stumbled upon the fact that she would have lost a brother and that it was his ghost she was seeing. Instead of going back and correcting that in the first four chapters I had already written, I wrote going forward with that idea that the phantom was her brother. I wrote with that assumption and suddenly she began to work for me as a character. She took on new life. I understand her motivation. I understood the pain in her heart that she carried with her. By her not dealing with that pain, it feeds into how selfish and egotistical she is. It makes her a worse parent because she’s so wrapped up in this pain that she isn’t able to resolve. That’s when I knew there was one ghost: the ghost of her dead brother. At the same time I was working on the beginning of this, I read about Parchman Prison. I came across this bit that there were black boys as young as 12 that were charged with petty crimes and spent time in Parchman. I read that and I knew how brutal the prison was and that fact was heartbreaking. I wanted a child to be part of my novel and be present in the moment. I figured the only way I can make that happen was to make him a ghost. I wanted him to exist in the present moment and not just exist in a flashback. I wanted him to be able to interact with Jojo. TM: When I was reading Sing, I thought a lot about The Turner House and Swamplandia. Is this idea of ghosts, ghost stories, and the past as part of everyday life in southern or black culture? JW: I think that ghosts are embodiments of the past. Especially here in the South because we’re so close to the past. So much of the past lives in the present. We live with the ramifications of the past that might not be as clear or feel as present in the rest of the country. I sit and think of the furor we live with regarding Confederate monuments and the endless debates about whether or not to take them down. I think about all of the advocacy and opposition. We’re still dealing with monuments from a war that happened 150, 160 years ago. The violence that surrounds that history is still very present. In the South, we may not talk about it or it may not be a part of public conversation around these issues, but the underlying understanding is that the history of this region bears very heavily on the present and informs our actions. I think the ghost story form is a great way to explore and express that. TM: You’ve been very outspoken about racial tension in America. I know the media is discussing this more, but I think there is still a disconnect where most of the country doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be in these situations. Do you think about this when you’re writing? JW: I do. It influences my work because my awareness of history and the legacy of racist violence in this country bears heavily on my thinking when I’m casting about for ideas for my novels. I’m always thinking about race, violence, the history of the South, and how that history bears on the present. I saw Ann Patchett speak 10 or 15 years ago and one thing she mentioned in her speech was that how she thought writers write the same book over and over again because they’re obsessed with the same ideas. Those ideas always surface in each story they write. As I’ve written more fiction and creative non-fiction, I’ve found that is true in my case. I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression. I do have to say that when I’m writing and I’ve immersed myself in that world with those characters, then I am just thinking about the characters in the story and who they are and how they are evolving. I’m trying to find the important moments in their lives—moments beyond which nothing is the same. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about themes or symbolism. When I’m actually writing I’m just thinking about the people. I think about the issues and big ideas when I’m thinking about novel ideas, but once I begin writing I throw that all out the window because the work is able to come alive and these people are able to live when you immerse yourself in the world. TM: Earlier you mentioned how devastating Hurricane Harvey is to the people of Texas. I know you were still living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit. If you don’t mind, I was just curious what life was like for residents after the media and most of the country move on from these tragic events? What do families go through? What is it like having to restart? JW: It’s really difficult. Donations do make a difference because they help people who are attempting to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity did a lot of work here after Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt a lot of homes. It’s a hard question to answer because a lot of people had house insurance and made house insurance claims, but that didn’t work for everyone. Some claims were denied on technicalities. A lot of the rebuilding that people had to do down here was out of their own pockets. It was a slow process. They rebuilt as they were able to slowly save the money that they needed to rebuild. That’s one of the reasons a hurricane appears out in the Gulf—and I don’t want anyone to go through the pain we went through—but I’m always grateful when the hurricanes don’t come for us. I still feel like a decade after Katrina, we’re not ready. There was just extreme flooding in New Orleans two or three weeks ago from just a bad rainstorm. The streets were flooding and homes were damaged. It’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s still a continuous process. TM: Your memoir came out between Salvage and Sing. Do you ever think about more memoirs on different topics? JW: Right now, no. I really don’t want to write another memoir. There are many reasons for that. Men We Reaped was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required that I make myself vulnerable. It required that I make the members of my family vulnerable. I had to tell the truth and reveal all of these secrets about our lives and that was very hard to do. I don’t know if I can do that again. It was important to me because I had to write that book to tell my brother’s story. I had to tell the story about my friends and my cousin. Men We Reaped came out before Black Lives Matter was a movement. I almost feel like at that time I was trying to express the sum of the opinions that Black Lives Matter has expressed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so. That book was difficult to write because I didn’t have that vocabulary to write about these people that I loved and lost. Fiction is easier than creative non-fiction for me. Creative non-fiction is hard for me in general whether it’s essays or a book-length memoir because I tend to shy away from the pain of what I’m writing about. It makes me write around my subject instead of focusing. Creative non-fiction is a lot of work for me and my editors because they have to make me focus on whatever I’m trying to avoid in the piece I’m working on. So, no, I don’t want to tackle another non-fiction book, but who knows in 20 years? TM: Is it going to be another half decade before your next work of fiction comes out? JW: I have something percolating, but it’s probably going to take me some time to finish. It might be another four or five years before it comes out. I’m writing the first chapter of the rough draft. I’m at the very beginning of the process. The novel is set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade during the early 1800s. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s definitely challenging me as a writer and as a human being because the main characters in this are people who were enslaved. It’s really hard to sit with that. The subject matter is making it hard for me to write this novel. Hopefully it will be done in four or five years. That’s including the rough first draft and multiple revisions of that. TM: What is your hope of what people walk away with after they finish Sing, Unburied, Sing? JW: I hope that the characters stay with them. That Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, Ritchie, and Pop stay with them. That next time readers encounter an older black gentleman in the grocery story or the next time they unfortunately see a 14- or 15-year-old black boy like Jojo dead from police violence that maybe it’s a bit more painful and a bit more prevalent for them because they’ve seen the humanity in the characters I’ve written. Maybe that makes it a little easier for them to see humanity and personhood.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss political apathy and spooky teenagers. Like they do every week. But this time, we captured it on video! Discussed in this episode: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link, On the Abolition of All Political Parties by Simone Weil (translated by Simon Leys), ghosts, vampires, werewolves, robots, holograms, teenagers, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, National Public Radio, listeners like you, civil wars on planets with red water, socialism, Republicans, taxes, Democrats, the Free France movement, Charles De Gaulle. Not discussed in this episode: California baseball, Starkweather homicide, children of Thalidomide, [guitar solo], Buddy Holly, Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler), space monkey, Mafia, hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go.
