In his book Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks asks an important question of readers: “Do we need to finish [books]?” The reason this query is so vital is that most people, I’ll argue, don’t actually finish all the books they’ve said they’ve read—and if this is so then we must all understand what we mean when we say we’ve “read” a book. Continue reading…
If you were to base your attitude toward the future on fiction writers, your outlook would probably be pretty bleak, as novels tend to depict one of two potential outcomes for any given civilization: either it’s full-on dystopic—replete with mass deaths, razed cities, droughts, paucities of food, even cannibalism—or it merely appears utopic but is actually a totalitarian regime disguised (or not so disguised) as harmony, unwaveringly to the benefit of the rich and elite. So in the coming decades, we’re either going to be lost in a post-apocalyptic world where we fight amidst anarchy for survival, or we’ll be deeply embedded in a corrupt system that exploits the complacent nature of societies.
Cool. That sounds awesome. Continue reading…
A few months ago, Read It Forward published an essay of mine chronicling the last eleven years of my reading life and the list I kept of every book I read in that period. The point of the piece was less the list itself and more the process of maintaining it—how it encouraged me when I felt inadequate, and how it nudged me onward when I let my reading slip—so I neglected to include the actual list itself. It seemed, to me, beside the point. The essay found a readership, which I’m grateful for, and many people have expressed interest in seeing this Word doc of mine, this strangely private itemization of my literary endeavors, and while I still think the essay stands without the list, I also do not mind at all sharing the list with whomever would like to peruse it (it’s probably, I suspect, a lot less interesting than some people might assume). But no matter how casual I act about publishing the list, I can’t shake this feeling of exposure, of being without some heretofore-invisible armor, the accumulated wisdom of over a decade of pursuit that no one, other than myself, has seen cataloged so starkly. Reading over it, though, I see how the meaning and vulnerability I imbue into the list stem not from some inherent quality of the record keeping but from my nuanced attachments to the books and to the times in which I read them. It’s a shorthand history of who I was, who I am, and who I want to become—but the language in which it’s written is one that only I can translate and understand. Still, I hope there’s something in it for everyone else. Continue reading…
*As in, the abstraction, not the store
As we continue to write and, moreover, continue to read, another gap begins to slowly appear—this time, between the depictions of human moments, brief commentaries or implications of psychology, and how you’ve experienced an actually lived life. It is not that these renowned authors are getting anything wrong, exactly; it’s that you realize that their greatness often lies not in accurately describing life but in convincingly describing it. And this relates back to an earlier issue, namely that of making stories work. You see, when a young writer reads a great novel, it isn’t merely the style or the story that overwhelms the amateur. It is way in which the characters live. A neophyte doesn’t just read this as good and effective writing; it is seen a deeper level of living, so the gung-ho beginner thinks that not only are they unequipped literarily but also sensationally. They don’t think they live their lives as richly and psychologically complex as the fictional characters being described. Their fault, they might come to believe, lies in their essence, their experience, and their shallowness. Continue reading…
This is my favorite epigraph attribution from all my published essays:
“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird…Continue reading…
Okay, so now you’ve published your first novel! And, better still, it’s highly acclaimed! Your picture’s in The New York Times! You may have even won a prestigious award! All of your dreams have come true!
Now all you have to do is repeat the process all over again, except now the likeliness of duplicating the first book’s impact, receiving the same accolades, and winning more awards is basically a fraction of what it was your initial go around—which, even then was pretty remote—and if you understandably fail to achieve these things (again), you’ll disappoint people you’d never asked to esteem you so highly in the first place—and here you thought you’d made it and were finally free from the thankless work of obscurity, but these people, the very ones who lifted you from anonymity, now seem to be almost deliberately forcing back down into it. Continue reading…
From The Spine‘s website: “Literary critic Jonathan Russell Clark starts at the very beginning by talking about a book he carried to school in first grade because he wanted to look smart (it’s a big one). In a high school English class, he read E. E. Cummings and everything changed. Now he lives in an apartment filled with books and reads for a living. We talk about what makes reading uniquely engaging.”
