Mark Athitakis Newsletter #34

The safe choice.

Book-award season is kicking into gear. Which means "safe" season has started as well.

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you probably know what I mean by "safe." But if not: It means that book-award announcements arrive with their backlash preinstalled. Consider the fiction longlist for the National Book Awards, announced earlier this month. Indie-press enthusiasts will notice not just the absence of a title from an independent publisher, but a remarkable-bordering-on-unseemly dominance by Penguin Random House, which published eight of the ten longlisted titles. Hence "safe." Familiar names---the "safe" monitors detest familiar names---are well represented: Colson Whitehead, Susan Choi, Marlon James. Hence "safe." The racial, ethic, and gender diversity of the longlist, for more conservative critics, only serves as further evidence that literary awards judges are playing tick-the-box tokenism rather than honoring the best that is thought and written, the better to avoid Twitter-mob criticism. Hence "safe."

I could go on. How many "safe" MFA teachers or graduates occupy that longlist, preserving the careerist American literary establishment? How many familiar tales of assimilation? Of domesticity? What acknowledgements of genre, however grudging? Arbitrating the safety of prize lists in this way has been a hobby among litchatters for years---which, in turn, has made it an avocation as safe as stamp collecting.

As somebody with some hands-on experience with few awards cycles, I'm alert to the critique. But despite all the time I've spent observing the safe wars from the sidelines (a safe place to be!) I've never seen a clear definition of what "safe" means within the context of the actual contents of book. If Colson Whitehead decides to set aside his maximalist/sci-fi-ish tendencies and proceeds to write an overtly teachable but nuanced book on race---no easy thing to do simultaneously---such an effort strikes me as daring in its own way. So too with Choi's playing with plot twists; so too Taffy Brodesser-Akner's experiments with perspective, to write a Philip Roth novel that deliberately unwinds the sexism of the Philip Roth novel; so too Vuong, writing an assimilation novel that endeavors to make every line a poem.

None of this is meant to defend PRH or the NBAs, really---Whitehead excepted, none of the longlisted books will likely make my list of favorite novels of the year. (Disclosure: I'm in the midst of prize-judging work for the NBCC, but I've never seen that organization as in competition with anybody. Rising tides, etc.) I mean only to suggest that the "safe" conversation says more about publishing than books under consideration. And one of the worst things litchat does is turn a conversation about the latter into the former. 

For instance: A couple of years ago, I was gobstopped by Carmen Maria Machado's story collection Her Body and Other Parties when I was judging the Kirkus Prize. I read it twice, because I loved it, and because I wanted to be sure to myself that I wasn't just smitten with its gamesmanship, or the fact that it was the most promiscuously well-blurbed debut book I’d seen in a while. As the book became a cause celebre, she won an NBCC Leonard Prize and was a Kirkus Prize finalist on my watch. I like the idea that I played a teensy role in elevating the book; I loathe the idea that doing so somehow made her work "safe." Should her forthcoming memoir, In the Dream House, gain any sort of critical or awards traction, it’s fated to be a “safe” choice in multiple contexts. Which is unfortunate, because it’s more than that.

I think when people talk about "safe" books, what they're really looking for is not so much quality as a sense of surprise, a narrative that escapes the Big Five/D&I contexts. (It's what makes people want to read a novel like Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport sight-unseen; its particularly kind of hype is a counterweight to more familiar hypes.) Recently, Ernie Smith wrote in his Tedium newsletter about "doing it the wrong way," using as examples albums by Captain Beefheart and Sufjan Stevens that eschewed conventional recording techniques yet still found their audiences. But while innovation is a valuable thing in any creative context, innovation without substance is merely a gimmick.

There are only so many Trout Mask Replicas out there; and, frankly, only so many would-be Trout Masks out there aren’t much good. Sometimes doing it the “wrong” way is merely bad, and doing it the “right” way actually works. Those distinctions can be hard to parse in a review. Don’t have much faith that they’ll even be made online, in the wake of an award announcement.


I reviewed Ben Moser's biography of Susan Sontag for On the Seawall. I also adapted newsletter #32 (on reading at the mall) for the Washington Post.

Things I've read and enjoyed lately: Seth Wickersham catches up with climber Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo; unsurprisingly if you've seen the film, he finds being earthbound little frustrating. Tim Page wrote a memoir of the death of the classical critic that prompted me to draft a more-earnest-than-usual newsletter that I eventually gave up on; you're welcome. A.S. Hamrah explores Ronald Reagan's relationship with the movies, suggesting that a screening of 9 to 5 at Camp David may have gotten us into Just Say No, if not the war on drugs writ large. Jacqueline Woodson speaks on the virtues of reading slowly; Adam Wilson pokes a few holes in the allegedly revolution of Peak TV. Heather Radke attends a convention dedicated to butt stuff. Isaac Butler blasts Chris Ware's sad-sack comic Rusty Brown; Chris Ware celebrates Charles Schulz's sad-sack comic Peanuts.


Thanks for reading. Avoid me on Twitter tomorrow unless you want lots of anxious Tweets about the Nationals’ performance in the NL Wild Card Game. Otherwise I’ll try to keep things at a low boil. Email me:

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