The Second Annual Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement Biggest Redemption Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell In last year’s awards I proclaimed that “everyone is wrong” about Swamplandia!, which I couldn’t stand. I only tried this book at the very strong recommendation of my never-wrong friend Michael Schaub and the promise that one of the stories was about dead presidents reincarnated as farm animals. I loved that story and went on to love all the stories in Vampires. Everything that irked me about Swamplandia! clicked into place in this volume. Perhaps I should give more authors a second chance. Funniest You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me by Nathan Rabin “Everybody who rides a Greyhound from Newark at that hour might as well wear a sign reading, ASK ME ABOUT THE HORRIBLE MISTAKES THAT HAVE LED ME HERE.” Cutest Couple Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell I recently heard Rowell speak, and when asked whether it bothered her that her books were sometimes labeled as Young Adult Romance, replied, “I think ‘romance’ is a word used to make women feel bad about themselves and how they feel, and I refuse to feel bad about either of those things.” So not only do I love Rowell even more than I did already, I’ve become even bolder in recommending the most romantic book I read this year. Best Temper Tantrum The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris The young Theodore Roosevelt loved nature, and brought a lot of it into his childhood bedroom for what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History — snapping turtles tied to the furniture, frogs hidden in his hats — but most of his family called a nuisance. When his mother, exasperated, let loose a litter of field mice he had been housing, he cried, “The loss to Science! The loss to Science!” Most Belated Reading Experience The Secret History by Donna Tartt All the excitement surrounding The Goldfinch’s release led me to read the novel that made Tartt a literary darling back in 1992. A few sleepless nights later I was dying to go back in time so I could talk to everyone about it. Best Back Catalog Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns by John Green After joining the legions who love The Fault in Our Stars last year, I quickly read his first three novels. Although they don’t transcend the YA genre as much as his mega-seller, they’re all superb YA novels. I don’t think anyone has portrayed high school life as realistically since Freaks & Geeks. Biggest Failure The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr For a few years I have been wanting to read Carr's book about how the internet is affecting our attention spans and "ability to read and think deeply," so I got it out from the library. But then I got busy with, I don't know, finding new Tumblrs and watching eyeshadow tutorials on YouTube, so 3 weeks later, to avoid the fine, I returned it to the library unread, and the gods of irony laughed. Best Career Inspiration Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy One of the characters in this book says that she wants to start a magazine called “Everything Gauche” and now, by gum, so do I. Best Epiphany This Bright River by Patrick Somerville I turned 30 this year, a milestone I was relieved to reach in a way I couldn't put my finger on. A few days after my birthday I read this passage that sums it up perfectly. Occasionally I would join them for their weekly baby lunches, depending on whether I was busy that day, and all of us could discuss how strange it was that we were no longer part of the youngest generation or (for that matter) the generation of the main people on TV, that marketing didn't seem directed at us anymore, how we didn't quite know what to make of the early days of this new status as adults but that it did seem to have its benefits, like a remarkable unbounded freedom, despite the stresses and responsibilities, which seemed to want to take that same freedom right back. Best Read of the Year The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer This book also swept Best Depiction of Female Friendship, Book I’ve Recommended and Given the Most, Best Depiction of Class, and Author I Want to Be Friends With. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
At Page-Turner, Willing Davidson interviews Karen Russell, the newly minted MacArthur Genius, Swamplandia! author and 20 Under 40 alum. The conclusion this writer came to after reading their back-and-forth? The phrases “luck lightning” and “King Doomsday” need to be used more often. (FYI, we published our own interview with Russell back in February.)
