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 ...

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 ...