1. I am a jealous person -- jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered -- but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.” Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first -- The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there. I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies. When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.” He’s wrong, though. I do. My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first. As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One's Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests? The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.” Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it. Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? “From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer? 2. In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.” But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri? When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners. So how to deal with our unthinkable jealousies? What to do with my frustration that I’ll never be able to claim The Empathy Exams or Bad Feminist or Bluets as my own? Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?” Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.” For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something...I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.” It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one. Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him. Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls "Japanese wackiness," in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates -- a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster -- Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy. In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness -- a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones -- to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude? The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about -- or even to be particularly interested in -- the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing's prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.” The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals. There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability...almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy: It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego. The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness -- an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life. But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion. In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity: I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned...I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both. What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to. This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain", Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid. Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech -- and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways. We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness -- the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art? Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness...has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions -- to be kind, to stay open -- are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured -- either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.
Graywolf Press – the publisher behind Citizen, The Empathy Exams, The Argonauts, and On Immunity: An Inoculation – has built a reputation as “a scrappy little press that harnessed and to some extent generated a revolution in nonfiction, turning the previously unprepossessing genre of the ‘lyric essay’ into a major cultural force.” Over at Vulture, Boris Kachka writes about the history of one of the nation’s leading independent literary publishers.
Claudia Rakine's Citizen: An American Lyric, which won the Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and was included in our own list of "Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era," has been adapted for the stage, and previews are beginning in Los Angeles. Graywolf, the independent press behind Citizen, The Empathy Exams and On Immunity: An Inoculation, has interviewed the playwright behind the adaptation about the project and his process. As he explains it, "what makes the book—and the theatre piece—unique is that they expose and illuminate the small, sometimes unintended, and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul-crushing."
"I am worried about the implications of throwing the label 'women’s pain' around individual experiences of suffering, and I am even more uncomfortable with women who feel free to speak for all women. I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club. And I worry that the assumption of vulnerability threatens to invigorate just the sexist evils it aims to combat by demanding that men serve as shields against it." In an essay for the Boston Review, Jessa Crispin shares her concerns about the "wounded women" trend in literature right now, citing Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams and Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist as well the Twitter campaign #yesallwomen as particular examples. Pair with Ryan Teitman's Millions review of The Empathy Exams.
"Reading fiction is one of my true loves, but essays help me to understand things about the world, the writer, and if they’re really great, myself." Electric Literature's Jason Diamond argues 2014 was "The Year of the Essay," and when we think over the collections published this year - The Empathy Exams, The Unspeakable and Loitering, among others - it's hard to disagree.
I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam -- which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing. What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! -- or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him -- which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned. I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration. Most of my reading this year -- and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now -- was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming. I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about -- 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick -- the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 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.
This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year's best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a "best of" list would not have been true to the reading I did that year. Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year's best memories. It always feels like we've hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year. And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See. Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin. Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water. Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink. Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship. Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000. Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander. John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves. Eula Biss, author of On Immunity. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Mark O'Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Ben Lerner, author of 10:04. Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres. Phil Klay, author of Redeployment. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven. Tana French, author of Broken Harbor. Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase. Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite. Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On. Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning. David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories. Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls. Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names. Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman. Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman. Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions. Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House. Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men. Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion. Michelle Huneven, author of Blame Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise. Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer. Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers. Ron Rash, author of Serena. Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair. Tom Nissley, author of A Reader's Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle. Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans. Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses' Bridles. Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning. William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters. Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex. Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments. A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 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.
As part of their Sunday Interview series, The Rumpus had a chat with Leslie Jamison, who talked to Martha Bayne about The Empathy Exams, the ubiquity of Frozen and the pathos of Taylor Swift. If you like, you could also take a look at our own Edan Lepucki’s interview with Jamison, or else read Ryan Teitman’s review of The Empathy Exams.
