When I was 26, I took part in a weekend-long skate contest with a team of about ten other skaters. The contest was a New England version of Thrasher Magazine’s iconic “King of the Road,” in which groups of skaters are sent around the country with a list of tricks and tasks to accomplish scavenger-hunt-style while they travel around. The one I participated in was called “Search and Destroy” (a nod to Thrasher’s slogan “Skate and Destroy”), and it was the wildest weekend of my life.
To begin with, we drank while we drove. Not drinking and then getting in a car, but getting in a car and then opening a beer. The skateboard brand Anti-Hero used to sell these covers that wrap around beer cans to make them look like Cokes or Mountain Dews. We brought 11 cases of Budweiser, a couple handles of Jim Beam, some champagne, and so much weed that our trip technically constituted trafficking. There’s a photo of me in one of the vans (our crew was big enough to require two vehicles) taken from the other van. I’ve got a big shit-eating grin on my face (I was probably tipsy), and I’m holding the sliding door open, while we were driving on the highway. You can see our Budweiser-can-shaped cooler and my friend Mike holding a beer with one of the Anti-Hero covers on it. Continue reading…
To assist my operation, I sought out books about sports with which I wasn’t as intimately familiar as skateboarding. I read some of Roger Angell’s work on baseball, and Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing, but I found the most useful instruction in John McPhee’s 1969 book Levels of the Game, a play-by-play report on a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner that doubles as a dual profile of both athletes. What made McPhee’s book the perfect learning text is 1) I don’t know a lot about tennis, and 2) a narrative of a game means that McPhee would have to describe, at length, the mechanics of the players’ movements. Could McPhee communicate the complexities of tennis to a non-expert? Could he do what I hoped to do? Continue reading…
Earlier this year, I noticed writers giddily posting images of their book covers paired with photos of Taylor Swift. The pairings were well-done, aesthetic matches in color and vibe, but that didn’t explain the authors’ excitement, which had a kind of “I’ve finally made it” flavor. The source, it turned out, was an Instagram account called Taylor Swift as Books (@taylorswift_as_books) run by Amy Long, a writer I knew through social media and her essay collection Codependence. I followed the account, DM’d with Long, and even had my books Swifted (which has emerged as the official verb for having your book featured). Continue reading…
My 3rd annual Books About Books piece over at LitHub!
Books about books might seem like an insular category designed only for those predisposed to such subjects…but it’s also an important genre. Our writers can tell us not only how another writer may have accomplished X or Y achievements, they can also reveal, by their very focus and attention, those authors whose work has influenced them and others as they’ve navigated the literary landscape. That is, their choices alone count for something. Continue reading…
November of last year launched America into one of the most terrifying eras in its history. Take a look around you. See the stark tone shift in journalism, the edginess introduced in the voice of artists, and the genuine fear in immigrant families, gay and lesbian and trans people, and basically anyone non-white. It turns out that it can happen here.
This past Monday, January 30, Paula Whyman and Mikail Iossel launched Scoundrel Time, a literary site dedicated to combatting the greed and evil of our new president. I asked Paula Whyman to take me through their ambitious and hopeful endeavor. More than anything I wanted to be convinced that any literary activism—really, anything at all—can work against such a looming catastrophe. Continue reading…
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And in 2016 I vow to not only read more books but also make deliberate choices about what I read.
In 2016 I vow to keep learning from Rebecca Solnit and Ta-Nahisi Coates and Kiese Laymon and Jenny Zhang and Saeed Jones and April Ranger and Porochista Khakpour and Madeleine Holden and Ashley Ford and Alana Massey and Roxane Gay and Rachel Syme and Helen Vendler—even though I can never fully learn their lessons, I vow to keep listening, until I get as close to understanding as possible.
I vow to seek out new, as-yet-unheralded writers—women, writers of color, trans writers, writers in translation—and promote as many as possible. But I vow not to do this because I think they need my help, but because I need theirs. (More…)
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.
An Interview w/ National Book Award-nominee Karen E. Bender |Literary Hub According to herself, Karen E. Bender feels “more natural” as a short story writer, and, according to me, she’s a fantastic one. The stories in her first collection Refund aim directly at their targets, the prose clean and sharp, unobtrusive but startling—in other words, she’s the kind of writer who employs her language in the service of her characters and her situations. Authors of this ilk—Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, Antonya Nelson, Rebecca Lee—possess a confidence that may seem undercut by the lack of flash, but make no mistake: it takes a great deal of self-belief and skill to focus on a story’s content (and content that, it should be noted, pursues real human moments rather than histrionic drama) rather than its presentation.
