The notion of being taught language has always been oxymoronic because language is in a constant state of flux, a restless, malleable, impatient entity that, like the idea of now, can never be fixed in place. Take, for instance, the journey of the semicolon as chronicled in the delightful, enlightening new book by Cecelia Watson, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. The twisty history of the hybrid divider perfectly embodies the transience of language, the ways it can be shaped by cultural shifts that have nothing to do with correctness or clarity. Invented by the Italian humanist and font pioneer Aldus Manutius in the late-15th century, the semicolon was originally “meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon” (hence its design). Continue reading…
For true bibliophiles, there is nothing lovelier than a volume of collected works. Such a book, filled as it is with a career’s worth of writing, isn’t meant to be read conventionally, from beginning to end, but can be nonlinearly perused, occasionally opened, to any old page, to one’s favorite piece, and enjoyed again and again. Add to this the fact that these collection contain all—or at least most—of an author’s work in a given form, which means when it comes to the collected writer, you’ve got them covered; never again will you have to seek out something they published, since you’ve now got everything they’ve produced in a handsome, stuffed-to-the-brim edition. Below you’ll find some recent collected works by some of the most influential and monumental talents in the world—a few you’ve no doubt read, while others may be new to you. But they all, in their careers, ran the gambit of subjects and themes, explored the outer reaches of their forms, and composed a rich array of poetry and prose. Continue reading….
The Rumpus published an excerpt from my new book on Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, along with pieces from Genevieve Hudson’s A Little in Love with Everyone (on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home) and Jacob Bacharach’s A Cool Customer (on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking).
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
—Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)
It hasn’t been easy being Sharon Olds, especially in terms of the critical response to her work, which has been two-fold: to ignore her completely, or to lambast her for “exhibitionism.” Continue reading…
There is more danger in certain clichés than the risk of confusion, or the laziness of pat phrases—some of them perpetuate really lousy ideas that, if you stop to think about their implications for a few minutes, don’t hold up to scrutiny at all, and seem in fact to be effective only because they’re clichés, so common that people forget to question the inherent philosophies underneath them. Here are a few dangerous clichés that I hope we stop using—or at least cease employing them so reductively. Continue reading…
Denis Johnson, 1949-2017
Luckily Johnson gave me an unexpected glimpse. Though he read from Nobody Move, Johnson said he wanted to take this opportunity to read some of his poetry. Being much less familiar with his verse, I grew interested in seeing what a terse novelist would bring to poetic writing. But before he even opened the book in front of him, he intoned a brief preamble. He said that he found the book in his hand, his 1982 poetry collection The Incognito Lounge, at a used bookstore somewhere, and that when he found it and opened it, he was delighted to discover all these little notes in the margins of his poems. Some of them were complimentary; some decidedly not. What he wanted to do, he said, was read some of the poems as well as the liner notes accompanying them.
What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression. Continue reading…
Obviously though Talese fully intends the reader to take Foos’s story as true: from the no-frills candor (what one might call a Talesean trademark) of the opening line—“I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur”—to the implied ickiness of Foos’s manuscript, the book practically drools over Foos’s every illicit description, a creepiness that is only palpable if the reader 100% believes that Foos actually saw (and, sometimes, did) the things he wrote about. My point isn’t to defend Talese here (though nor is it to decry him either) but to point out that The Voyeur’s Motel wouldn’t have been that different, content-wise, if instead of taking Foos’s claims for gospel they had been explicitly doubted throughout—but doubted with a growing and gross sense that he actually did do a lot of the shit he said he did and can to a certain degree prove it. The discreetly camouflaged vents Foos claimed to use for his purposes really exist, for instance, and Talese even joins the voyeur on one of his invasions into his guests’ privacy. Knowing these facts, his inconsistencies and half-truths wouldn’t be detractions from the efficacy of the narrative but a pivotal component its very vitality, as it doesn’t really matter if we believe that Foos spied on these particular people doing these exact acts—what matters is that we believe that Foos saw things like those. Our imaginations will do a far better job than reality, anyway. Continue reading…
The story of Rorschach’s infamous test and the life it took on after its creator’s death is told in Damion Searls’s new book The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, and it’s gotten me thinking about the inkblots in a literary way, combining Rorschach’s projective interpretation and Kerner’s inspiration-based poetry—that is, to see what controversial books from the past (and what was written about them) compared to the language used to describe the same or very similar books now. To give literature, in other words, a cultural Rorschach test. Continue reading…
For the New York Times Book Review, I reviewed essays collections by poetry critic David Orr, novelist and essayist Stanley Elkin, and food writer Betty Fussell! Check it out here!