I first heard of Charles D’Ambrosio in a fiction workshop that put a lot of emphasis on craft. By that I mean that every sentence in every short story was examined carefully, not only for its meaning and utility, but for its beauty, its distinction, and, most elusively, for how it “worked” within the entire story. There is a luxury to this approach that sometimes strikes me as too self-conscious, but in the right hands, it can lead to precise, indelible writing. D’Ambrosio’s prose has this rare integrity. In the preface to Loitering, his new essay collection, he writes: “I worked on each of these pieces a stupidly long time, with a determination that was fueled, in part, by vanity. I wanted the writing to live an independent life and not rely on passing opinion or the ephemeral realities of alt-weeklies to make its way in the world.” D’Ambrosio is probably best known for his short stories, which have been featured in The New Yorker and collected in two books, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum. His essays have been collected once before, in a book called Orphans, but that volume had a limited reach (only 3,500 copies were printed) and D’Ambrosio never got quite the readership he deserved. Loitering corrects that mistake, gathering together the essays from Orphans, along with some new ones that have been published over the past decade. The result is a twenty-year retrospective of D’Ambrosio’s career. The oldest essays in Loitering were first published in Seattle’s The Stranger, where he was given carte blanche and plenty of space—as long as he didn’t expect a big payday. I can’t imagine another writer using that freedom more wisely. D’Ambrosio’s first essays are among his best, especially “Seattle, 1974,” a beautifully woven memoir about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and feeling estranged from the rest of the country—and then, in turn, being shaped by that feeling of estrangement. It’s a moody, melancholy piece of writing that brought me straight back to the early 1990s, when the West Coast seemed farther away than it does now, and when certain regions of the country seemed to exist in greater isolation. Another standout essay from that early period is “Whaling Out West,” which circles around a debate between animal-rights groups and the Makah Tribe, who hunt whales. D’Ambrosio gently takes apart the position of animal-rights groups, pointing out how certain animals are romanticized and turned into mascots: “Abstract love is the nosy neighbor of abstract hate…neither one of them really tests disinterestedness, the ability to make tragic choices between things of equal worthiness and legitimacy.” But “Whaling Out West” isn’t only an essay about environmental politics. It’s also about D’Ambrosio ambivalence about whether or not to have children, which he frames in terms of procreation versus extinction: “As the extant capable male in my family, I either perpetuate our name or wipe it off the earth forever.” D’Ambrosio’s family is never far from his mind. He’s haunted by the suicide of his youngest brother and the attempted suicide of his surviving brother, a legacy he alludes to often and addresses directly in “Documents,” an essay about letters from family members, including a painful correspondence between D’Ambrosio and his father as they try to make sense of their shared loss. In this and other instances, D’Ambrosio’s struggles with his father are laid bare. Of his father’s letters, D’Ambrosio writes: “I’ve often thought that the unit of measure that best suits prose in the human breath, but there was no air in my father’s sentences; he seemed to be suffocating inside them.” There’s frustration in this observation, but also compassion, and you feel D’Ambrosio’s deep connection to his subject. D’Ambrosio is best on the subject of suicide and family in “Salinger and Sobs,” one of a handful of pieces of literary criticism in this collection. It explores the theme of suicide in Salinger’s fiction and asks how this theme relates to Salinger’s ultimate silence as a writer. Like a lot of people, I read Salinger when I was a teenager and I haven’t looked back much since then. But D’Ambrosio came to Salinger as an adult and his perspective was, to me, utterly refreshing. He rejects the idea that The Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age novel, instead seeing it as a story about the loss of familial identity after the death of a sibling. This is obviously a subject that D’Ambrosio