This year's "Genius grant" winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 -- up from $500,000 -- “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are: Karen Russell has been a name to watch in literature ever since her story "Haunting Olivia" appeared in the New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue in 2005, just shy of her 25th birthday. That story would be collected in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which made her name as literary writer known for imbuing her stories with fantasy and supernatural elements. She would follow up with novel Swamplandia!, and this year's collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which has done some time on our Top Ten list this year, most recently in July. We've interviewed Russell twice at The Millions. In 2011, she discussed her genre-straddling tendencies as a writer: "I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time." This year, she elaborated further, "What’s attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it’s exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world." Donald Antrim is not a household name but he is revered among writers as an incisive memoirist and creator of experimental novels. He debuted with Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and followed it up with The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist. The three books were re-issued in 2011 and 2012 with new introductions by none other than Jeffrey Eugenides, George Saunders, and Jonathan Franzen. His memoir, The Afterlife, came in 2006. Last year, after diving into Antrim's three re-issued novels, our own Lydia Kiesling wrote, "I suspect it’s not so much a function of age that has these books reappearing now. Rather, someone out there knew they hadn’t had their fair shake. They knew there were people who needed these novels — frustrated people and weird people and people who prefer a very correct, very unusual deployment of the English language: formal but personal, arch, hilarious, possessed of a slightly antiquarian flavor. Even very great writers don’t often write like this."
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It's also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 6th) were mostly published in 2012, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There's a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S. The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers. This year's shortlist is remarkable because half of its titles are works in translation. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (review) The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (review) Pure by Andrew Miller (Ellen Ullman's Year In Reading post) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Charles Baxter's Year In Reading post, "Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life") The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (excerpt) The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (excerpt) Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions interviews Karen Russell not once but twice.) From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (review) The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold (review) Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa
Karen Russell's stories defy definition. They are at once warm and sinister, a bubblebath with a shark fin lurking underneath the suds. Hailed as a rising star in the next generation of great writers, Russell has made her name with fiction that expands the possible, gorgeous prose forged in the fires of dark beauty and wistful longing. Her debut collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was set largely in the brackish backlands of Florida, which also served as the backdrop for her novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Her newest work, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, consists of nine stories spread across decades and continents. I spoke with Ms. Russell by phone a few weeks ahead of her collection's release, intent to learn more about how the fantastical can humanize us, what caused her to take her stories away from the swamp and why Stephen King is better than The Babysitters Club. The Millions: Vampires in the Lemon Grove is your first book to be set outside of the swamps of Florida. Was that a conscious choice to set your fiction in a new geography? Karen Russell: Thank you for noticing! I think it was a conscious choice. Some of these stories I was writing alongside Swamplandia! -- I think about half of the collection was written while I was drafting that novel, and then half after that book had come out. My first story collection has a couple of sojourns abroad but most of them have a uniformity of setting. I love the setting of the swamp so much. It feels so familiar. It's all so humbling, because you see where your preoccupations start to surface. I love that after a novel, where you're so committed to one place -- I spent most my 20s in that goddamn swamp -- so it was freeing to get to time-travel a little bit and try on some different skins. TM: Many of the stories in your new collection seem to focus on a symbol, like a precious glass window or a treacherous stop screw or a red trip wire. Do you often start writing by building around an image or do they take center stage more organically? KR: I think it can be both. It's always exciting when something presents itself as a symbol that you can recognize, something that concretely manifests itself. With the window, I think I was on the L train, and this couple happened to tell me about this settlement where they swapped a window around. They only had one glass window and it was this really rare commodity. That was like a gift from the universe. With the wire, I had this idea of a tattoo, and trying to define whatever desire makes you want to get a tattoo, to memorialize something, and having that unstablize and get really slippery. That took a little while. Same with the stop screw. It was something the story needed. I remember having a conversation with my brother. I was like, “what could you find in a nest? Something really small, like lynch-pin size that if it was knocked lose from your life, it would cause your life to go slack.” And he said, “a condom?” He also suggested Three 6 Mafia's Oscar. I'm so glad that at some point, the story within a story presented itself, because it would've been a different meditation on loss if it was about Three Six Mafia's Oscar. TM: I'm pretty sure everyone would've been psyched for that story. KR: I might've made a mistake. I might've made the wrong call there. TM: Going back to the red trip wire. With the complex imagery of Sgt. Zeiger's back tattoo in your story “The New Veterans,” did you find it necessary to create a visual representation for you to write from? KR: That's always my dream. I'd really like to illustrate these stories. You know Reif Larsen had that book come out [The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet] that was so gorgeously illustrated. I remember just touching it with longing. I'll try to do some doodles, but thank god for words. Otherwise I'd never get the pictures in my mind excised in any form that another could see, because it definitely wouldn't happen with visual art. I can draw a dog that looks at a clock. I had my own mental template of what that thing looks like. It's hard to describe a tattoo, it turns out. You feel wasteful. I wish that I could illustrate actually. Maybe somebody will. It's a pretty ridiculously intricate tattoo. TM: Your work, along with the stories of writers like Kelly Link and Etgar Keret, is often set in a kind of hyper-reality, where a surreal element is introduced into what we consider to be the normal world. What do you think this rising trend of fantastical elements being incorporated into modern literature signifies about readers' interests? KR: It's funny, because I often think if you look at Kafka, or an entire tribe of Latin American writers, I don't know how new it is necessarily. I think the conversation about genre in the mainstream feels more fresh and new. I remember in graduate school that many people seemed to be moving away from a really gritty kind of realism. For me, there's something playful about it. It feels intuitively right to me as a register to try to represent something true in. For people like [George] Saunders and Link, I don't think any of them would say they were writing about a world that's not the normal, ordinary world. Often they're just dilating some aspect of it so you can see, so you can think through it. What's attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it's exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world. Even a writer like Junot Díaz, who often doesn't get the rap of being a fabulist or using magical realism, his stuff is him reading Dominican history through the lens of Tolkein and Frank Herbert. That's another way people are filtering history. I just think those distinctions sometimes feel rigid and false to me. TM: There are three stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove that share the common traits of featuring a young male protagonist in the midst of dark circumstances. Why do you think adolescent boys and scary stories fit so well together? KR: I love scary stories. I really loved them when I was younger and I still love them now. I love the experience of being afraid. What it did for me when I was a kid is give me a way to contend with all kinds of unruly appetites like violence, discomforting tragedy, and questions that couldn't be addressed in speech. From an early age, I always preferred to read a Stephen King book to