Roxane Gay Wins PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write Award | Literary Hub
You may know Roxane for her acclaimed novel An Untamed State or her bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist, or you may know her from the entire Internet. Her timely essays—including her recent, widely read New York Times piece “Where Are Black Children Safe?”—strike a chord with readers with their clear, direct, uncompromising prose, and get shared on social media like the latest comic book movie trailer. On Twitter, her nearly 100,000 followers are among the most engaged on the Internet, quick with a word of support or a declaration of solidarity. She’s appeared on numerous panels and in most major publications. She is, in other words, a true literary star.
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.
The Time I Got Really Stoned and Interviewed Jesse Eisenberg | Literary Hub The idea of me interviewing Jesse Eisenberg for this website had been floating around for a while. At first I was going to do it, then I wasn’t, then I was again. I was supposed to talk to him Friday night, then Saturday, and when I contacted Jesse’s people on Sunday morning, they said they’d find out what was going on. So when I heard nothing more, I figured it wasn’t going to happen. So I got really stoned. And now I have to interview my first genuine (i.e. non-literary) celebrity while high out of my goddamn mind.
In Praise of the New Modernists |
Literary Hub More recently—say, in the last 20 years or so—numerous so-called postmodern novels have contained this distinctly non-postmodern quality—not that the characters feel so much as the reader. The cumulative effect isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed-out character but a fully emotional experience. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s strong sentiments in the face of the Holocaust and 9/11; think of the alligator-wrestling family at the heart of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; think of the way Ali Smith works her linguistic magic in order to convey the complexities of love and relationships; or the heart-breaking wallop of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary; think of Reif Larsen’s I am Radar, of Zadie Smith’s NW, of Téa Obreht’sThe Tiger’s Wife. Can these books truly be considered postmodern when the most prevalent aspect is emotion rather than thought?
Has Anyone Actually Read Infinite Jest? | Lit Hub Has Infinite Jest become the kind of book that people own but haven’t read? Is it like War and Peace or The Recognitions or Gravity’s Rainbow or Middlemarch or The Magic Mountain or The Man Without Qualities? Why has Infinite Jest, supposedly such an influential novel, become a paper weight, a talking point, a bench-mark of high- and low-brow intellectuality? Why has no one (or, more accurately, why does everyone think that no one) actually read the thing?
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!
In Praise of Unlinked Story Collections | Literary Hub But what I want to praise are collections in which the stories are unrelated, in which the characters are distinct, and the whole of the book isn’t a perfectly cohesive unit but is instead a messy depiction of numerous lives. Of course we assume that writers and publishers spend a lot of time organizing each story of a collection; we believe they try to create a thematic arc, a rhythm to the order, which hopefully makes the reading experience more consistent and enjoyable. But here’s the thing: this matters to me not at all. I do not need a collection to feel “cohesive,” nor do I spend too much time considering the order. Rather, what I adore is precisely the opposite: a rattling journey from plot to plot, from character to character, from idea to idea.
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.
On the Fine Art of the Footnote | Literary Hub In fact, what all of these works show—from Nabokov and Wallace to Danielewski and Boully—is that experimentation quickly stops being experimental when it works well, and gives way to progression. Expanding the limits of storytelling is not the job of all storytellers, and some attempts at this have failed to produce worthwhile results, but what the aforementioned artists have proven is that once we accept a new form—i.e., once it’s stripped of its novelty—we allow ourselves to see just how useful and radical and profound it can be.
The Eternal Mystery of the Reclusive Writer | Literary Hub Joseph Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee––it is vital to remember that they are simply human beings, whose lives are brimming with banal trivialities much less interesting than their fictions. Who is Thomas Pynchon? He’s just a guy––a particularly brilliant one, yes, but discovering everything there is to know about him won’t really add to our understanding of his books. Like Johnson’s metaphorical city, a closer look at Pynchon would be a let down of ordinariness.
Mark Z. Danielewski Profile | Literary Hub I interviewed and profiled Mark Z. Danielewski for Literary Hub. He’s a favorite of mine and a brilliant writer. We talked about literature, intertextuality, and his newest work, The Familiar: Vol 1, the first of 27 (!). And he asks an important question: “Do we strip away every-thing that we don’t like so we can find a song we like or do we change the way we listen?” Check it out here!