knows about firsthand, and he is onto Salinger in a way that other critics aren’t: “It’s my suspicion that the [familial] refuge isn’t really a haven the way Holden imagines it—nor is it safe for Salinger, who seems to defang his work by taking the parents out of almost every story.” D’Ambrosio is also attuned to the ways that Seymour Glass’s suicide is elided: “Salinger never really looks at the role of parents in family life, and never examines, in particular, their position re: Seymour’s suicide…the other thing not present in Salinger’s work is outright anger toward Seymour or a sense of doubt about him. As Buddy [Glass] describes him, Seymour really has no flaws at all, and to me this absence of flaws and of anger and doubt is a texture that’s conspicuously absent.” D’Ambrosio argues that these omissions feel like a kind of secrecy rather than restraint or artfulness, and he asks how this feeling of secrecy relates to Salinger’s eventual withdrawal from the world. Another essay that meditates on the subject of absent parents is “Orphans,” an account of D’Ambrosio’s trip to a Russian orphanage. He’s there as a reporter, but he’s not chasing any particular story, he just wants to see what it’s like to live in an orphanage, a world without parents. There are many beautiful and funny passages in this essay, including this one, about the orphanage’s interiors: “Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shaped arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of wren.” The mix of criticism, reportage, and memoir in these essays reminded me of Leslie Jamison's recent collection, The Empathy Exams, and also of Michelle Orange’s 2013 collection, This is Running for Your Life. It's the kind of hybrid nonfiction that is flourishing right now, thanks in part to the flexibility of Internet outlets. However, D'Ambrosio doesn't seem to be writing in response to and alongside Internet culture in quite the same way as Orange and Jamison. This could simply be that D'Ambrosio is slightly older (he was born in 1968) and not as profoundly shaped by the medium, or it could be that he takes a slower approach to writing. In any case, he feels like the older brother to this younger generation of essayists, and I was interested to notice that Jamison actually thanks D’Ambrosio in the acknowledgements of The Empathy Exams. Her note provides a little window onto his aesthetic: “I feel an abiding and evolving gratitude to Charlie D’Ambrosio, who taught me early that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” I like Jamison’s acknowledgement because it explains to me why I had so much trouble summarizing D’Ambrosio’s essays for this review. I kept returning to his preface, his idea of letting his essays “live an independent life.” What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
Though major publications like The New York Times are still questioning the importance and power of female essayists, Lucy Scholes argues that women are producing "some of the best writing today" and as proof lists several of the best recent essay collections by women in a piece for The Daily Beast. Incidentally, that list includes titles such as The Empathy Exams and The Opposite of Loneliness, both of which were reviewed for The Millions (here and here, respectively).
When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction? Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.) Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list: Louisa Lim’s The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list): Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History Dianne Ackerma’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include: Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.
Book reviews are great and all, but even we sometimes feel they're missing something. Enter Kevin Thomas, whose HORN! illustrated reviews for The Rumpus are beautiful and informative in under 9 panels. Compare his pieces on Roxane Gay's An Untamed State or Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams to our reviews here and here, and be sure to check out the just-published HORN! The Collected Reviews.
Leslie Jamison, whose collection Empathy Exams was widely praised on The Millions, has earned a two-book “mega” deal with Little, Brown. The new deal promises to deliver another essay collection entitled Ghost Essays, as well as a work of “narrative nonfiction” entitled Archive Lush. (Bonus: We interviewed Jamison for the site last May.)