something like the Babysitters Club. In the funhouse mirror of those books, you could see so much of what's unspeakable about life on this planet represented. Between the covers was like a safe place to contend with monstrosities. In the last story of Vampires [“The Buried Doll of Eric Munis”], I think he's an adult consciousness retrospectively looking back at the monster that he used to be. It's a horror story about contending with your own youthful indiscretions and the afterlife that has. As a writer, it's helpful to put on a boy voice because it gets me a little farther away from myself. It gives me a nice leap to try and take. I think there is something fascinating about the wickedness that boys get up to in groups. I used to take these groups of high school students abroad, and I swear to god, the boys individually would be beyond sweet, but collectively they would transform and posses this evil energy. I don't know what unleashed that genie but you'd have this sweet kid who looked like a hot dog, a skinny little sweetheart who wrote poems, and then you'd plug him into a group of nine boys and it was terrifying. TM: Your title story follows two aging vampires who've settled down in an Italian lemon grove. Did this story generate from a desire to put your own spin on the emerging deluge of vampire literature? KR: I feel some embarrassment at the title of this collection, because even though it felt kind of right, metaphorically, to apply the title to all of the characters in this collection -- everybody's kind of a monster, everybody's dealing with an illicit appetite -- I didn't know the Stephanie Meyer thing was going to happen. It's a sad thing to feel a little bit like a biter of Stephanie Meyer. Nobody wants that in this life. I loved Dracula when I was kid. That was my favorite monster. Vampires are just rich as characters, in terms of hunger and addiction and unregulated appetite. They're pretty great. We really did something right by creating a monster that resembles humans with an unquenchable thirst. It's fun for me to play with those strong conventions. People already have a relationship to vampires that's so deep, and I guess in this case, something about it just felt right. I like the idea that what keeps you trapped in your most monstrous version of yourself is this belief that you are a monster. TM: And yet Clyde is really humanized when we learn in the story that drinking blood isn't a vital component of a vampire's survival. KR: I feel like we all know vampires, so you can relate to Clyde's befuddlement when he learns that this dysfunctional and evil thing he's been doing isn't necessary or effective. It's like, ok, now what? TM: It reinforces this idea that he's wasting his own immortality trying to figure what he's supposed to be doing. KR: Yes! It's all one long Sunday, right? TM: Exactly. There's a similar vibe going on in “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” where an assortment of U.S. Presidents have been possibly reincarnated as horses. KR: That story is maybe the strangest leap in there in some ways. I was living with my best friend, Carrie, who had horses, and she had this book by Mary Twelveponies called There Are No Problem Horses, Only Problem Riders. I thought that book was amazing. I read that, and I'd just read Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead, and I was taken with some of the questions his book raises, this whole idea that when people die, they go to this liminal space where nothing is resolved and they're just as clueless as when they were alive. There's something sweet and naïve on our part to think that all of our questions will be answered when we die, that we'll get one final answer to everything. And also I think I watched this really long documentary about the U.S. Presidents while I had the flu. I wish I could connect it to our current election cycle, because then I would sound topical and smart, but actually it's one of the older stories in the collection. So I had these ideas percolating: Brockmeier's meditations on the afterlife and the hagiography of these powerful men. It was sort of this ode to ambition. Originally, it was going to be each of the presidents being reborn into a different situation, and the first one I came up with was for Rutherford B. Hayes to be stabled in his afterlife. This is turning into the forensics of my own bad idea now. TM: When you're writing about the presidents, or in “The New Veterans” where you talk about IEDs and Fadaliyah, Iraq, how obligated do you feel to root your fiction in facts? KR: I think with the president's story, it's a lot looser in a lot of ways. That one maybe felt a little lighter to me, although I also felt deeply sad for this man who believes in a really standard heaven but then finds himself in an extraordinary circumstance. It's not like it was a bad Saturday Night Live sketch that I had no emotional connection to. With “The New Veterans,” that felt like the riskiest one to me, because it's contemporary and such a sensitive topic. There are a lot of veterans that I'm close too, and so much of the heart of that story is pretty personal. That was the one I probably put the most work into. There's a lot of delivery ambiguity, a lot of fogginess inside that story. Nothing is specifically true, but I read quite a bit in preparation for it to be as plausible as I could make it. In order for the more fantastical elements to hold any emotional resonance, I felt like I had to get all the historical stuff correct. I was a lot more conscious and anxious about that one then the “The Barn at the End of Our Term” because I didn't think Dwight Eisenhower's relatives were going to be too upset with me. TM: I found that the concept of time seems to permeate many of your stories, whether it is omens from the future, changes to the past, or uncertainty over the present. Was time a specific focus in this collection? KR: I feel like I wake up to that stuff halfway through sometimes. You figure out what you're up to, and then you can consciously make those connections. I decided it's like blood rising to a cut. There might be something you compulsively want to address or think through, and then when you figure out what it is you can consciously shape it a little bit, but I don't think I always have so much control over what the heart of a novel or story is. I think at a certain point I realized how many of these stories had to do with hunger and how to deal with certain appetites. A lot of these stories are also about stories, in a somewhat goofy, probably too explicit way. There's a lot of traumatic repetition, and trying to figure how to tell a new story to move past it. With the writers I love, you see the same things surging up again and again. Maybe we all get like a finite set of preoccupations, but you just have to find new ways to let them give life to your stories.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn't read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat. I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called "Where the Bros Are" -- or was it "For the Bros"? -- but forgot to write it down (don't get me started on the things I didn't write this year). I read NW and couldn't stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it's not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year. I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight's Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland's History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then). I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn't really read that either, just 20 pages. As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together... We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking. It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death -- all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. "It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents." The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy's elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel. Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, "an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness...grown up too soon." When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate's friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy's trust fund babies -- Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going "wild," of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities -- all are present in Swan River, and so there's plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against. If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate's older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, "not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless...the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips." A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding "the outline of Maggie's body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch." Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a "wild girl" -- she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught. It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don't interest Atwell -- and it's problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their "good-girls-gone-bad" miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire. A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as "Hell House." This "scared straight" performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons -- instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave -- she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you'll later be served up as a human sacrifice. Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?
