Favorite Books of 2009

At some point today, barring technological and editorial hiccups, my end-of-the-year piece should appear on the website of Washington City Paper, including my top-ten list and a few brief thoughts on what e-books might mean for print books. I’ll likely be offline when the article goes live (following City Paper‘s coverage of the gun at the snowball fight should keep you busy in the meantime), but there’s no reason not to offer the list proper now. Update: Here’s the article. So:

1. Zoe Heller, The Believers
2. Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters!
3. David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
4. Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson
5. Pervical Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier
6. Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
7. Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
8. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
9. Yiyun Li, The Vagrants
10. Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

All have their flaws (though The Believers has fewer than even most good books), and heaven knows this isn’t an exact science: There are a few books that could easily have made it on the list were I in a different mood while compiling it: Jayne Anne PhillipsLark & Termite, Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Paul Auster‘s Invisible, and the reissue of Don Carpenter‘s Hard Rain Falling. And as usual, I could offer a much longer list of disappointments and failures, topped off by Pete Dexter‘s Spooner, Victor LaValle‘s Big Machine, and Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. What I can’t do is pull out some kind of common theme about the year’s best books, as I have in the past. I’m content to admire the books I liked for what they are, and hope that 2010 has better ones.

With that, I’m pretty much wrapped up for 2009. I may step in here once or twice before the new year, but I’m more likely to be on Twitter to the extent I’ll spend much time online at all. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have safe travels and good company in the final days of this year. Talk to you soon.

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.

Links: Tidying Up Before The Holidays

Edward P. JonesThe Known World is now available in Arabic. (Can’t “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” be translated too?)

J.D. Salinger figured that The Catcher in the Rye was unfilmable. He also noticed when somebody needed a new typewriter ribbon.

One man’s effort to rehabilitate the reputation of James T. Farrell.

Ayn Rand‘s fiction “is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air.”

The frustrations of reading Barry Hannah backwards.

“We live in an era in which unprecedented globalization and economic interdependence, liberal-democratic hegemony, nanotechnology, robotic warfare, the ‘infosphere,’ nuclear proliferation and geoengineering solutions to climate change coexist with the return of powerful autocratic-capitalist states, of a new Great Game in Central Asia, of imperialism in the Middle East, of piracy on the high seas, of rivalry in the Indian Ocean, of a 1929-like market crash, of 1914-style hypernationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, of warlords and failed states, of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, and of a new holy war waged by radical Islamists complete with caliphates and beheadings reminiscent of medieval times. In short, we live in a Thomas Pynchon novel. (via)

Finger Flexion Redux

A friend of mine once had a college professor who had a special term for scare quotes—“prophylactic quotes,” he called them. That’s a little clunky, but it does get to the heart of what scare quotes do; we use them when we want to insulate ourselves from the meaning or emotion that might be attached to a particular word. David Foster Wallace‘s story “All That,” published in last week’s New Yorker, is something of a study on prophylactic quoting: The narrator, who was once (and may still be) a seminarian, looks back at a handful of incidents in his life to figure out where his interest in religion started. In the process, various critical terms get placed into scare quotes, to better emphasize just how lost he is: “magic,” “reverence,” “religious,” “reality.”

As a grammar obsessive and good postmodernist, Wallace was exceedingly concerned with vocabulary; Infinite Jest is filled with italicized words, both as emphasis in conversation and to call specific terms out for special attention. “Is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though,” one character asks in the middle of one of the novel’s wargames. It’s a risky style: Do it too often, and readers will start thinking you’re a show-off, and the New York Times will publish snide features about you questioning your sincerity. But though I count myself among the many people who sometimes felt he had his time wasted by Wallace’s fiction, I never wondered whether he meant it—if anything, he seemed to be working overly hard to get at the truth of something. Studying scare quotes is a good way to get at questions of meaning and sincerity, and “All That” isn’t the first time he tinkered with it. A post by Ken Vanko reminded me that Wallace’s 1999 story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men includes a satirical transcript of a conversation (presumably from some kind of intake center), in which the transcriptionist marks points where the interviewee used “flexion of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes.” There are so many of these points that the exasperated transcriptionist shortens the term to “finger flexion” and later just “f.f.” The device clarifies just how unhinged the speaker is:

My manner has now changed, somewhat, to a more commanding, authoritative demeanor. But not creepy and not threatening. Some subjects have professed to see it as {f.f.} menacing, but I can assure you no menace is intended. What is being communicated now is a certain authoritative command based solely on contractual experience as I inform the subject that I am going to {no f.f.} instruct her.

