Four Fictions

The feature well of this week’s issue of Washington City Paper is dedicated to fiction for the first time in a long time. I sifted through the 50-odd submissions to pick three short stories, and also invited a pro, Eugenia Kim, to contribute—happily, she took me up on the offer. Here’s a bit from my intro:

Asking people to write a story about the District is a way to unlock a city’s id, and one of the more entertaining aspects of sorting through the submissions was learning what they’ll come up with when loosed from the demands of strict accuracy. Some ran off from the city limits­—stories rambled up to Glen Burnie, Md., and over to West Virginia. Others sank into Metro trains, which—sorry, WMATA—are consistently metaphors for darkness, confusion, and fear. But many of the writers who submitted for this issue concentrated on a theme that’s become ...

Four Fictions

The feature well of this week’s issue of Washington City Paper is dedicated to fiction for the first time in a long time. I sifted through the 50-odd submissions to pick three short stories, and also invited a pro, Eugenia Kim, to contribute—happily, she took me up on the offer. Here’s a bit from my intro:

Asking people to write a story about the District is a way to unlock a city’s id, and one of the more entertaining aspects of sorting through the submissions was learning what they’ll come up with when loosed from the demands of strict accuracy. Some ran off from the city limits­—stories rambled up to Glen Burnie, Md., and over to West Virginia. Others sank into Metro trains, which—sorry, WMATA—are consistently metaphors for darkness, confusion, and fear. But many of the writers who submitted for this issue concentrated on a theme that’s become ...

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations ...

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations ...

Ten 2012 Books I Wish Received More Attention in 2012

I hesitate to say something simpler, like “Ten Overlooked 2012 Books”—these days even the books that dominate chatter about literary fiction generate such little attention in the wider world that even the award winners qualify as overlooked. Why the books books were less noticed or lauded escapes me—roughly a decade of steady book reviewing hasn’t made me any wiser about what catches heat and what doesn’t. But however those levers move, I wish they’d moved in these books’ favor a bit more.

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy: OK, I can guess what happened here: Published in January and with a distasteful setup—Anne Frank is alive and decrepit in an the attic of a middle-aged Jew—it was probably easier for everyone to pretend this one didn’t happen by year’s end. But it’s funny all the same, finding its comedy in the way the Holocaust reshapes its characters lives generations ...

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on ...

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on ...

Seven Things I Think I Think About Book Reviews

Last Sunday I took part in a panel at the Writer’s Center titled “The Future of the Book Review,” joined by the Washington Post‘s Dennis Drabelle and the Washington Independent Review of BooksDavid O. Stewart. In advance of the panel, moderator Mia Cortez sent along some questions for discussion. With Cortez’ permission, I’m sharing her questions and my responses below. Some of this is likely old hat for people who spend a lot of time discussing books online, but one thing I learn from going to these events is that there are a lot of people who care about books but who don’t keep up with the universe of blogs and online book-review outlets.

How are book reviews evolving with books in the digital era, and how has technology changed the life of a book reviewer?

The digital age has been an enormous blessing for the consumer: ...

#fictionpulitzergate

“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three ...

Some Housekeeping Notes

1. Ron Slate, who runs the thoughtful blog Above the Seawall, invited me and 11 other writers to recommend a recent work of fiction. I wrote about Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, The New Republic, which you may have heard is not new—she tabled the book for more than a decade, and many critics have dinged it for growing musty in that time. Me too. But it would be unfortunate if the novel simply became “that novel about journalism and terrorism back then that doesn’t have anything to say about journalism and terrorism right now.” A snip:

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism ...

Some Housekeeping Notes

1. Ron Slate, who runs the thoughtful blog Above the Seawall, invited me and 11 other writers to recommend a recent work of fiction. I wrote about Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, The New Republic, which you may have heard is not new—she tabled the book for more than a decade, and many critics have dinged it for growing musty in that time. Me too. But it would be unfortunate if the novel simply became “that novel about journalism and terrorism back then that doesn’t have anything to say about journalism and terrorism right now.” A snip:

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism ...

A Novel Is a Pattern

Colm Toibin:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or ...

A Novel Is a Pattern

Colm Toibin:
The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or ...

The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

From a 1959 essay, “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” included the new anthology of John Leonard‘s essays, Reading for My Life:

[The Beats] proved at least one thing more. That poetry, painting, music, and fiction are products of the individual. That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart. A generation may be disenchanted, but it takes a man alone to chronicle that disenchantment. Art-by-citadel won’t work. It’s in league with brainstorming and Groupthink and government-by-committee. Movements, Generations, Subcultures—these are the strewn carcasses of sterile imaginations, conjured up to explain lamely the why and how of genius.

Leonard is more or less new to me; while he was alive ...

The World Is Already Filled to Bursting

Lawrence Weschler on why he doesn’t write fiction:

[T]he part of my sensibility which I demonstrate in nonfiction makes fiction an impossible mode for me. That’s because for me the world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences. The world as it is is overdetermined: the web of all those interrelationships is dense to the point of saturation. That’s what my reporting becomes about: taking any single knot and worrying out the threads, tracing the interconnections, following the mesh through into the wider, outlying mesh, establishing the proper analogies, ferreting out the false strands. If I were somehow to be forced to write a fiction about, say, a make-believe Caribbean island, I wouldn’t know where to put it, because the Caribbean as it is is already full––-there’s no room in it for any fictional islands. Dropping one in there would provoke a tidal ...

The World Is Already Filled to Bursting

Lawrence Weschler on why he doesn’t write fiction:

[T]he part of my sensibility which I demonstrate in nonfiction makes fiction an impossible mode for me. That’s because for me the world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences. The world as it is is overdetermined: the web of all those interrelationships is dense to the point of saturation. That’s what my reporting becomes about: taking any single knot and worrying out the threads, tracing the interconnections, following the mesh through into the wider, outlying mesh, establishing the proper analogies, ferreting out the false strands. If I were somehow to be forced to write a fiction about, say, a make-believe Caribbean island, I wouldn’t know where to put it, because the Caribbean as it is is already full––-there’s no room in it for any fictional islands. Dropping one in there would provoke a tidal ...

An Interesting Neutrality

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin discusses two hard-boiled crime authors whose work has recently been anthologized, Paul Cain and David Goodis. I’m pretty familiar with Goodis, but Cain (no relation to James M.) is new to me. Sandlin assures me I haven’t missed much—Cain was tasked with writing Dashiell Hammett-esque stories for Black Mask in the 30s after Hammett himself struck out for Hollywood, and falls short in comparison. Indeed, the best part of the review is a bit on what made Hammett’s prose work so well. Hammett, Sandlin writes, had a

freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn’t appear to signify anything at all—as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that ...