Back when I was a reporter at Premiere magazine, I attended a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Talk to Her, and received one of his famous press notes packages. Almodóvar is known for conducting “auto entrevistas” (self interviews), in which he asks himself pointed and occasionally self-flattering questions about his latest movie. For example: Q: From now on, we’ll have to say that as well as being a good director of actresses you’re also a good director of actors. The leading characters in Talk To Her are two men and the actors who play them are splendid. A: I’m delighted it’s you who’s said that. I remember being amused by these schizophrenic conversations, in which Almodóvar played both interviewer and interviewee. (I imagined the chatty Spanish director in a mad dash, back and forth between two chairs, swapping roles.) At the time, the whole notion of a self interview seemed absurd to me, but now I see the benefits. As Almodóvar put it, “The reason I interview myself is for practical reasons. I say what I want to say and in the fastest way possible. In any case, a self interview is a written piece and writing is always done in solitude.” I frequently thought of Almodóvar while working on the reading group guide for the paperback version of my nonfiction book, The New Kids, chronicling the lives of students at a high school for recent immigrants. Initially, my publisher assigned a freelancer to write a first draft of the reading group guide, which features an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing book clubs and classes, and an author Q&A. While it was a solid start, I felt that many of the questions could go deeper. So I pulled out two chairs (metaphorically speaking, of course), and set about interviewing myself, figuring that no one knows my book better than I do. Reading group guides can have the feel of an author’s conversation with herself, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your opinion of the author. In a troubled publishing industry, they can also be enormously helpful in selling a book to general readers as well as more specialized groups, such as book clubs and classes. In my case, the readers’ guide for The New Kids has played an important part in securing adoptions of the book by colleges, universities, high schools, and communities organizing common reading programs. It also has had the cool effect of inspiring others to write their own guides for my book. Recently, a high school teacher in Colorado who taught the book in her classes shared with me her own discussion questions that she had come up with for a New Kids curriculum. After years of being claustrophobically alone with my book during the writing stage, it has been a joy to be able to talk about it with real, live humans who have actually read it. Since the hardcover publication, I’ve been doing events, readings, and visiting book groups. But I can’t be everywhere all the time, and the reading group guide is a way for me to initiate my ideal conversation about the book with readers who keep the discussion going. As a journalist who has interviewed everyone from Colin Powell to Kim Kardashian, I am used to asking other people questions, but turning the focus on myself was a strange and reflective process that made me reconsider the very notion of what makes a “good” question. It also made me curious about other authors’ experiences writing or revising their reading group guides. So, I decided to ask a few. Amy Sohn, the author of Prospect Park West and Motherland, a novel being published in August, is used to interviewing herself for reading group guides — she has been doing it for 15 years. “The best thing about interviewing yourself is that there are no ‘gotcha’ questions!” Sohn says. “The second-best thing is that you can be certain the interviewer read the book.” Of course, not all authors interview themselves. Robin Black, who wrote the short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, shared a conversation she had with Karen Russell (Swamplandia) in her reading group guide. My friend Ransom Riggs answered his editor’s questions about his young adult novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, for his forthcoming paperback, which also will feature photos previewing the next installment of the series. And Melissa Walker, another YA author, worked with her publicity team to revise a readers’ guide that was sent out along with advance reading copies for her book Small Town Sinners, which deals with a teen growing up in an Evangelical community that is producing a Hell House. “I think the publicity department knew this book would create controversy, so they wanted to present questions that would ‘normalize’ me and also make the reader really think about the content,” Walker says. Some authors forego written questions altogether. Daniel Torday, who wrote The Sensualist, chose to provide suggestions for supplemental reading for his novella on a webpage created by his publisher. Frances Greenslade, who wrote the novel Shelter, also took the conversation online, providing a reading group guide on her website that includes a “soundtrack” of songs that appear in the book as well as discussion questions. “I call it ‘Questions I’d love to be asked if I visited your book club,’” she says. “I like the questions my publisher came up with for inside the book, but there are things I grappled with as I wrote the novel that I think make for interesting starting points for a discussion. It’s always the stuff that challenges us that is the richest vein for further exploration.” The authors I polled (myself included) represent several different genres, but we’ve all had a hand in creating our reading group guides for the purpose of enhancing the reading experience and inspiring discussion. Here is what we’ve gathered. Did you write or heavily revise your reading group guide, and if so why? Brooke Hauser: I asked my publisher to revise my reading group guide in part because I felt that some of the discussion prompts came off sounding like pop quiz questions instead of conversation starters. Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: I wrote the Topics for Discussion part of the guide — for the paperback—because my editor said we should start that way and they would make changes as necessary. As I recall though we just went with what I wrote. They also sent me an example from another collection they had published recently and that was actually a huge help especially with tone. To me, the questions I wrote don't sound like me at all—they sound like a readers' guide. Amy Sohn, author of Motherland: I revised my reading group guide for Motherland after it was sent to me for review, because I wanted it to reflect the questions I wanted the book to raise. Some of these questions were already addressed in the reading group guide. Others were absent. I also wanted to be careful not to give my readers any low-hanging fruit when it came to critiquing my work. I deleted questions I found facile. I edited preambles to questions that felt like misreads of my intention. Reader-reviewers can say whatever they want on bookselling sites, but when it came to the readers’ group guide I wanted to raise the level of the discourse. Understanding that I may not get the deep, thoughtful critical reviews I seek because book review space is shrinking, I saw the guide as a place to do something about it. To ask questions that engage literary tropes, metaphors, themes, doubling. Like most authors, I also heavily revise my catalog copy and synopsis and weigh in on what blurbs to use, because the copy ultimately reflects on me and I want to be sure it reads in a way that I'm happy with, a way that I can “own.” What are the components of your reading guide? Hauser: In addition to discussion questions and a Q&A, my reading guide features a section called Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion, in which I suggest activities for readers who want to engage more with the book’s subject matter. For instance, I suggest volunteering at a local office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that resettles refugees across the country. I also recommend visiting Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Sohn: Introduction, Topics for Question and Discussion, and Enhance Your Book Club. My book has a scene that takes place at a supper club or underground restaurant. One suggestion was for the book club to hold its own supper club. It’s fun to imagine some of the book groups taking these suggestions. Black: In my paperback, there are discussion questions, and there is also