Now that The Empathy Exams, the thoughtful, brave, and honest essay collection by Leslie Jamison, is a New York Times Bestseller, it's probably a good time to start my bragging: Leslie and I smoked weed together at Iowa. I bring this up not (only) to embarrass Leslie (and me), but also because one particular memory of her from that era remains distinct in my mind, and seems appropriate given that her work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite. In the memory, our mutual friend A. has just gotten us high. He is a former journalist and a budding playwright as well as a fiction writer, and so social engagements with him carry with them a certain intensity, as if we're not just hanging out, but being interviewed and excavated, the performative elements of our personalities both applauded and questioned. I cannot get enough of hanging out with A. Once we're all rightly stoned, he asks me and Leslie how we might define the word dramaturge. In my memory, my brain stutters and stalls like a rusted old car; I am wishing for some cinnamon bread. "It's...uh...," I say, "...like...um...someone who helps a theatre company?" A. nods at me (with pity, I recall), and then turns to Leslie, whose arms are crossed. She's squinting. Leslie is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and when I am high this frightens me a little. "I like to think of a dramaturge as a kind of translator between the text and the performers." She goes on to describe the art of play production with such elegance and intelligence that I can't help but feel humbled, jealous, and inspired. This is how I felt reading The Empathy Exams. In a world where there are a hundred online quizzes along the lines of "Ten Things Not To Say to ___________" and twice as many confessional essays that read like ineffectual diary entries, it's energizing to find a collection like Leslie's, which engages seriously with issues of pain, suffering, and human connection and interaction. She is a translator for experiences I've had but could not find the right -- or any -- words for. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email. The Millions: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the essay form. Can you recommend 3-5 books for a reader who wants to immerse herself in this genre? How have these books informed your own work? Leslie Jamison: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard: Essays about boys, sure — and even a disintegrating marriage with one of them — but also about violence and squirrels and weird attachments that show up with unexpected intensity in unexpected places. Beard takes her pain seriously but is also funny, which I like. “The Fourth State of Matter” (about a mass shooting at the University of Iowa) is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read. The White Album, Joan Didion: A classic. But whatever. It’s important, and so good. There are meaningful flashes of personal crisis and reaction amidst larger meditations on the chaos and ferment of the 1960s: Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the California Water Authority. Didion takes on the world without trying to solve it; she honors the mess. This is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange: Imagine a woman who writes an essay about Ethan Hawke’s face but also goes to Hawaii to report on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association. This collection is cultural criticism that’s roomy enough to hold surprising pockets of deep feeling, and sturdy enough to launch rigorous intellectual excursions. Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss: These essays weave together history and private interior life in extraordinary ways. It’s just electric to watch Biss’s mind and heart work through difficult questions about race and American identity — her writing is lyrical and associative but always charged by ethical concern. A fragmented history of the telephone poll becomes a charged history of racial violence. Biss asks her readers to be fearless and open and willing to encounter difficulty. Some of these collections are more confessional than others, but all of them explore loneliness in ways that feel generative rather than just deflating, or solipsistic, and they offer visions of the ways that private feeling can charge and inflect the way we see the public world. Didion bleeds private and public in ways that have been formative for me. Orange is tender with the absurdities of the world. Biss thinks about guilt and privilege in ways that feel invested but don’t get utterly exhausting. Beard is brave enough to summon the past — and live there for long stretches of time — without apology. I promise I read men, too. And even admire them. TM: Maybe because I met you in grad school, when we were both (ostensibly) fiction writers, I’m curious about your omnivorous writing life. How does fiction writing differ from essay writing for you — in process, in aesthetic goals, in voice and style? LJ: Essays tend to happen in extended bursts — a few weeks, a few months — while the novels I’ve written (one completed, mostly discarded attempts) were long-haul treks. Even the essays that took several years to write and re-write were largely generated in bursts, and then revised in bursts; I sink deep into something, but the horizon of surfacing is never entirely out of sight. In terms of big aesthetic