“All That” is finger flexion without the satire or the creepiness, scare quotes without the joking. If anything, they expose the narrator’s genuine feelings of terror; what’s provoked his worry isn’t clear, but it’s obvious he’s working through a serious crisis of faith. In the second half of the story, as it becomes more obvious how unstable the narrator feels, the scare quotes pile up:

Probably one reason that I fall automatically into the urge to “argue for” the voices’ “reality” is that my “real” parents, though they were wholly tolerant of my believing in the voices, obviously viewed them as the same sort of “invisible friend” fantasies I mentioned above.

And that passage is set in parentheses—in this context, scare quotes over passage full of scare quotes. “All That” is a section from The Pale King, Wallace’s final novel. It’s always unfair to attach the emotional concerns of a fictional character to the emotional concerns of the author; the best writers can separate the two. But the context of the story’s publication is unavoidable, and though the story would be just as strong were Wallace still alive, reading it now there’s an added pathos now to the way he turned a postmodern device into a deeply earnest statement, a cry for help.

“To Their Parents!”

I’m holding off on posting my best-books-of-2009 list for another week because I’m actually getting paid to compile one this year. (Here’s a hint about one of the entries.) But right now I could do up a pretty satisfying list of best non-2009 books I read in the past 12 months: Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings, Saul Bellow‘s Herzog, Henry JamesThe American, David GoodisBlack Friday, Flannery O’Connor‘s Wise Blood, Ward Just‘s In the City of Fear, and, especially, Lorrie Moore‘s Self-Help. Maybe Herzog was better and more ambitious, but with Bellow I had a sense of what I was in for; with Moore I was left with the very palpable sense of embarrassment that comes with realizing you missed the boat a long time ago.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t meant I’ve had the opportunity to read A Gate at the Stairs, let alone the rest of Moore’s books. For the time being I compensate by reading interviews with Moore, which have a lot of the snap, emotion, and well-earned sarcasm I admired in Self-Help. In a profile in the Chicago Tribune, she cuts loose on her writing students and the need for fiction to be transgressive:

[T]hey don’t feel the transgressive nature of literature yet. Especially undergrads. They worry about offending people, and that’s fine. They don’t want to upset people. They show their writing to their parents. To their parents! I say, ‘OK, Becky, now write something you wouldn’t show your parents.’ Becky says, ‘I couldn’t!’ But, see — they’re nice kids.

And she closes by wondering whether the Midwest has lost any of the qualities that inspired her in the first place:

[T]here’s a sameness that’s sweeping the country. The Midwest is losing whatever made it so foreign. The South — same thing. I wrote a lot from that dislocation. Someone’s visiting, and there’s disruption. It’s a classic story construction, and maybe there’s just less of a reason for it now.

The whole profile is worth a read, including comments from New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and Moore’s editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, as well as more from Moore herself.

Links: AST Company

Responses to the closing of Kirkus Reviews:

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton on the magazine’s children’s book coverage: “What Kirkus did was to treat books for children and adults the same in the same publication.”

Carolhoda Books editorial director Andrew Karre: “[T]here is no circumstance under which no review would have been preferable” to a negative one.

Washington City Paper‘s Mike Riggs: “[T]he Web is peopled with shit-talkers, and most of them do for free what Kirkus charged money for (bad reviews)…. Kirkus was a check against the site’s near-unregulated comment policy.” I attempted to bestow the acronym AST (“Amazon shit-talker”) in the comment thread to that post, arguing that anonymous reviews on Amazon aren’t cut from the same cloth as Kirkus reviews. (Of course, I have a dog in this hunt, and I’m a former City Paper staffer.) Author Joni Rodgers stepped in to argue that critics who write negative reviews are assholes, I lost it a little, and Rodgers proceeded to modify her argument slightly to say that critics who don’t like a book should just shut up about it. All of which may say something about the value of comment threads. At any rate, Rodgers has expanded on her thinking in a blog post, and though she says nice things about me in it, her arguments about Kirkus and book reviewing are no more fact-based or sensible.