So the following debut novels are ones that over the last year or so have really stayed with me, moved me, compelled me, and in general felt especially deserving of acknowledgment and recognition. Some of these books have received some wide acclaim, some have benefited from major marketing pushes from their publishers, and some haven’t gotten the attention and the accolades they absolutely deserve. I truly hope all of these writers have long and flourishing careers in literature. Continue reading.
Dylan Rieder, who died after a battle with leukemia at the age of 28, had style practically brimming out of his Huf shoes: He rode smoothly, popped super high and seemed magically at ease on his board. He was a joy to watch, the way anyone meant to be riding a skateboard is joyous. From the time he burst onto the scene in Transworld’s A Time to Shine in 2006 when he was 18 to his most recent full part, “Cherry,” Rieder was a unique and dedicated skater who fucking loved skateboarding. Continue reading. (Photo credit: Hans Gutknecht)
It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little, the number of amendments to the original statement are so great and their permissibility so near total that, hell, the damn definition itself could be considered a novel. How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a hand-written novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, e.g., How do we sell this book? The answer to this, as everyone knows, is nevernuance. It’s short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. So something like “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism”? Nobody’s gonna get that, let alone remember it. As these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more and more distinct and less forgiving to cross, and like all fences they keep out just as much as they keep in, and soon the gaps have grown so vast that certain writers who seem able to nimbly and indiscriminately hop over them are viewed with as much perplexity as esteem. And so well if it’s not the page it’s printed on or its length, and if it’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if it’s the seeming pervasiveness of an understood definition is merely the result of repeated and successful branding on the part of publishers, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.
Tin Can Mailman’s founder Will Huack spent time on the Islands of Tonga while volunteering for the Peace Corps. One of Tonga’s islands, Niua Fo’ou, or “Tin Can Mail Island,” is so named because without a safe port for mail ships the islanders received their mail in tin cans heaved from the side of the boat. In 1972 with a few hundred books and some fruit crates for shelves, Huack opened Tin Can Mailman in Arcata, California. Eventually, though, Huack’s love for the South Pacific won out, and in 1994 he sold Tin Can to Richard Sanborn and Calista Sullivan and moved to Kauai. Sanborn and Sullivan only owned Tin Can for five years, but in that time they were able to secure a grant to renovate the store as a historical landmark. In 1999, they sold the place to Wadeth Bory, a longtime employee of both Huack and Sanborn who, along with manager Samantha Brown, still runs Tin Can Mailman’s operations. Continue reading…
ABSOLUTELY THRILLED TO REVIEW FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AGAIN!
In the early chapters of his second novel, “Ark,” Julian Tepper introduces three generations of the once-wealthy Arkin family through a series of phone calls that shift perspective from one speaker to another to another. It’s an efficient and notably cinematic technique: One may recall the introduction of the grown-up children in Wes Anderson’s film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which also uses correspondence to usher each character onscreen. (This could explain why the book jacket explicitly aligns “Ark” with Anderson’s work.) But in a novel, cinematic methods and the omniscient narration necessary to pull them off can lead to little hiccups of confusion, as when we first meet Rebecca Arkin, the nearest thing the book has to a protagonist: “Rebecca was in the middle of lunch. The man keeping her company was Randy Nobel, her colleague at the firm.” If this were a movie, the audience, having seen “the man keeping her company,” would of course implicitly understand to whom the narrator is referring — but a novel has no such visual cue, so when “the man” is mentioned here, I went back just to make sure he hadn’t been brought up previously. Continue reading…
Although poetry is often dismissed as an almost anachronistic form, in my opinion, poets are offering some of the most vital work being written today. Like artful reporters from the front line, poets communicate experience one step beyond autobiography, as if they’ve set their heartbeats to music. Great poets record their footsteps as they move through life; their records aren’t exact but are more like sketching an object without looking at the paper, or a tape of one’s self humming a song one hopes to remember—the point lies in the idiosyncrasies of the lines, the particularities of the hum. And these histories are truer and much more representative future relics of our present era, for it is not the facts they report or the ideologies they extol but the rhythm of their soulfulness, and the melodies of their humanity, that best capture what it’s like to live today. Historians should always begin with poetry. So here are 12 books for posterity, and for you, reader, to take the temperature of today. Continue reading…