The most fascinating note I’ve ever found in a secondhand book is in a hardcover copy of Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971—2001, which I bought this past summer at Tin Can Mailman in Arcata, California. I was visiting my sister Sarah, who lives there with her daughter Emma and her partner Donny. When I travel the only attractions I’m ever interested in are the local used bookstores, so besides hanging with my sister and my niece, my memory of my trip to northern California pretty much consists of what I looked at and bought at Tin Can Mailman and the other stores I checked out (which also included Eureka Books, Northtown Books, and Booklegger—fantastic establishments all). Continue reading…
In Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham asks a group of people a metaphorical question: “How much does your life weigh?” Though ordinarily a guy who companies hire to come in and fire off employees, he’s a motivational speaker on the side, so his question is meant to invoke the pressure the things we own put on our lives:
“Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knickknacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff, clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.”
To this already impossibly full backpack Bingham asks the audience to “go bigger” and stuff couches and tables and even houses into the bag. “Now try to walk,” he says. “It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.”
When I was a kid I began to have dangerous thoughts—scary, world-shattering thoughts with enormous implications not merely in my daily life but the afterlife as well—thoughts that could potentially harm my family, even, and for all eternity no less. What I didn’t understand then, what I probably couldn’t understand then, as a 10-, 11-year-old boy in Pickerington, Ohio in the mid-90s, was that just on the other side of the harrowing danger was complete absolution, since if, as I suspected, there was no God, there subsequently wouldn’t be any worry of said God’s wrath—in this life or the next one (because, again, there wouldn’t be a next one). Continue reading…
What’s an art form, anyway?
As in, what makes something something and not just a messy mass of artistic ingredients? When is paint on canvas not a painting—words on a page not literature?
- “Yes, I have actually read that book.”
- “No, I haven’t read that book, but I own it and know enough about it that I don’t want to let you get credit for reading it when I may as well have read it but simply haven’t yet, and because one day soon I will pick it up it seems most logical to say, for the economy of things, that yes, I’ve read it.” Continue reading…
Those instances—when acquiring a second (or third or fourth, &c) language relates to something deeper and more essential to the learner than practicality or general interest—and Lahiri’s personal and passionate account of her own instance lead me to a person in my own life for whom the acquisition of a specific language was less about achievement and more about the realization of an ingrained part of her identity. To explain: I fell in love for the first time when I was 20. Her name was Jackie, and holy shit did I adore her. We’d known each other since high school, but now as college students there was that air of adulthood that rather than responsibility and compromise suggested freedom and autonomy. She was smart and ambitious, and so was I, and together there seemed to be no end to what we could accomplish, both separately and individually. Jackie wasn’t a writer (though she was more than capable at it), but she read like one, tackling the kind of novels hardly considered pleasure reading. And most importantly was her preternatural passion for language. In her case, English, yes, but especially Spanish. (Continue reading…)
Maxine Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.” Continue reading…
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…
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…
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?
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
O Muse, Where is Wisława Szymborska’s Teeming Crowd? | Literary Hub
Last year saw the publication of Map: Collected and Last Poems, an extraordinary and vital summation of Szymborska’s decidedly modest output, and although critics positively and even sometimes excitedly reviewed it, the book didn’t sell tremendously well (and of course nothing like the 120,000 first edition of View with a Grain of Sand) and wasn’t noted in all those Best of 2015 lists. What a shame. Not only is Szymborska a major poet of the last half century but Map, as a reading experience, is wonderful, illuminating and enriching, a reminder that poetry can be direct, unadorned and still deeply moving. I cannot complain, of course, that Szymborska’s work is hopelessly obscure (because it isn’t) but I can be a tad disappointed that such a rare poet and such a brilliant, warm, and lovely book didn’t find more readers in 2015.