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.
My Literary Hub essay, “Actually, Criticism Is Literature” has been translated into Portuguese! It’s my second essay to be translated, and both have been into Portuguese! Pretty rad!
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.
14 Unique and Innovative Short Story Collections | Read It Forward
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.
On Reader’s Block | Read It Forward
[Can’t provide an excerpt of this essay, because the entire thing is one long sentence. Check it out here.]
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.
The Classic Fiction Formula | The New Republic
My first piece for The New Republic! I’m so thrilled!!
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.
My essay “The Art of the Chapter” was the sixth most popular essay on The Millions in 2015! This is the second year in a row one of my pieces has made the list. Last year, my review of Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography was number eleven!
Writers at Work | Literary Hub
On 12 books and 4,500 pages of essay collections from Jessica Hopper, Richard Hell, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Lillian Ross, John Lahr, Joni Tevis, Greil Marcus, Helen Vendler, Jeff Nunokawa, Stanley Fish, and Edward Mendelson.
This year has given us essay collections by a wide variety of writers from different points in their careers—some life-spanning tomes, some brazen debuts, some posthumous celebrations, and one novelist working, as William Gass phrased it, “off duty.” And here I wish to discuss 12 of these books, in praise not just of the journalistic/critical essay as art but in general to all its eclectic practitioners—those often unknown and usually underpaid freelancers, those occasional contributors struggling to get by, those staff writers churning out 2,000-word pieces like a court stenographer, whose volume seems to reduce their artistry but who are merely practicing a different kind of art, one that necessarily responds and reacts to the world and its daily shifts, and so instead represents not a finished product but a process of continual creation—here’s to writers at work.
The Ever-Expanding World of David Mitchell | Literary Hub
But as I read The Bone Clocks, and his latest novel Slade House, I realized that Mitchell now was after something grander and even more ambitious than any of his individual novels: this guy is going to connect all his books. For real. All of his books. And, it seems to me, he’s doing it unlike any other author before him. In his review of Slade House in the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes that, “Mr. Mitchell’s intertextual gamesmanship—the recurring characters and so on—began to seem, as a friend said to me, ‘less like Yoknapatawpha and more like Marvel.’” Garner invokes the comic book publisher pejoratively but I think it’s the reason Mitchell’s enterprise is so unique and captivating. Rather than creating a tapestry of a particular geography, Mitchell is telling one gigantic story, so that with each book the meaning and even the plot of his previous books are amended as he goes.
The Bearable Lightness of Joe Meno | Literary Hub
I always feel a satisfying melancholy after finishing a great book, a wave of loss comes over me, yet too does a sense of accomplishment, of having gained the wisdom of the story while losing the world that gave it to me. I was there once, and now I am not. That is a powerful emotion, disorienting, revelatory, grand and, yet, completely private, which means it’s a feeling I rarely if ever get to celebrate. Hell, there are novels I’ve read and loved and still never spoken or written about since I read them. There are simply too many books. It’s one of those quiet tragedies in life: to experience something profound in art without being able to share it, or even commemorate it. But Joe Meno gave me the opportunity to stop at the end of a book and note what was around me, to think about it and incorporate it into the act of reading. So I wrote that name, that date, that heart, for all the books that moved me, and all the friends who’ve loved me, and all the things we never got to say, and for all the wisdom and all the truth and all the beauty that would never be expressed if we didn’t occasionally stop to write them down, and encase them with our hearts.
Happy Birthday, Gary Larson! | Literary Hub
For exactly 15 years—from January 1, 1980 to January 1, 1995—Gary Larson wrote and drew The Far Side, a comic strip so funny and daring and biting that it cleared the path for the likes of Matt Groening and Trey Parker in the 1990s. Larson’s humor relished irony, hypocrisy and stupidity, and his view of humanity was, ultimately, a bleak one. He was one of my heroes growing up. Here’s to you, Gary, on your 65th birthday!
The Best Books About Books | Literary Hub
I love books. More than anything else. More than food. Shit, more than cleanliness. More than friends (sorry, everyone). I’d rather read about a city than visit it. I’d rather read a person’s work than converse with them. And sometimes, rather than read a book, I’d actually rather read a book about books. Whether it’s a history of a particular book (like Maureen Corrigan’s wonderful So We Read On) or a particular publisher (like Boris Kachka’s fascinating Hothouse) or a particular writer’s work (like Claudia Roth Pierpont’s brilliant Roth Unbound) or a particular group of writers (like Christopher Bram’s illuminating Eminent Outlaws), I’m all over it. In fact, it’s probably my favorite category: books on books.
Bid Me to Live by H.D. | Tin House, Summer ’15
So thrilled about this! In the Summer issue of Tin House, I have an essay on H.D.’s novel Bid Me to Live, a neglected book by a talented writer. Associated with Imagism and Ezra Pound, H.D. showed, with Bid Me to Live, that she was as skilled in fiction as she was with poetry. Her autobiographical novel examines her failed marriage and her relationship with D.H. Lawrence. Buy it here!
Aristotle and Mr. Booth | Northwest Review of Books
First, it is necessary to establish the origins of rhetoric (and rhetoric’s original audience) to understand Booth’s achievements. Aristotle, rhetoric’s first academic, took great pains in his Rhetoric to enumerate all the types of emotions and listeners he knew, a valuable project, to be sure, since, as established above, rhetoric must focus on the audience and their responses. Unfortunately, Aristotle does not offer a complex exploration.
An Atheist in West Africa | Northwest Review of Books
How does an atheist approach a novel by a Catholic, albeit a less than strict one? Or maybe the better question is: Can I write about The Heart of the Matter and see only what I wish to see, authorial intention be damned? Countless pages have been dedicated to the role (or lack thereof) of the author in a text’s interpretation, but what do I do in this instance?
Unquote: The Benefits of Excising Quotation Marks | The Millions
Quotation marks can be insidious little creatures. They have immense, unacknowledged power. They can turn a good idea into a “good idea.” With the simple addition of the those lines, something that would have been accepted for only its definition becomes suspect, questionable, even a parody of itself. Quotation marks render a statement euphemistic, a cover for the real thing, as in, He’s with his “friend” Andrew. Or they can be dysphemistic, as in, He’s with his “boyfriend” Andrew. Words surrounded by light, floating lines seem to lift right off the page, hovering over it, detached from any fixed meaning.
The David Foster Wallace Reader | The Millions
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction.
Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland | The Rumpus
These essays form a slowly accumulating argument for the Hoagland’s vision of poetic efficacy. He is itemizing the major components of successful (and enlightening and potentially useful) poems in order to establish the premises for his larger argument. Like many essay collections, Twenty Poems can be viewed as a subtle manifesto, a whisper to action. If that’s so, then what is his argument? What action does he want us to take?
The Art of the Opening Sentence | The Millions
“So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.”
White Girls by Hilton Als | Colorado Review
“Als—a staff writer at The New Yorker—is a brave writer, one unafraid of taboos. But Als isn’t out to be deliberately provocative––it’s just that his interests are mired in complex and uncomfortable subjects, and his language refuses to adhere to political correctness, but instead probes each topic with the passion of an artist.”