It’s like that thing in When Harry Met Sally… where Harry says that he always reads the last page of a book before he starts it to make sure it’ll be worthwhile, and then later in the movie we actually see him do this, but as he does he gets a phone call from Sally, who asks him what he’s up to, to which he responds, “Just finishing a book.” The joke, obviously, is that he no more finished it than someone who only knows that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father has seen The Empire Strikes Back. Harry has learned the facts of the ending, but none of the context that might grant them meaning and emotional power. But if we’re to ponder for a moment the phrase spoiler alert, it seems as if being made aware of how a story concludes is in some way akin to having actually experienced said story. Unlike Harry, when such information doesn’t promote a narrative’s worth; instead, it destroys it. Continue reading…
So anyway, I moved to Las Vegas to go to school, which, I know, sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: I was to attend UNLV and live in a house my friend Greg’s father owned. Despite the promise of Twice the Jobs! ™, I couldn’t find any work. In Ohio, I’d had a job since high school, so suddenly, when living in a new city where I knew like three people and had no job, free time opened up before me like a vast desert after a long tunnel ride. A non-drinker and socially anxious to boot, I wound up reading a lot of books in those first months. I read The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Dubliners, Candide, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and A Confederacy of Dunces. I got super into theater, reading David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Neil Labute, and Tom Stoppard. Contemporary literature, too: Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Saul Williams, Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Tom Perrotta, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, and Nick Horby. I was too dumb and selfish and short-sighted to realize how white and male virtually all these authors were, but though I had been a reader since I could remember, I had never gobbled up books so voluminously. So impressed was I with my homogeneously hetero-normative erudition, in fact, I wanted to count them, to know exactlyhow many I’d read. So I made a list.
I felt small in Vegas, not merely in the sense of being one among so many, but also unequipped to strive for a life I wanted, because Vegas, being no-place, gave my existence there a purgatorial hum, and, being all-places, it never let me forget just how much was out there waiting to overtake me. When I finished itemizing the books I’d read and the total for the year came to 47 books, it was an act against that sense of smallness: I was preparing, to the extent that I could, for life, and I was learning, progressing, developing, and I needed something to reinforce my efforts, some suggestion of accomplishment to nudge me onwards. Continue reading…
Philip Roth is—or, since he’s not dead but retired, I should probably say was—the best American novelist of the 20th century. Between Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and Nemesis in 2010, Roth published 27 novels and four books of nonfiction, and he won three PEN/Faulkner Awards, two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two WH Smith Literary Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Franz Kafka Award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2010 National Humanities Medal given by Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. Whew. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll of writers, critics, and editors regarding the “single best work of American fiction published in the past 25 years,” six of Roth’s novels made the cut, more than anyone else. Critic A.O. Scott noted, “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, he would have won.” Continue reading…
So thrilled to have written my first piece for Rolling Stone!! HOLY SHIT!
FROM THE ARTICLE: “Well, it’s finally official: skateboarding is a sport.
Though skaters have long resisted such categorization – even during the 90s when the energy drink-fueled qualifier “extreme” was clumsily appended to lump skating, snowboarding, BMXing and even Rollerblading into one big commercial for the then-newly formed X Games – it was inevitable. Skateboarding just got too big to stay gnarly, and earlier this month came the final bolt: the International Olympic Committee voted to include skateboarding as an Olympic event beginning in 2020 in Tokyo.” Continue reading.
So I want to throw my two cents into this non-conversation and try to elucidate how sleepiness is a regular part of my reading (and thus professional) life, and see what that means, if anything. Of course it’s different for everyone, and I can imagine there are some readers for whom maintaining energy isn’t a problem at all. I’m only talking about my own experience—which from talking to numerous literary types seems at least relatable, if not universal—and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else other than myself.