goals, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my fiction and my nonfiction — or at least, in my aspirations for what both might do: go deep into consciousness (whether an imaginary character’s, a real person’s, or my own) and excavate moments of surprise and awe and tenderness and hurt in that consciousness, and in its interactions with the world and with others. But that excavation happens so differently in fiction and nonfiction. In my nonfiction — especially reported pieces — more of the work happens away from the computer: getting on a plane, recording an interview, exploring a place and writing down everything I see. These parts of the process — that feel exploratory and experimental and tactile — are part of what drew me to essays, offered a relief from a flailing second novel that had started to feel claustrophobic and contrived. Nonfiction makes me nervous in so many ways that fiction doesn’t: I get nervous about interviews (standard-issue holdovers from social anxieties of a younger self); I get nervous about upsetting the people I write about; I get nervous — of course, and I hope productively — about getting things wrong. All these kinds of nervousness make me sweat, but they also keep things electric. TM: In a piece for Publishers Weekly, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” you write about how personal experiences sometimes don’t fit into a larger piece: “I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it — the faint stink of forced correspondence.” You mention a “purgatory file” where you keep “every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself — if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.” I wonder about this file. How extensive is it? I feel a longing for a Leslie Jamison scrap-heap of cast off material, maybe because I feel like you’d do something intriguing and thoughtful with it. Have you ever thought about building something from the shards alone? LJ: Amazing question! Totally a question from one writer to another. Do you have a purgatory file, too? Do you call it something else? I actually have a bunch of these files, attached to separate projects. And yes, I have tried to work with the shards. There is one period of my life that I’ve tried to write about over and over again but never managed to capture, and my latest attempt was a kind of meta-essay that gathered together all the previous attempts — everything from early diary entries to old term papers, but mainly scraps of discarded essays from the past ten years — and basically making a collage of excerpts, all distinguished by font. I wanted to give a sense of the layers, the ongoing process of returning to something that’s been hard to narrate. I wanted all the fragments to give a sense of difficulty but also desire — the deep, ongoing desire to honor this part of my life. TM: When I read these essays, I kept thinking about your inclination to problematize: your experiences, your feelings, essay writing itself. If that sounds like it has a negative connotation, that’s not my intention — I admire your striving to see everything from numerous sides, to investigate your own desires and motivations, and to remind your reader that the essay form should be interrogated and upended. Was that a goal with this collection, or did that just...happen? Do you think it’s the writer’s — or the essayist’s — responsibility to problematize? LJ: If “problematize” means regarding a subject from multiple angles, confessing the bias intrinsic to my subjective position, and questioning my own assumptions — then I suppose there’s no way I wouldn’t; it’s just the texture of how my mind approaches anything. And insofar as the essays are approaching a central subject — though they all come at empathy from different angles — they’re also looking to find the complications and perils embedded in what we might be tempted to view in simple terms: empathy as unequivocal good, unequivocal gift. But I’ve always thought of this kind of problematizing as a fundamentally recuperative gesture: if we see something as fully as possible, in all its flaws and troubles, we can pursue it and embrace it more fully as well — there aren’t secrets or dangers festering under the surface. I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once. A quick note on upending the essay form: In all honesty, I think that the “essay” genre has already been taken in so many fascinating directions — followed down so many engaging formal back roads — that it would be disingenuous and a bit hubristic to claim that I’d upended anything: with the essay, stylistic innovation is more like continuing the tradition than upending it. TM: Olivia Laing gave The Empathy Exams a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. She had one quibble, however: “These are the essays of a working journalist. Most have been previously published in magazines like Vice, Harper’s and Oxford American. Because they all work to some degree over the narrow field of personal experience, they inevitably turn up the same items of autobiography, perpetually introduced as if for the first time. This has a strange, unwitting effect in a book so preoccupied with the registering of and response to distress — it makes Jamison sound self-preoccupied, too caught up in her own stories to recognize that the reader has encountered them before.” I don’t quote this back to you to be cruel, but because I feel like you must have recognized