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The Bookstore Made By the Bookseller That Thinks Books Are a Pure Commodity

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Aside from the bemusement of seeing a bricks and mortar bookstore launched by the online retailer that led a million pundits to declare the death of the bricks and mortar bookstore, I’m genuinely curious to see what Amazon thinks a bookstore should be for the reason that the Amazon website was founded on the principle that books were a pure commodity. That is, that any copy of a book was perfectly exchangable with any other copy of that same book, and all you needed to do to sell them was to find the person who wanted to buy that particular book.

Interestingly, though, Dustin Kurtz’s delightful overview of Amazon’s first physical bookstore seems to indicate that Amazon is departing from that ideology:

Amazon Books is paying its booksellers well—wages begin at $18 an hour, with benefits. That’s well above starting rates at most indies; it also comes in ahead of Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage. The effort Amazon had to exert to recruit these talented booksellers—they were noticeably good at their jobs—and the wages they’ve had to offer, stand in an odd juxtaposition to one of the central ideas of the site. Take the shelf-talkers. Amazon has always asserted that there is value—financial and culturally—to letting readers decide which books are good. Now, not only are they bringing in gatekeepers (the press release uses the word “curator”) to tweak and hone those lists of books, and to present the books in an attractive and reasonably intelligent manner, but they’ve had to pay them well in order to bring them into the Amazon fold. This is, first, one of Amazon’s occasional seemingly accidental acts of decency in their continued expansion, but it is also a hell of a big asterisk on what has been their guiding principle: that books are all made equal and people can choose what they want with little oversight or guidance.

Of course, this is still Amazon after all, so one can’t expect them to depart entirely from their books-as-pure-commodity orthodoxy. I’m interested to see where this goes. Unless this is really just the whim of an over-empowered Amazon middle manager, there is obviously a bigger strategy here. But, of course, Amazon is famous for just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and I’m sure they’ve spent far more on long-since-discarded algorithms and apps than this whole store cost to set up, so maybe this is just a whim.

On Hating Difficult Literature

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I’ve published an essay at Entropy about my frustration with the idea of “difficult” literature.

I get it why this word is used so much. Some books can be read much more quickly than others, some require you to stretch the resources you’ve got or discover new ones. I understand all that, and there are many different kinds of reading experiences, but I really despise people calling books “difficult.” To me, that’s a very lazy shorthand for what they really want to say about these books, and I think it does everyone involved a disservice. It scares people away from great literature they should be reading, it creates dichotomies where none actually exist, and it’s just not an interesting way to talk about these books.

I should say that I’ve often been guilty of relying on this crutch, and I’ve started making a concerted effort to get this word out of my writing (that was part of the impetus for this piece). The essay deals with some other ways we might start talking about these books, plus why we’ve come to use this term and what we actually mean when we say “difficult.

Three Recommendations

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Three books I’ve been enjoying recently that you might want to take a look at.

Reconsolidation: Or, it’s the ghosts who will answer you is a lyric essay by Janice Lee, a little bit of John D’Agata, a little Roland Barthes. About the sudden death of the author’s mother, this book feels as though it’s a private letter being written to the reader, it’s just that immediate and striking. It’s passionate, but not melodramatic, very purposeful and effective in what it does. Here’s a review.

The Strangest by Michael Seidlinger is a contemporary take on Camus’s The Stranger. He takes us into the consciousness of a person so withdrawn that he must have some sort of social anxiety disorder; every bit as affectless as Camus’s stranger, his smartphone is his only lifeline of communication with people, even when they’re right on the subway with him. I like how the author constructs the protagonist’s consciousness, with the integration of social media being elegant and measured, and I particularly like a few pivotal scenes where what is happening is carefully elided by the author—it’s very effective. Here’s an excerpt.

Sebald’s Vision is the most recent entry in the genre of Sebald criticism, this one by Carol Jacobs. This is an academic text, but it avoids the traps of academic writing and is, in fact, quite well-written and with interesting takes on a sizable portion of Sebald’s body of work. There are real insights here for people who like Sebald, or the themes he covered. There’s a review of the book here, and you can have a look at it for yourself in Google preview.