Here’s the thing: reading and writing exhaust. They expend my intellect, deplete my creative capabilities, and tire my body. These are not, though, inherently bad things; in fact the only reason reading and writing have those effects is because they are both extraordinarily operative—it is difficult, then, to engage with them half-heartedly, because it’s basically the equivalent of not engaging at all. It would be like exercising without a rising heart rate: you may look like you’re doing the same thing as everyone else at Planet Fitness, but you aren’t getting any thinner or any healthier. Continue reading…
Look, I understand that in some fundamental way one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development—and before long I’ll close the book in frustration, muttering something about how I couldn’t give a shit about what my heroes were like as kids, at least not in punishingly comprehensive detail. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!
The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography, and moreover, I really need them to do my work. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author for turning what might have been a grueling and tedious chore into a joyous and illuminating experience.
There is a certain tyranny to borrowing books.
For me, the reading of books—and not just books in the general sense but very specific ones—is a vital activity, one that, yes, stumbles and stutters and loses its way, but it is my progress nonetheless. Now, the choosing of my next read is, most of the time, a wonderfully open task, as I am able to pick from all the books I’ve yet to read, which is literally most books that have ever existed. Faced with such bewildering numbers and such endless choice, I rely wholly on my literary whim—that is, whichever author or genre or style or subject is doing it for me at that moment, that is what I ought to pursue, because the passion that results from inarticulate interest is how I will get through even the tiniest portion of literature’s outrageous multiplicity. Continue reading…
The authors of the following tomes seem less driven by the feat of epicness and more by its potential for infinite complexity. These women—some young and precocious, some experienced and wise—pursue their stories and ideas with all the same brilliance and playfulness and buoyancy and seriousness of the Joyce’s, the Pynchon’s, and the Wallace’s of the world. The only difference is these women rarely seem to shout about their accomplishments, and the world doesn’t present them as competitors in the big, ambitious novel game. But literature is not a game—or at least it isn’t one in the sense these men believe it to be. The art alone, independent of its relation to the gifts of its maker, is what is entered into the fray, and its value (the art’s) is where any sort of competition might play out—that is, through the experience of readers. A novel written with extra-textual goals (e.g., status, respect, fame) seems like a real waste of effort and time.
I recently sat down to read Max Porter’s extremely well-acclaimed novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a genre blend of essay, poetry, and fable, and without once moving from my position, I devoured the entire thing. The experience—of both the beauty of Porter’s writing and the book’s short length—gave me that rare and satisfying feeling of wholeness, of having internalized an entire narrative with all the varied undulations of its emotional trajectory, the sensation of getting in one fowl swoop the intentions of an artist’s work. Short stories can yield such a sense of completeness, but these for economical reasons often don’t (or can’t to the same extent) allow the reader enough empathetic exposure to the character to invest in their plight and their humanity—we’re usually given the plight.
Last summer, I wrote a piece about a number of books that were themselves about books, a category that happens to be my very favorite. Though I maybe should have anticipated it (it was, after all, a decidedly literary essay on a decidedly literary website), “The Best Books About Books” attracted a lot of attention—more so, I’m sure, because of the titles collected than for the quality of my writing. But nonetheless I was pleased to see those works receiving due promotion, which is mainly the only joy a critic experiences.
Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some stupidly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel (usually) that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into the highly extolled books of the preternaturally gifted with dubiousness, almost a suspicion of such quickly realized talent, so that upon publication the impassioned responses are drastically polarized between those much impressed by the early effort and those for whom it is nothing more than crass publicity on the part of the publisher and less the insights of some twenty-something genius.
Living with someone is like dancing in that it’s less about particular moves and more about staying in rhythm with your partner. No matter what your skill level, you have to move in some kind of unison with the other person, and while I’ve had my fair share of wonderful roommates, still, everyone I’ve ever lived with—family, friends, girlfriends, doesn’t matter—inevitably has the talk with me. Sometimes it’s introduced casually, like it’s no big deal, while other times it’s a serious, sit-down discussion, a whole thing, but ultimately what they all boil down to is this: “Jonathan, you’ve got to do something about these books.” At this point their eyes scan whatever room we happen to be in (again, doesn’t matter) at all the piles and stacks and bags and shelves of books, variously sized heaps littering the floor like miniature skylines, spilling out onto everything, occupying chairs and tables and counters and cabinets. Then they look back at me, their expression articulating an implied, You know what I’m saying?