an interview of me done by Karen Russell. They make a good balance, I think. The interview Karen and I did is pretty craft heavy so for anyone who is interested in going a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing, it's there. The other questions, the ones I wrote, are more for readers who aren’t necessarily as interested in the writing process. There’s also a third element that isn’t in the book and doesn’t officially count, but I think is important: I heard so many times that book groups didn’t know how to discuss short stories that I put up a guide to doing that on my website. I know this isn't technically part of the book, but in some ways it has done more to make my collection seem approachable to book groups than anything else has. For any collections I write from now on, I will try to have something like that included as an appendix. Daniel Torday, author of The Sensualist: Instead of a traditional reading group guide, my publisher [Nouvella] and I decided it would be fun to do something to harness the great innovative powers of the Internet. To go with each copy of the book, we created a beautifully designed bookmark that has a QR code that brings you to a webpage with what we called “Supplementary Reading.” The book was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I compiled some quotations from The Brothers Karamozov that directly influenced my writing — the book’s main character is named after Dmitri Karamozov, and the book takes its title from a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov, called “The Sensualists.” We included excerpts from those chapters, some stuff from André Gide’s great essay on Dostoyevsky, and something from David Foster Wallace’s famous essay on Dostoevsky. How did you come up with your questions and topics for discussion? Did you cull any from events, readings, or book club discussions in which you participated? Hauser: I’ve been asked some great questions about my book by readers, especially book club members who have invited me to participate in their discussions in person or via an email interview. So, when it came time to write my reading guide, I included a few of their best questions in an extended guide that I posted online. One of my favorite questions was about why most of the “main characters” in the book were students who either lived alone or had little parental guidance. That connection hadn’t occurred to me before a reader pointed it out. Sohn: My editor drafted the initial questions, and I added a few that were more thematic. The questions didn’t gel with questions I have been asked at readings because people who attend my readings ask incredibly personal questions: “Do you like being a mother?” or else want to know about how to get their own books published or get an agent. Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter: From visiting book clubs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that readers view the characters in Shelter very much as real people. I see them this way, too. So, I like to ask who they identify with most and why. Readers are quite divided on their sympathy for the mother in Shelter, for example. It’s interesting to explore those conflicting views of her. Black: I stole a few questions from interviews, just recasting them. And then I also threw in a few things that no one had ever asked me but that I wished they had. I also looked for common elements between the stories so the book could be discussed as a whole; and actually a couple of the ones I found surprised me—like that it’s a book about loss but almost nobody cries. When I realized that, I was curious myself about what other ways I had represented grief if there are so few tears shed—so I put the question in. What do you think makes a thought-provoking prompt? Did you ever find it strange interviewing yourself, if in fact you did? Hauser: My book is divided into three parts, loosely reflecting the arc of the students’ journeys as they adapt to life in this country: Passages, Between Worlds, and Almost American. At the eleventh hour, I panicked about the title “Almost American,” worrying it could imply the students were somehow “less than,” when really I meant that becoming American is in and of itself a journey (a legal journey or a psychological one, for instance). I thought about changing the title, but my editor convinced me not to, and I’m glad I listened, because it led to a great question: “What does it mean to be almost American? What does ‘being American’ mean to you?” Greenslade: I think the most thought-provoking questions come from comparisons with our own experience. I hope that reading broadens my view of the world and makes me look at my own firm convictions a bit differently. I like a book to unsettle me a little, so questions that peer into that unsettled feeling interest me. Questions about the characters’ choices and motivations usually lead to good discussions. Sohn: Every writer has her ideal review. This doesn't mean a rave. It means a review that looks at what the author was trying to accomplish and tries to weigh how she succeeded. I got a mixed review of my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, that nonetheless pleased me because it seemed to look at my intention: Did the book work as generation-specific satire? To me, a thought-provoking question is one that addresses the author’s goals and the subtext of the novel but doesn’t weigh in on the morality of the characters. I don’t find “Did you like or didn’t you like ___ character?” questions to be very insightful as a reader myself, though they make for lively discussions in book groups. I prefer “What is the author trying to say about _____?” or “How does ___ theme play out in the novel?” or “Where do you see the characters going at the end?” Black: I think thought-provoking questions are ones that help readers feel some creative ownership in the work. That means that the best questions have no definitive answers. You aren’t testing the readers’ knowledge of the work, you’re trying to get them engaged in discussion—which often means debate. So, I tried to look for points of ambiguity in my stories and direct the readers toward those. I didn’t exactly see it as interviewing myself. I saw it as a way of helping other people find a creative path into the work. That’s how fiction stays alive once it’s written. By having other people continue to wrestle with it, question it, as they read. I tried to craft questions with that in mind. Torday: The idea [of providing a reading syllabus online] was that presenting readers with material for book group discussion would be a more exciting prompt than being too heavy-handed in asking questions directly. The most exciting material we unearthed was a letter from Fitzgerald to his daughter, imploring her to read The Brothers Karamazov, which he called the “masculine influence” on The Great Gatsby. Here I had written a book in which the characters read Gatsby and then literally visit the site of a mansion in Baltimore where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived for years. And one of those characters believed himself to basically be a character out of a Dostoevsky novel. So, in a way, I guess the question in a traditional readers’ guide would’ve been just to point these facts out and say something like, “Isn't that cool?” or “I don't know what to make of that—what the hell do you make of that?” It seemed more fun, and apt, to simply present the material and let it do the work. Do you have any advice or tips for other authors writing their own reading guides? Hauser: One thing I learned through the process of revising my reading group guide is the importance of knowing your audience. In addition to book clubs, students at the graduate, college, and high school levels have read The New Kids. I tried to keep different age demographics in mind while coming up with prompts and questions. Black: Try to craft questions for which there are no definitive answers. Try to engage the reader in an imaginative process. And don’t forget that reading fiction has this oddly social aspect to it. Readers form relationships with characters, so it makes sense to have a question or two that recognizes that attachment, questions along the lines of: “What advice would you have given to so-and-so?” or “With which character would you most want have lunch? Why?” It can sound a little hokey, I guess, but I think it’s important to have questions to which readers with different levels of sophistication can relate. Sohn: Don’t talk down to your readers. Assume they read a lot and can engage with fiction. Think about what might provoke discussion but also think about what might provoke internal thought. Books move people. The readers’ guide should help readers to think and feel more deeply about the book. Greenslade: Questions should be open-ended, not easy to answer with a simple yes or no. Go with problems that engaged you as you wrote and turn them into questions. Try not to sound too much like a literature class. Image via Wikimedia Commons