The Murnane, There Is More Murnane in the World

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Gerald Murnane has published a memoir about horse racing, Something for the Pain, available in these States in spring of next year, and publishing in Australia right now. I suppose this fact will not surprise many of Murnane’s readers, given the frequent mentions of horse racing throughout his books, although it still is something of a strange move from an author who has pretty much done whatever he wants.

It’s occasioned a review by yours truly at The Lifted Brow, as well as a nice, lengthy profile by Stephen Romei in The Australian. There are some delightful Murnane quotes sprinkled throughout (Romei and the author had beers together), as well as a lot of great Murnane trivia and some thoughts on the latest book.

Don’t They Hire English Majors?

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, I admit to always being a little surprised that a place like NPR will publish nonsense like this. Because, I mean, NPR is capable of hiring decent journalists. Their currents events reporting is not bad. At the very least, the can get people who can go to a part of the world that they know next to nothing about, get various sides of a story, and then allocate each side space and importance based on how non-insane it is.

But when it comes to the arts reporting, it’s like their critics have never touched anything outside of the most mainstream reading imaginable. (Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part . . .) And I just don’t get it. Obviously NPR has the capacity to hire people who can get beneath the surface of an issue and come off as having some capacity to make sensible distinctions. But when it comes to the arts, this just doesn’t really happen.

Take, for example, this painfully un-self-aware NPR review of Mark Doten’s experimental Iraq war novel, The Infernal:

[The Infernal is] a novel written not for readers but for those who love to argue about the novel-as-object more than they love the words. It’s an elbow-patch book, fodder for lit professors, likely attractive to those young enough (or cynical enough) to believe that oddness and iconoclasm equals genius, but that just ain’t me.

I don’t want to debate the merits of The Infernal here—it’s gotten mostly very positive reviews, and I, full disclosure, know Mark Doten personally—but this is the perfect example of a flaw common in today’s literary and cultural criticism. When a reviewer can’t defend their preferences through argument, they resort to a No True Scotsman fallacy and say anyone who feels differently isn’t even a reader.

Honestly, anyone who is capable of even googling the title of the book and looking at the raves listed on The Infernal’s Amazon page would see that this is not a view shared by many readers of this book. Surely that would give this critic just a tiny hint that maybe the assumptions he’s brought to this review are a little off-base? (And it doesn’t help that his bio characterizes him as a food writer who happens to write sci-fi novels for an Amazon vanity press.)

I harp on this because NPR is one of those few remaining venues that actually reaches a shit-ton of the sort of people who still read fairly interesting books in the United States. Having that kind of an audience implies a certain kind of responsibility. It would be a responsibility to hire critics who are capable of explaining themselves in a more intelligent way. You don’t have to like every novel you read. This guy can hate The Infernal. But he should be capable of doing more than cluelessly handing out the same bromides that know-nothing critics have been passing around for decades.

The Latin American Mixtape

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FEATURES “THE DIGRESSION” AND A LONG INTERVIEW WITH CESAR AIRA

The Latin American Mixtape is a collection of literary “b sides” and hard to find items, all relating to Latin America and its authors.

It features 3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career, written specifically for the Mixtape. Plus, an in-depth essay on Rodrigo Rey Rosa.

Also includes hard-to-find interviews and essays, and each piece comes with a short intro explaining why I have chosen to place it in the mixtape.


5 essays. 2 interviews.
All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.
available as a downloadable epub file

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AMAZON KINDLE ($4.99)

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From “The Digression”

. . . the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction.

This key digression in Aira’s body of work is all about the incomplete, which I see as the key concept in Aira’s theory of the novel.

Aira’s entire career is always under construction. His favorite method is a flight from completion, a flight from what is past and done, from ever repeating anything he has said before, or even stopping long enough to let his fiery potential cool down.

He writes like we all sleep: constantly progressing through a foreign world that requires improvisation at every moment. There is no routine in dreams. There is only the bewilderment of the constantly new. This is Aira. He writes to keep his iron burning white hot at all times.