Classic works of literature can seem so historical, so chiseled in stone by antiquity or genius, that it’s easy to forget the frail human beings behind them. We forget—or overlook—that all writers from Shakespeare to Sophocles possess the same weaknesses and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us, because their artistry not only survived history but created it. So ancient tragedies like “Antigone” and “Oedipus the King” become foundational texts around which subsequent tragedies are designed, retroactively creating the impression that the originals, rather than copied templates, were always crystalized paragons. Continue reading…
I reviewed A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass in the latest issue of The Scofield. Artist Chris Ames drew portraits of all the contributors, and <– here’s mine! Go to thescofield.com to download the Spring issue, also featuring Sven Birkerts, Idra Novey, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mira Jacob, D. Foy, Simon Critchley, and Sarah Gerard!
On the 30th Anniversary of Borges’s death. Maybe my favorite essay I’ve published yet.
“The Other” and “August 25, 1983” are twin stories sharing a mirror: a young man fears the unknown future, while an old man accepts the unchangeable past. (In fact many have dismissed Borges’s later work as “geriatrica” too full of nostalgia.) But as I read Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions, his essays and reviews I considered taking him at his word: maybe there are two Borges in the world, existing at the same time. One is the fiction writer we know, the lover of paradox, the trickster, the forger, the artist who describes fantastical events with straight-faced authority, using the syntax and tone of academia; and then there is this other Borges, the critic, who writes reasonably and clearly, companionably and insightfully, about high-brow and esoteric subjects, whose aim is elucidation rather than bewilderment. As I moved through each review and essay of Selected Non-Fictions, I felt a similar shock that the young Borges did upon seeing his own name on the register: this couldn’t possibly be the same Borges, could it?
Here’s a prediction that’s easy for me to make: Chuck Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Future as if It Were the Past, will be his most successful and well received since 2009’s Eating the Dinosaur.
I say “easy” because either But What If We’re Wrong will actually be critically and commercially fruitful (and I’d be correct), or it won’t (and my statement will seem less like a legitimate forecast and more an expression of my own view of the book, which really is that it’s one of Klosterman’s best). My prediction works either way.
Now here’s prophecy not easy for me to make: Chuck Klosterman’s book will be read 100 years from now. Shit, 50 years from now. The further in the future you peer the more impossible it is to anticipate what that future will look like or even what its denizens believe about the basic principles of existence, let alone what books they’re reading. Not only is the world as we know it vast and complex and rollicking and full of things we don’t know, but the future… there’s so much stuff out there on the horizon that we have no idea we don’t know. Read more.
The problem with naming one’s favorite book has less to do with the futility of reducing all literary experiences into one representative title and more to do with the inexactitude of the question. The query “What is your favorite book?” is too vague, too open-ended to be answered by any serious reader. But if the inquiry were amended to, say, “What are your most significant reading experiences?” or “What do you think are the most historically important books?” or “What are books that had, at the time, a major impact on you as a person or as a reader?” Now these questions may have some answers—maybe not one but at least these are much more conducive to responses.
Now as a critic I love these essays; I get a kick out of seeing how others define what it is that I do. Moreover, many of these writers have brought brilliant insights into what can often be a dismissed vocation. But while I appreciate the efforts of my fellow critics, there is one aspect to nearly all of these defenses that I disagree with, deeply, and that is the implication that criticism is separate from the literature it describes, as if novelists, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers were the players in the game and we critics merely the referees. What’s intimated in many defenses of criticism is this gap between observer and observed, between artist and non-artist.
This is bullshit. Criticism is also literature. Now, by that I do not mean that criticism is both outside and inside of literature. No, no, no. The word “also” there insists on criticism’s inclusion as a genre of literature, and not as a subject that stands outside of it.
To celebrate National Short Story month, here are fourteen innovative and unique story collections, the kinds that contain wonderful tales but also add up to a singular, cumulative experience. Instead of disparate narratives one after the other, these are stories as riffs, as meditations, as commentary, as thematic development, and collections as standalone works of art, which show that stories needn’t be isolated figures, like trees, but can become, in the right hands, forests and jungles—or better yet they can be turned into houses, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t recognize the individual trees.
