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.


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.

Journalist-Novelist Redux

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud if newsrooms were the chief training ground for fiction writers in the first half of the 20th century, in the way MFA programs appear to be now. As if on cue, the Washington Post‘s obituary blog, Post Mortem, has a piece on the late Roy Hoopes, who wrote a well-received biography of crime author and journalist James M. Cain in 1982. The post is largely a reminder that Cain, who died in 1977, grew up in the D.C. area and spent the final years of his life in the Maryland burbs; in between, he took reporting jobs in Baltimore and New York before turning to screenwriting and fiction. He worked for H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun and was briefly the New Yorker‘s managing editor—so briefly that he doesn’t merit a mention in Brendan Gill‘s Here at the New Yorker. “I was the managing editor but all you did was check the budget,” he told the Post in a 1969 interview. I was the 27th Jesus. Ogden Nash had been the 16th. After Thurber. Intramurally, [editor Harold] Ross was an impossible guy to work with. But I liked Ross after 6.”

That John Carmody 1969 profile (PDF), linked to in the blog post, is well worth reading in its entirety—it puts the grizzled newsman on full display, and places his work in its appropriate context: “Jim Cain is one of those rare, faintly sung people who drew, oh, maybe, a crowsfoot on the image that this country held of itself during the 1930’s and all through the 1940’s,” he writes. “As a novelist, he showed us what money could do and a certain kind of mindless love could do and what greed could do and he wasn’t … too social about it (which was significant) in the 1930’s.” It’s pretty well known that it helped to be a Pinkerton if you were going to be a crime novelist in the 30s. Did it help to be a reporter too?

The Difficult Life of the Novelist-Journalist

I haven’t read any of Pete Hamill‘s novels—I never hear much about them that’s convincingly positive. But I do admire his journalism (Piecework assembles the best of it), and he has plenty to say about the intersection of reporting and fiction in an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard. One secret to succeeding as a reporter-novelist, it appears, is sleep:

As every newspaper man knows, often you hear stories that you can’t prove in court. That’s the essence of fiction. Fiction is an act of the imagination, whereas journalism is an act of witness.

So when I began writing fiction, I tried certain things. I’d learned the tricks of journalism. I don’t mean deception. How to make stories fit into a certain space. How to get a story done before deadline. Those types of things….

I also learned the great value of the nap. If I came back from the newspaper and would work on fiction, I’d take a nap, and just for transition I’d go to sleep thinking about what I’d write, and it would marinate.

I got great things from journalists. I got speed. I got reasonable accuracy. It helped me see instead of just looking at stuff, especially from photographers. That helped train me, just being with them on the scene of something. There was no transition. It was an expansion of what I was doing. Many people write their first novel and leave journalism forever. I didn’t do that. I love the journalism rush of the people. Best people I ever met were newspaper men and women. For whatever reason I needed that. And I never gave it up. I think of myself today as a newspaperman.

It may be impossible to fully think of oneself as both. There are plenty of novelists who started out as reporters, but few, I think, who succeed at doing both at the same time. It’s a strategy that seems to make for fiction that’s earnest but a little clumsy (Mike Sager‘s shaggy-dog D.C. novel, Deviant Behavior springs to mind, as do Kurt Andersen‘s airy Turn of the Century and Heyday)—proof that they’re not nearly the same disciplines. (As usual, of course, I may be forgetting a writer who’s done knockout fiction and journalism simultaneously. Mark Twain may qualify, but does any author born more recently?) Regardless, the entire Q&A is worth reading—Hamill has plenty of commonsensical things to say about the Internet and journalism, and generally avoids get-off-my-lawn lecturing—a rare feature in a reporter of his age and experience. If you happen to be in the Syracuse area, he speaks there Wednesday night.

Q&A: Rachel Sherman

Rachel Sherman‘s debut story collection, 2006’s The First Hurt, was one of my favorite books of that year; her focus is on adolescence, and she has a knack for exposing people at their most fragile while remaining sympathetic to them. The list of living writers who can write both unflinchingly and well about suburban American lives seems like a relatively short one to me (Lorrie Moore, maybe Tom Perrotta, who else?), and the list of writers who botch it is long, but Sherman shows why these stories are still worth telling.

Her debut novel, Living Room, extends the themes of The First Hurt, focusing on three women: Abby, a teenager who’s suddenly receiving enough attention to be prone to emotional and physical manipulations; her mother, Livia, who’s attempting to force herself into a state of normalcy by alternately pursuing a career as an interior designer and shutting out the world around her; and Livia’s mother, Headie, whose increasing dementia is counterbalanced by lucid memories of the men in her life.

Sherman currently teaches writing at Rutgers and Columbia University, and she’s currently working on a TV script as well as a new novel. She answered a few questions about Living Room via e-mail.

How long have you been working on Living Room? Did you have a strong ambition to write a novel before you began writing short stories?

I worked on Living Room for about three years. Before writing my short story collection, though, I was less focused on writing a novel. After The First Hurt came out, though, I felt like it was something I wanted to try. It took a while for me to get the structure down, since novel writing was not familiar to me. Eventually, once I figured out the plot and the characters, the story took shape.

Much like the stories in The First Hurt, Living Room focuses on the inner emotional conflicts that tend to lurk behind polite exteriors. How difficult was it to transfer that sensibility into a longer narrative?

I’m not sure that the difficulty was so much transferring the sensibility, since I think that that is what I write, but making it larger, and into an interconnected plot, took me longer than it does for me when I write short stories.

You mentioned in one interview that you first conceived the novel by thinking about getting into the head of an elderly woman. Did you attempt to write an individual story about Headie before coming to make it about three women, or did you dive in knowing you would cover three generations?

Initially it was about two generations: a grandmother and a granddaughter. But it was a much different story. The granddaughter was not a teenager, but a twenty-five year old, getting ready to marry a much older man. As I wrote about her, I realized that the second generation (the mother) was also important. Eventually the story completely changed, but Headie stayed very close to what she was in the beginning.

What distinguishes you from many other writers who write about suburbia and families, in my opinion, is that you take an unflinching approach to the difficulties that your characters go through. As you approach these characters, how much are you revising and rethinking them to test how much you want them to withstand?

I’m not sure I’m thinking in terms of testing them (or at least not consciously). My writing process is dreamy, for lack of a better word. It feels less intellectual and more emotional. When I write, I feel like I lose track of time, and am totally engrossed in what I am doing. I am very in the moment, and rarely think about my characters as separate from myself. In order to know them I have to be inside their heads.

Given that “dreamy” quality you mention, how much revising do you end up doing?

I do do a lot of revising, but my process is pretty organic. Sometimes I don’t know what the story is about until it is done.

It seems that the kind of extremely interior, family-focused stories you write aren’t much in favor in contemporary fiction these days. As a writing teacher, do you find that your students have a strong interest in telling these stories? Do you use your own work to guide them?

No, I don’t teach my own work, but I do teach work that I like. My students seem interested in many of the books I teach, but there are some that I completely strike out with. I’ve been accused of assigning too many ‘sad’ books.

What books you do teach? Do you think the allegedly “sad” books are sad?

Yes, I do think they are sad. But that’s OK with me. I like sad. This semester I taught Revolutionary Road, The Gathering, Unaccustomed Earth, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Jernigan, and a number of short stories.