 

But there is always a difference between dreams and reality . . .

This statement is found amid some speculation about dreams, and at first glace it may seem too obvious to need saying. Which of us does not know sleep from dreams?

Or maybe it is not that simple, for we all learn that if you are unsure whether you are dreaming or not, you can pinch yourself to check. How many times have you woken up from sleep, amazed to find that the experience of whose reality you were absolutely certain a moment ago, was in fact a projection of your own mind? I myself have many times woken from a dream of infinite loss, utterly relieved to see that it was all only a dream, that relief feeling as real to me as any emotion ever were.

What is the difference between dream and reality for Aira? For Patri? And what of that state that Aira enters for those few hours every day when he is immersed in the act of writing? Could that constant flight forward be akin to a waking dream?

Aira is correct to foreground dreams in this key digression, because they are a prevailing state of human existence, despite all the appearances of our waking world. For keep in mind: as you are reading this, billions and billions of people on the darkened side of the Earth are currently inhabiting their dreams. What do they see there, and how is it changing their lives?

I do not doubt its influence. We spend one-third of our lives asleep. It is essential, its processes fundamental and poorly understood. The experiences we have within our dreams are remarkable. We may be accustomed to thinking of dreaming and waking as separate, but perhaps the borders between them are as porous as Aira suggests.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 41

Here it is, your fall 2015 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

Features


A Chorale of Dead Souls

A Chorale of Dead Souls

“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.


The Popularizer of Pessimism

The Popularizer of Pessimism

For more than a decade, Houellebecq has enjoyed unusual notoriety: his dismissal from the board of the review Perpendiculaire for the retrograde views allegedly expressed in The Elementary Particles made the front page of Le Monde; his portrayal of Islam in Platform, as well as his subsequent description of it in an interview as “the most moronic religion,” landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred; in 2011, he went missing, stoking fears he’d been snatched up for ransom. He would dramatize his disappearance in the faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Yet nothing was comparable to the commotion that would arise when Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, hit the shelves on January 7 of this year, a few hours before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would burst into the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and murder members of its staff.


Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol’s Wounds

Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.


Barstool Stories

Barstool Stories

In the Czech Republic, Hrabal is a mythic figure. The website for his favorite pub, U Zlatého tygra, has six tabs: Home, Beer/Cheese, Menu, Bohumil Hrabal, History, and Contacts. His 1994 meeting with ambassador Madeleine Albright and then presidents Havel and Clinton has been archived as both legend and link. The man and his work are preservations of Czech history, connecting old Prague, the “glory and downfall of the cultural boom of the ’60s” (to quote the Tygra’s website), and the city’s globalization under capitalism. Hrabal has come to represent a kind of nostalgia for a lost Czech time, somewhere back in the post-Soviet ’80s, or the pre-crackdown ’60s, or maybe even the democratic ’20s—anytime but now. In his intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Joshua Cohen identifies this nostalgia as Bohemian in general and Hrabalian in particular: “To feel born too late for a true life (whatever that is), and to feel that as a failure and that failure as ennobling, are very Czech emotions.” This complex blend of feeling—a yearning for the past that invigorates the presence of the present—courses through Hrabal’s best work, and is on full display in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult.


On Stéphane Mallarmé

On Stéphane Mallarmé

His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final and, until now, incompletely translated textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear.



In Translation


Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

Excerpt from The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

It looks impossible to get out,” he says. And also: “But we’ll get out.”

To the north, the forest borders a mountain range and is surrounded by lakes so big they look like oceans. In the centre of the forest is a well. The well is roughly seven metres deep and its uneven walls are a bank of damp earth and roots, which tapers at the mouth and widens at the base, like an empty pyramid with no tip. The basin gurgles dark water, which filters along faraway veins and even more distant galleries that flow towards the river. It leaves a permanent muddy peat and sludge specked with bubbles that pop, spraying bursts of eucalyptus back into the air. Whether due to pressure from the continental plates or the constant eddying breeze, the little roots move and turn and steer in a slow, sad dance, which evokes the nature of all the forests slowly absorbing the earth.