Now, six years on, Ward Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”
I know, I know, this is another one of those Shakespeare lists to celebrate his birthday (and his death day), which is estimated to be on April 23rd—it’s like, c’mon, we get it. Shakespeare was the best writer ever. Woo hoo. Who cares? What relevancy can Shakespeare possibly maintain over the course of 400 years?
Well, that’s what I’m here to try to communicate, and to do so I needed to make not one but two lists: one focusing on the richest and most convincing nonfiction books ever written on the Bard, and another highlighting Shakespeare’s profound influence on contemporary fiction. Between the two lists, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s historical legacy and his lasting effect on writers of today.
People with a literary sensibility often claim—more as an exclamation of their personality than a literal assertion of truth—that “the book is always better than the movie.” While I, of course, understand the general notion that novels and stories and biographies have, practically speaking, more time and space and nuance at their fingertips, whereas the logistics of film impose all kinds of obstructions and limitations on the form’s narrative choices–thus making it easy to stake primacy on the endless possibilities of literature over the necessarily collaborative, corporately funded and obstacle-ridden visual art of cinema. This is problem with the book-movie dichotomy: the mediums are so fundamentally dissimilar and share such a tenuous resemblance you might as well say you like riddles more than math equations.
The other thing I love in life, besides literature, is skateboarding. I’ve skated since I was nine and I still keep up with all the new shit—video parts, contests, the hubbub around Thrasher’s Skater of the Year (SOTY), and all the crazy super-tech Instagram rippers (who are mostly like 14 years old). I’m a total skate nerd. And it was this deep, life-long passion—the kind I can enjoy with uncomplicated enthusiasm and child-like zest—that indirectly challenged my assumptions about literature, about accuracy, authenticity, and the dizzying dynamics of art.
The story begins, as so few things do, in the desert. More…
The Women of the World Poetry Slam | Literary Hub
Since 1990, the National Poetry Slam has taken place in a different city each year, and an Individual World Poetry Slam was added in 2004. In 2008 Poetry Slam, Inc. introduced the Women of the World Poetry Slam (hereafter WOWPS), a rich and essential event, which this year takes place from March 9th to 12th in Brooklyn. During the four days of WOWPS, 96 of the best slam poets from around the globe (limited to, according to PSi’s mission statement, those “who live their lives as women… including gender non-conforming individuals”) will read, spout, quip, jab, shout, prattle, sing and croon—and they will inspire you in deep, unimagined ways. Slam poetry is a vital art—for women, poets of color, and LBGTQ writers, yes, but for every person invested in hearing other people’s voices, for those who may not find themselves in the characters of canonical literature, for anyone who yearns to expand their notion of this earth, and all the wildly talented, intensely effective artists who dwell within it. (Photo: Mahogany Browne. Photo credit: Kia Dyson.)
Anyway, so I spent my Superbowl Sunday organizing the most important section of any critic’s collection: literary criticism and biography. Not only is this my favorite shit to read, but I also refer to them so often that they’re also the most practically necessary. After I finished, I posted a photo of the beautifully and temporarily full shelves (I’ve already pulled like six books off that I’m using for current pieces) on Twitter, and someone asked me if I had any particular favorites. I wasn’t at home when I got the tweet, so to even consider responding at the time was unthinkable. I pondered for a few seconds before immediately becoming overwhelmed. When I returned later and stared at the shelves, it occurred to me that I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Perhaps this is because as a self-identifying literary critic there isn’t much else for people to ask me—this field doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting party talk. But whatever the reason, I thought I’d put together a list of the criticism that I most admire and to which I repeatedly refer. This is, of course, an extremely limited list, taken exclusively from books I own. Also for the sake of my sanity, I excluded all single-subject biographies and criticism on film or music; only fiction, poetry, and drama. Memoirs counted only if they directly involve other writers and/or the literary landscape of the era. It is in no way meant to be a list of the world’s indispensible literary criticism, only my own, and only so far.