the repetition in this book. It seems to me that the book’s echoes of pain, the repeated acknowledgment of it, is part of the collection’s project: the emphasis and reminder of selfhood and of pain that is revisited but not necessarily resolved. It feels like grief, in this way. Am I just bullshitting here? What’s your take on it? LJ: I don’t think you’re bullshitting! In fact, I’d love to quote you on that. I do mean for the collection to acknowledge the ways that certain kinds of pain must be revisited without necessarily getting resolved. This certainly happens in conversations and in life. I’d like to think that each time I return to any of these “same items of autobiography,” I’m doing something different with it. For example, I mention several times that I was punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua — one essay invokes an obscure literary theorist to try to tell the story of this assault in terms of traditional Russian folktales; another uses the assault to describe what it felt like to read James Agee for the first time. I don’t tend to think of autobiography as a finite arsenal of weapons that can get deployed at various moments: here is where I whip out my abortion, my abusive relationship, my divorce — so much as a set of inexhaustible resources; each story from my past — or anyone’s — holding a thousand possible meanings, a thousand possible slants. But I do find it fascinating whenever anyone responds to the collection by suggesting its preoccupation with its own wounds — not because I disagree (I am preoccupied with my own wounds) but because I disagree with leveling this kind of accusation: why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with our own hurt? We should just do our best to let these preoccupations spur us into productive kinds of attention and action. And the final essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is about precisely this kind of accusation — what it means to shame women for “wallowing” in pain — so it always interests me to see that phenomenon enacted in responses to the book. TM: There are a couple of comic moments in this book when you mention the way your writing was received when you were a student at the Workshop (for instance, you describe how another student suggests during workshop that you give your main character a job). I’m wondering if you could talk about the workshop process a little — what it offered you and what it lacked. Sharing work for a group critique requires one to be vulnerable, but also, maybe, defiant. What do you think? LJ: I have a lot of faith and trust in the workshop process, largely because it’s a model that can absorb and even articulate its own limitations — can be dynamic, adaptive, try to get better. I think it’s a total gift and privilege to have a roomful of people who care about writing pay attention to yours, and offer feedback — but I think it only works if you can set strong internal boundaries around how much that feedback matters. In other words: don’t let the voices crowd too close, or get too loud. At my first workshop at Iowa, the wonderful Elizabeth McCracken told us that it would be a useful workshop if we incorporated 20% of what we heard — that didn’t mean we were being arrogant, to “disregard” the other 80%, just that part of our job was to sift through the feedback, rather than feeling like it was our task or obligation to incorporate all of it. That was liberating for me, and changed my sense of what a workshop was or how oppressive it had to be. I love teaching workshops because you get so many different voices in chorus. I do think it can be useful — especially with longer projects — to get some distance from feedback for a while, so you can get to know a project — develop a private relationship with that project and follow it somewhere before you expose it to the input of others. I wrote my novel entirely outside the workshop system, after I was done with Iowa, and I think that was important to getting a certain momentum going. I was riding the dream of the thing (sometimes nightmare) without interruptions from other sensibilities. I had to get the whole thing down before I was ready to hear any craft advice from anyone. TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read? LJ: Easy. Just finished it this week. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It’s full of harm and care and crisis and bright light and so much filth, and so much beauty, and so much heart.
The essay is more popular than ever. At Salon, Michele Filgate talks to Leslie Jamison (author of The Empathy Exams, here's our review) and Roxane Gay (author of the forthcoming Bad Feminist) about the power of the genre. Gay believes our interest in essays is because of a "cultural preoccupation with the exposure of the self." They also discuss if we're in a golden age of women essayists. "Sometimes when men write about private feeling, it’s seen as exploratory or daring, and when women write about private feeling it’s seen as limited or in the vein of a kind of circumscribed emotional writing," Jamison says.
Leslie Jamison’s new essay collection is getting lots of plaudits, not least here at The Millions, where Ryan Teitman argued that Jamison manages to “meet her subjects in utter intimacy.” At the Tin House blog, Stephen Sparks interviews Jamison, who talks about the book, her “shame-seeking superpower” and her epigraph-cum-tattoo.