Reviews

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.


Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives by John Keene


With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful. This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference.


The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov


By the standard of an author’s handling of complex thematic ideas, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, beautifully translated by Angela Rodel,is an excellent book. Gospodinov takes the conceptual framework within his novel as the ability of literature to overcome the restrictions of memory. Taking major cues about this subject from both Borges and Sebald (see Gospodinov’s extensive use of diagrams and photographs throughout the text), the author explores memory through a tightly woven set of fantastic experiences among the ever-changing society of Bulgaria in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and does so profoundly.


The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli


This strong psychological relationship between teeth and our sense of self contributes to the expressive clout of Valeria Luiselli’s “dental autobiography” The Story of My Teeth. Here, the motif of teeth best aligns with Jung’s description of them as the “gripping organ,” providing not only our ability to properly eat and speak but also the figurative representation of personal agency, and even a marker of success. However, Luiselli’s charming, funny, and moving novel transcends this dental narrative, and is, at its heart, a profound commentary on the power of storytelling, both as a creative force and a way to instil value.


Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila


For a country as vast as it is, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not produced much literature. (Ruthless oppression and exploitation will have that effect.) Tram 83 may not be a novel in the usual sense—it is more of a francophone triumph of style over substance—but it is a welcome voice from that quarter, and a promise of lively works to come.


Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt


Although Naja Marie Aidt made her English-language debut just last year with a short story collection entitled Baboon (Two Lines Press), in Denmark she has been required reading in most middle school and high school classes since the 1990s. A poet and author with nearly 20 works in various genres, Aidt has received numerous honors, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008. Aidt debuted in Denmark in 1991 with the poetry collection Så længe jeg er ung, and since then she has mainly been known for her poems and short stories. Her first novel, Sten, saks, papir, came out in Denmark in 2012, some 21 years after her first poetry collection. Now that novel has been published by Open Letter Books as Rock, Paper, Scissors, in K.E. Semmel’s translation.


Dinner by César Aira

Dinner by César Aira


It has been a good year and some months for César Aira readers, as New Directions has released translations of a collection of short stories, The Musical Brain and Other Stories (spring 2015), and two of his novels: Conversations (summer 2014), and, this fall, Dinner. Some of Aira’s novels start out with a wild premise, while others lull readers for a while before changing into something unexpected. We are a fair number of pages into his newest work before the unnamed male narrator, an almost sixty-year-old bachelor, tells us what he witnesses on a live television news program in his hometown of Pringles, Argentina (Aira’s birthplace), as a small news crew investigates a rumor: “They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord.


On Hype and “Litchat”

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It seems like Laura Miller’s recent piece on “litchat” has been getting a lot of play. I don’t quite get it. My take is that it’s a bunch of straw men recruited to help carry a preconceived and pretty standard-issue idea about the “perils” social media.

First, let’s get one thing clear. People in industries gossip. I would guess that this is probably truer of the arts than most industries, but whatever, that’s what people do. The Internet did not create this. The difference is that now you can catch more of that conversation over social media; albeit, a very, very small fraction more, and one that’s pretty well watered down of the best material. But there’s no doubt that some the shiving and axe-grinding does make it on the the Twitter-sphere, etc.

To leap from that to social media gossip “absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work” seems a tad bit much. Yes, I’m sure that at some point some critic somewhere read a thing on Twitter that pissed him or her off and lent a tiny bias to a critique. But I really doubt that all the crazy pullquotes from whatever latest thing Jonathan Franzen said has unduly influenced the critical reception of his novels. For one thing, the gaffe of all gaffes—the Oprah “snub”—far from impacting Franzen negatively took his career into the stratosphere. And for another, all the vitriol spewed against Franzen on social media hasn’t stopped his latest book from getting stupendous raves from many, many leading venues.

But more to the point: does the massed gossip on social media really stack up against things like: hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicity budgets, billboards on Times Square, major media appearances with audiences in the millions, or even just your garden variety Times Book Review cover story? Just to give a little perspective: Laura Miller has roughly 30,000 Twitter followers. The weekday circulation of The New York Times is a tad under 2,000,000. So let’s not forget how provincial, obscure, and limited is our corner of the social media world.