7 Big, Fat Epic Nonfiction Books That Are Totally Worth Your Time and Energy |
Read It Forward
So in the interest of narrowing down the hoard of door-stopping tree-killers, I’ve compiled a list of 7 recent mammoth nonfiction books that stretch from the beginning of time to the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and that cover comedians and filmmakers, heroes and—my personal favorite—heretics. Each one is really, really long, I’m not gonna lie—the shortest on the list is 425 pages while the longest clocks in at 820—but trust me when I say that they are extremely well-written and also just fun to read, richly absorbing and endlessly edifying. They plunge you into the depths of fascinating figures and revolutions both social and intellectual, from the complex savagery of mass murder and those who commit it, to the vagaries of humor and those who make it, from that which destroys us to that which heals us.
The Door by Magda Szabó | Northwest Review of Books
Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character, an important figure that a narrator is unable to fully understand but who is also unalterably enmeshed in their psyche. Emerence, in all her extremely fine details, her many contra-dictions, her utter singularity as a character, is one of the most compelling people I’ve met in recent fiction. She is a classic; she is a magical, mysterious presence that makes The Door a masterpiece.
Infinite Jest 20th Anniversary Edition!
I’m quoted and named on the back cover! What an honor! David Foster Wallace is one of my biggest heroes and Infinite Jest was especially influential to me. This is one of the great thrills of my life.
7 Variations on the Epistolary Novel | Read It Forward
Moreover, the epistolary novel is commonly defined as a novel made of letters, but it can include any kind of documented communication pertaining to the characters. And so with each variation of the “letter” comes a new set of implicit usage guidelines (e.g., we write very differently in an email to a friend than in, say, a formal resignation letter or a note-to-self reminder), which we the readers, as cultural participants ourselves, understand and completely relate to and which knowledge the author exploits for the sake of intricately and practically revealing character through a notion called “discrepant awareness,” which really just means dramatic irony, which really just means that some characters are aware of things while others aren’t, but the reader knows everything except for how the story unfolds and thus creates the tension of which great stories are made.
Bookmarks as Tombstones | Read It Forward
These are the tombstones of unfinished books. These are the grave markers of difficulty, of impatience, of lack of discipline, of inadequate intelligence, of failure. These are the headstones of my over-arching ambition, my foolish completism, my false idea of myself. Books are the great love of my life, and these are the ones even that great love couldn’t reach. These are rich, rewarding texts that only ask a few days from me, and these are the ones I couldn’t even give that to.
I’M IN THE FUCKING NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE MY LIFE!!
“For the last 20 years, Helle Helle’s novels and short stories have made her a star in her native Denmark, where she regularly receives awards and acclaim. Denmark is also where, according to her biography, Helle “lives in a forest.” What a fittingly magical dwelling for Helle, who — judging from her first novel to be translated into English, “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense” — has enchanting gifts as a storyteller.” (More.)
As I write this, I can spot on my shelves the following books: On Writing, Zen in the Art of the Writing, The Art of Fiction, The Art of the Novel, Aspects of the Novel, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, This Year You Write Your Novel, Reading Like a Writer, and How Fiction Works. And I’ve read every damn one of them. Though some were revelatory—especially the first, by Stephen King, and the last, by James Wood—most of them failed to improve my writing, though they sure as hell improved my reading, and some left me discouraged and overwhelmed. Novelists and critics wrote these books, practitioners of the art, who, it mostly turns out, are terrifically adept at elucidating narrative strategies but less skilled at demonstrating how to put those techniques into practice. And often you’re left not with literary ability but a sense of awe at just how great the great writers are.
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco | Northwest Review
As an academic, Eco had been publishing scholarly work since the late ’50s, and it was his studies in medieval aesthetics and semiotics that led him to write The Name of the Rose. In fact, it has informed all of his fictions, as they all tend to resemble, in some way, a scholar’s mystery. The prologue of The Name of the Rose, titled “Naturally, a Manuscript,” begins with the discovery of a journal of which the rest of the novel consists, thereby elevating the first-person narration to documentary verisimilitude. In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the protagonist is a bookseller who loses all his memories with the exception of every book he’s ever read—he must reconstruct his identity through literature, which is about as good a metaphor for the life of a scholar as you’re going to get. (More.)
The Failed Mechanics of Masculinity:
On B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick |
The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins–Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.