A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction. It was the first time they had done so since 1977. The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book. The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide. Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.” When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle. Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.” Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb. I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view. There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC. The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them. All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time. A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles. Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.) Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table. Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much. Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good). However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides. The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy. Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two... The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville. Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert. The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.” This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it. All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide. It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I'd learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary's office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves... (As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it's about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were "stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." Gary Fisketjon's industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.) ...so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. "What's this?" I asked. "That's a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates," Gary said. "Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it." I took it. I read it. I loved it. It's the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife's death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son's girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I'll carry that image in my head as long as I live. Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I've been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they're just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand. Over the years I've developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles: 1. An Unforgettable Character's Name This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes: Shakespeare's Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he'd gone with Yorick, that "fellow of infinite jest," which no doubt puts me in a minority of one). Walker Percy's Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: "What nuns don't realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.") Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon). Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (two icons who became franchises). Cormac McCarthy's Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word "debauched"). Jane Austen's Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn't dream of saying so). Stephen King's Carrie (you've got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig's blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what's not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker). 2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere Elmore Leonard's Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre). Gore Vidal's Duluth (alluring precisely because it's so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire). Karen Russell's Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida). Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson's other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home). Geoffrey Wolff's Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – "a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod" – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God's inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops). Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel). Marshall Frady's Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it's one of my all-time favorite books). Then, on the downside, there's James Michener's Hawaii (a title that's about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space). 3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences Josephine Hart's Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel's title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son's fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion). James Dickey's Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder). Martin Amis' novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it's bursting with the things that made America great – "fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs"); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips). William S. Burroughs' Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985). Harry Crews' Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews). 4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell's runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow). Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter's Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America's state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers' unions. According to this harridan-hottie, "The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office." Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn't fat!) Robin Cook's Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock). Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt (books that claim, breathlessly and falsely, to be about simple things that single-handedly changed the history of the universe). 5. One-Letter Titles You can't get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O'Connor reminded us, and if you're a book title you can't be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z: Andy Warhol's A (you'd have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let's be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist). Fred Chappell's C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection). Tom McCarthy's C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy's first novel was titled Remainder). John Updike's S. (it's the initial of the novel's protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert). Thomas Pynchon's V. (no, Pynchon's first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it's a woman's initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?). Georges Perec's W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp). Vassilis Vassilikos' Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it's about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand). In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
A curious statement was made by this year's Pulitzer Prize committee as, for the first time since A River Runs Through It failed to win in 1977, no award was given in the fiction category. Instead, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, and David Foster Wallace's The Pale King will get to split the "tie" on their records. In the history of the Prize, there have only been nine other years without a fiction winner. Meanwhile in the General Nonfiction category, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern took home the top prize. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available: Fiction: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson - (excerpt) Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (excerpt, The Millions interview) The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (excerpt, previously unpublished scene) General Nonfiction: Winner: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt) One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman (excerpt) Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl (excerpt) History: Winner: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review) Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 by Anne F. Hyde (excerpt - PDF) The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (excerpt) Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White (excerpt) Biography: Winner: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (excerpt) Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt) Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (excerpt, The Millions review) Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