Martha Graham once said, "No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time." As extreme as it sounds, it's often true; being pleased with one's work can lead to complacency. In her latest novel, A Tale for The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki writes about the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, who compared truth to the moon in the sky. "Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon's location, but it is not the moon." Ah, how many times have I tried, and failed, and tried again, and failed again, to render the world into words! That pesky, beautiful moon! As much as I wring my hands about writing, I also can't deny the small satisfactions it offers me. Be it a turn of phrase, an image, a moment between characters -- these are tiny but distinct pleasures that I can revisit anytime I flip through my work. It's miraculous that these little darlings didn't get killed in the rewriting process. My work never lives up to the dream I have of it in my head and that's the way it should be; Martha Graham calls this "a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others." It's the tension between this "queer divine dissatisfaction" and the fulfillment of writing something that pleases me, however minor, that makes me want to write at all. The flaws of my novel, California, are in conversation with its strengths. And no strengths are too small! For example, I'm especially proud of my description of coconut cake: "She'd never much cared for the taste, but she loved how it looked: as if a cake had grown fur." I also love the fact that a T-shirt bearing the words OFFICIAL PUSSY INSPECTOR made its way into a dystopian novel -- because it makes me laugh, and because it's a phrase from the poem "Valentine" by my friend Kiki Petrosino. I decided to ask some writers I admire to share one or two little delights from their latest or forthcoming books. Their answers made me all the more keen to read their work. Darlings, indeed. Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans: Here are a handful of turns-of-phrase and full lines for which I feel unaccountable affection: "...a traffic jam of silence..." "Sleep was like wealth, elusive and for other people." About blame: "You could trace it back infinitely. All these different veins, but who knew which one lead to the heart?" "Maybe it's the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing: Someplace else will be better than here." Megan Abbott, The Fever: For me, it was two things that found their way into my novel: 1) The mysterious weather of upstate New York, where I lived for a year, including lake effect snow and other meteorological oddities that struck me as more akin to Emily Bronte or Poe than to any experience I'd ever had in "real life." 2) The inclusion of Rumple Minze, a favorite late-night drink first recommended to me by my friend, the writer Jack Pendarvis. The weird thing is he only suggested it after I'd finished The Fever, which gives the novel (or, more likely, Jack) a certain premonitional quality. I even got to include the fact that if you put Rumple Minze in a White Russian, it’s no longer a White Russian. It’s a Cocaine Lady. Justin Taylor, Flings: There's a story called "A Talking Cure" in my forthcoming story collection about a pair of engaged academics, and I had a great time making up their respective Ph.D. projects. The male protagonist, Zachary, is working on a dissertation about "ideations of Confederate masculinity in late 20th-century Southern fiction,” which gave me an excuse to pay tribute to a couple of writers I admire — Padgett Powell and Barry Hannah — while also having a little fun with them. (Powell's novel Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men is bracingly clear about its disdain for precisely the kind of academic work that Zachary does, and it's hard to imagine Hannah getting past the word "ideations" without reaching for a drink, and maybe a handgun.) But the true depths of self-reference are plumbed not by Zachary but by his fiancé, Lacey Anne, whose work "concerns the appropriation of mythological and folk motifs for use in massive multiplayer online role-playing games." This is a real thesis idea — quoted verbatim — that I had when I was an undergraduate and tempted to pursue academic theory instead of creative writing. Figuring out that I had exactly nothing to say about this topic beyond the single sentence fragment quoted above was a crucial step in my coming to terms with the fact that I was not cut out to be an academic. But where did such an ill-starred idea for a thesis come from in the first place? Some readers will doubtless pick up on the fact that the particular MMORPG Lacey Anne studies/plays bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Everquest, which I played in sickly earnest around the end of high school and the beginning of college — basically, from the time I decided I was "over" my hometown to the time I made friends where I'd moved. I had a gnome necromancer who worshipped the God of Pestilence and was eventually sold on eBay, at level 31 or 32 with decent-but-not-great gear, for $250. Turns out I wasn't cut out to be a gamer or an academic, though of course the second revelation was several years in following the first. Still and all, what can I tell you? Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Emily Gould, Friendship: There's a line about how one of the protagonists has a bank account that's linked to her parents' account and how it's like a "bedraggled, half-rotten umbilical cord that snakes all the way up 1-95" that she refuses to cut. I don't even know what I like about it so much. I guess I like that it's disgusting. Cecil Castellucci, Tin Star: The most fun thing that I manage to fit in are Tuckerizations! In my older novels it was fun to name contemporary characters after long lost friends. Mostly it would be teachers and I'd use the last names of friends from middle school. But with Tin Star (and its upcoming sequel A Stone in the Sky) the best part was naming alien species, spaceships, and celestial objects after friends. Every time I see one in the book, or write one in the new one, I smile. Kind of like I'm hanging out with my friends. Watch out, Lepucki! You might become a planet! Emma Straub, The Vacationers: My favorite weird little thing in The Vacationers is a fake movie -- in my first novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I had to make up lots and lots of fake movies, and I guess I just couldn't break the habit. The movie in the new book is called Santa Claws, and it's a Christmas-themed werewolf movie for which one of the characters is the accountant. It was fun to think about things the production would have to spend money on -- fake fur, fake snow, etc. It's really hard to get over making up fake movies. I don't think I'm done yet. Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You: Marilyn, the mother in Everything I Never Told You, grew up longing to become a doctor, but -- as many women did in the 1950s -- gave up those dreams when she married and had children. Midway through the book, haunted by disappointment, she visits a hospital and makes a decision that will upend her life and devastate her family. In the scene, she watches with a mix of envy and resignation as the doctors make their rounds: "They were all men, Marilyn noticed: Dr. Kenger, Dr. Gordon, Dr. McLenahan, Dr. Stone. What made her think she could be one of them? It seemed as impossible as turning into a tiger." All of those characters are actually named after friends who are women doctors. It makes me quietly happy to read my little private joke and think not only of my friends -- now accomplished physicians -- but also of how much more is possible for women today than in Marilyn's time. Brittani Sonnenberg, Home Leave: I like this line: "Even the brightest of Shanghai’s blue fall days had been compromised by a thin line of haze, like the giveaway bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic." Having spent three years in Shanghai, as a kid and then later, after college, I always felt bullied by the pollution. It was so satisfying to come up with a description of the haze that emphasized the underlying sadness and helplessness of its presence, the way it could drag even the most gorgeous days down. Adam Wilson, What's Important Is Feeling: I was very satisfied to have snuck in a character wearing a handmade T-shirt that says Kill Me I Love Love, which was the un-ironic title of a wildly over-the-top piano crooner/jam band album -- think Billy Joel on MDMA -- self-produced by a guy I used to know. Julia Fierro, Cutting Teeth: The scene where character Rip talks his 4-year-old son Hank through a wicked bout of constipation in the beach house's tiny airless bathroom was one of my favorites to write. And I was pretty darn proud of myself for finding a way to let breast-milk have a surprise appearance in the book's sex scene. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams: There's a moment in one of the essays -- a piece about a crazy ultramarathon in Tennessee -- when I confess that I snuck away from the action for a little while to watch a few episodes of the Real World Las Vegas, sitting in my car at a campsite in the woods. I loved admitting this: that while all of these people were doing this impossibly challenging thing, I was watching Steven and Trishelle hook up. It was a way to admit my own fallibility as an observer and a narrator, and I was also glad to go on record saying I'd wanted Trishelle to hook up with Frank instead. Image via Coralie Mercier/Flickr
In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him: “Italiano?” I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?” “Italiano.” As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain. Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico. Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads. For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible. Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor: My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips. Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired. “Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain. At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference: I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does. Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time. Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”
The Empathy Exams, a new collection of essays by Leslie Jamison, gets its title from a piece about medical acting that was published in The Believer. On the Harper’s blog, you can read an interview with Jamison, who calls her collection “a refusal to choose between these approaches — criticism, confession, journalism.” (Michelle Huneven interviewed Jamison for The Millions a couple of years ago.)
New this week: The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover; Frog Music by Emma Donoghue; Off Course by Michelle Huneven; And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass; Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland; The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne; Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman; and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2014 Book Preview.