The tendency that I see most often—social media be damned—is toward evaluating a writer on the basis of the books. Yes, many a conversation with friends has digressed at some point into that latest thing Franzen said, but I almost never see people generalize from that to an opinion on his books. No, the people I know who talk about Franzen (or whomever) have read his books; they discuss him on the merits of his writing and wouldn’t dream of evaluating him based on some tabloitesque headline. They’d look like fools if they did. It may be that my friends and acquaintances are just an unduly enlightened species of litchatter, but I doubt it.

Miller also talks about the backlash she sees on social media over authors that are over-hyped, and this is where she gets back to Wallace. Well, it’s true, there is plenty of envy to be seen on the Internet, and there are also plenty of high-fives, earnest praise, and well-wishes. I’d say much more of the latter than the former, by my count. In fact, I’d say that, if anything, the “litchat” that I tend to see is more toward the purpose of bringing unfairly neglected writers to better attention than toward deflating the famous.

Moreover, is it really such a bad thing that readers are skeptical in the face of marketing hype? Miller takes the case of young writers who doubted that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest could really be as good as the hype claimed, but what damage did this do to his reputation, reception, or career? The fact that Wallace was so clearly not forgotten must surely give some evidence that whatever the skepticism exhibited by the literati of the day, the quality of Wallace’s work managed to prove them wrong. All great writers should be so fortunate.

On the whole, what strikes me as the strangest thing about this piece is this idea that David Foster Wallace wasn’t thought of terribly well before his suicide—and that this was somehow the doing of “litchat” pre-ordaining a reaction to his work. That seems to give far more importance to gossip than it’s worth. The piece starts with Miller explaining how, before Wallace’s suicide, few people could possibly believe that David Foster Wallace was her favorite living writer. And then, later on, Miller proceeds to recount the many people who dismissed him to her face without ever having read the books as too cold, too intellectual. Maybe this says more about the company Miller keeps, or the conversations she chooses to remember, than the prevailing notions about Wallace and his work. After all, Jay McInerney compared Infinite Jest to Zola in the New York Times Book Review—not exactly the stuff of overly cerebral writing deprived of humanity and emotion. Likewise, David Kipen in the LA Times mentioned its well-developed characters, called Wallace a genius, and predicted that posterity would be kind to the book. And for another thing, I don’t quite understand how Miller’s claim that “Wallace was not widely regarded as ‘great’ during his lifetime” can be squared with the later claim that the Times called him the “voice of a new generation,” nor the enormous crowds that would turn out for Wallace’s appearances and his enviable sales.

For my own part, the people I have spoken to about Wallace, both before and after the suicide, have evidenced very different impressions of him than those that Miller recalls. Certainly by the time I began paying attention to such things, my impression of the conventional wisdom of the literary world was that he was a big deal. He had been compared to Pynchon endlessly, won the acclaim of Don DeLillo, was published in major national magazines, and was backed by editors for a string of lengthy, often dense books that weren’t exactly prototypical bestsellers. Very few writers get that treatment.

Dog Days

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I’ve been traveling, and when not traveling knee-deep in various forms of work, so apologies for the silence ’round these parts. With some luck that will abate in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, read one of these books, or check some of my latest work below.

My review of the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, at the San Francisco Chronicle.

And for The Paris Review I interview Ben Moser about all things Lispector.

And also, I’ll recommend to you The Wake by Paul Kingsworth. This is being billed as “a postapocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past,” about an Englishman who experiences the destruction of his civilization when William the Conqueror, well, conquers in 1066. It’s written in a sort of Old English dialect (Kingsworth modernizes it so that you don’t need a Ph.D. to read the book), and it’s quite good; some slight overtones of Krasznahorkai here, as well as the Oulipo, given the nature of this literary endeavor and the radically condensed alphabet/vocabulary that Kingsworth gives himself to work with. I’m hoping to write on it more in the future.

Support Your Literary Community

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Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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