1. A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.” It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago. “Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called -- what is it -- ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?” “They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said. 2. In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction -- or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.” Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them. Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay "Why Bother?", Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts -- the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few. The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here -- because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series -- I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift -- and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal. What’s changed? For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland -- all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable -- enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules -- to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans. But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains: Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time -- that is spread over thirty years -- and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool. By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point -- and to do it readily -- marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction. I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction. Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV -- and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run. I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up. 3. For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes). Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work. I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked. I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.” The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode -- scene of my childhood -- had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house. [For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0]. I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision. Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction -- and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood. And that idea weirded me out. 4. The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness. When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure). That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house. What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them -- and to know them on our own terms -- drives us to read. Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation. Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house. What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks. It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in. 5. A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew. It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively. And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day. Photo courtesy the author.
These two books were a blast of double-barreled lady fun. Karen Russell, who first put a bite on my heart with her astonishing debut short story collection, Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, this year sank her teeth in, with the audaciously imagined debut coming-of-age novel, Swamplandia! (Knopf). Returning to the Everglades and the Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty family, Russell summons a bizarre yet wholly recognizable world where the boundaries between the living and the dead, the mythical and the mundane are erased, with the ease of a kid swiping a sneakered toe across a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. A world where heroic 12-year-old Ava Bigtree, reeling from the death of her mother (the star of the family’s now-on-the-skids alligator theme park), abandoned by her grief besotted father and her turncoat brother, who has taken a job at the rival theme park The World of Darkness on the mainland, must embark on a solo journey to the Underworld in the hopes of rescuing her older sister Ossie, a libidinous otherworldly girl who has eloped with the ghost of The Dredgeman. As in her earlier works, Russell ponders what is lost when we attempt to tame the wilderness, be it in nature or in ourselves. At what cost do we forfeit magic? I find reading etiquette books whether they are by Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Helen Gurley Brown, fascinating and very educational. It’s not all, What sort of spoon does one use for aspic? And, What do I do when his wife answers the telephone? I recently re-read Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, copyright 1945, and feel all the better for it. I find this particular book comforting as it focuses on many areas in which I am lacking and wish dearly to improve. For example letter writing. Never again will I write a gloomy, overly long, or boring letter, or a silly letter that can be used against me in a court of law. And, the art of conversation. Because Emily Post has alerted me to the dangers that lurk in the most casual exchanges, stressing, “None but the insane could feel impelled to clutch at a neighbor’s dress and tear it off. Yet the tactless do the comparably unfit thing time and time again” I’m certain I can, with guidance (and unless I’m sauced) avoid being a “chatterer” and a “tactless blunderer.” I will become skilled in how to deliver “a no as friendly as a yes.” I will learn, finally, that in writing and speaking, “simple Anglo-Saxon is best.” Lessons for a lifetime. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 6 months 2. 2. The Enemy 4 months 3. 4. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 5 months 4. 5. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 4 months 5. 8. Leaves of Grass 2 months 6. 6. The Hunger Games 6 months 7. 7. A Moment in the Sun 3 months 8. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 3 months 9. - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 1 month 10. - The Bathtub Spy 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month's inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I'm glad I had a chance to share it with you. We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel's review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder. Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month's list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Pale King 5 months 2. 2. The Enemy 3 months 3. 3. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 6 months 4. 5. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 4 months 5. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 3 months 6. 8. The Hunger Games 5 months 7. 9. A Moment in the Sun 2 months 8. - Leaves of Grass 1 month 9. 10. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 2 months 10. - A Dance with Dragons 1 month David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin's latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us. And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month's list
1. In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published). Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods. 2. Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees. The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring. Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read. Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet. Enter the Easter Bunny. 3. Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine. There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says. As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained. 4. Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves. But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while. (Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)