Onward:

For the next five days, you can hear BBC’s radio play of Joshua Ferris‘ novel, And Then We Came to the End.

The London Review of BooksChristopher Tayler, like many critics, figures that Paul Auster hasn’t been the same writer in the past ten years. He has a theory about why.

Technology is destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

In related news, technology is really destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

Need more proof? Andre Aciman‘s son is one of the authors of Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

Heroes of American Literature #19: Lillian Hellman.

Roger Ebert assembles a batch of Charles Bukowski-related videos.

Ray Bradbury‘s best efforts to save a Ventura, California, library failed.

John Updike‘s Rabbit, Run turns 50 next year. The John Updike Society is using the anniversary as an opportunity to launch its first conference next year.

Kurt Vonnegut: “You’ll never make a living at being a writer. Hell you may even die trying. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It’s about grace.”

Kirkus Reviews, 1933-2009

Update, March 28, 2013: This post was written when it appeared that Kirkus would be shuttered for good. Happily, that hasn’t happened. But out of respect for the publication’s policy of keeping the identity of a book’s reviewer anonymous, I’ve edited this post to remove references to specific books I’ve reviewed for the publication.

This one hurts: Kirkus Reviews has been shuttered. I regularly reviewed books for the publication for most of the past five years—mostly fiction, though I recently had more nonfiction assignments. Why the shift? Beats the heck out of me—in all the time I wrote for Kirkus , I never got a clear idea of the publication’s inner workings. The books arrived. I reviewed them. More books arrived.

I understand why some people felt that reviewing for Kirkus was a grind. The format had a Tayloristic rigidity—short summary sentence, review graf, pithy final-assessment sentence, all of it clocking in at 350 words, tops. Though the editors there knew my general interests, I didn’t get a vote on what was sent to me to review. In short, it wasn’t a job for reviewers who cared only about books they felt pretty certain they’d like. Which speaks to the most contentious and, I think, admirable aspect of the magazine—that Kirkus‘ reviews were more negative than positive. Conventional wisdom argues that this is because the reviews were written by large passels of smug know-nothings who used their anonymity as a blunt instrument. I prefer to think Kirkus served an uncomfortable truth—most books are mediocre. For my part, I can say that I never wrote a negative review that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my name on, and that only rarely did I feel compelled to fire both barrels.

Did all those negative reviews have any kind of impact? On authors’ emotions, sure: A few have taken the news of the publication’s closing to register their unhappiness with it. If nothing else, Kirkus may have been the most powerful and fearsome hurt-feelings generator in the history of publishing. But my lukewarm review of what would become a New York Times best book of the year sure didn’t influence much. And, contrary to Kirkus hate-everything reputation, I never received a directive about what tone to take, and I did write my fair share of positive, even starred reviews. In my more self-congratulatory moments, I like to imagine that I did a little something for a debut novel that seemed to get a goodly amount of attention following my rave, and one book-review editor at a national newspaper has told me he decided to cover another novel largely on the strength of my Kirkus endorsement.

But I didn’t keep reviewing for Kirkus because I was hoping to have some kind of effect on book sales. I kept writing because, for one thing, adhering to those strict demands required a certain skill—writing short while fitting everything you want to say is tough, and I enjoyed honing that craft. (It wasn’t bad training for blogging.) But I mostly kept doing it, and kept loving doing it despite all those crummy books, because it built an element of surprise into my reading habit. I blog about American fiction because it’s the category I love best and the one I figure I can blog about most consistently without feeling like I want to shove my head in a blender. But I don’t feel obligated to stay in that category, and Kirkus assignments forced me out of my comfort zone. I think every critic could stand to pick out a book at random every so often, just to test one’s prejudices; it’s a time-consuming exercise, but it helps give you clearer sense of your likes and dislikes. If I can’t have that experience as a reviewer, I’ll pursue it as a reader.

My wife once asked me if it ever felt like a burden, getting all of those books in the mail—nearly all of them falling short of what I’d consider very good. I replied by saying that I always had high hopes that the next batch of books might contain one I’d really, really like. You have to allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised every so often. When getting that package of books in the mail stopped feeling at least a little bit like Christmas, I’d know it was time to get out of the book-review racket. In all the time I reviewed for Kirkus, I never lost that feeling.