Mark Athitakis Newsletter #29

Spoiler alert.

Front Matter

I’m not watching Game of Thrones. I don’t say that in the sense of “I’m better than your silly interest in Game of Thrones.” I say it in the sense of “I can’t afford HBO on top of everything else and the HBO Go password somebody passed along to me a while back stopped working so I’m not watching Game of Thrones and instead I’m waiting for the new season of Bosch.” But I enjoy reading people’s tweets about the show, which tend to unwittingly express a particular anxiety about cultural consumption: We want to have a “pure” and unadulterated experience with a work of art while also wanting to share in the experience collectively.

Which is to say: To speak of Game of Thrones is to be anxious about spoilers. But what’s a spoiler? “Giving away the ending or an important plot point” would be the common answer. The giving away is a function of time, though---spoilers have expiration date---which suggests that spoilers have more to do with cultural work’s value in the marketplace than any inherent artistic worth. If I tell you that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, or that Rosebud is Kane’s childhood sled, few would feel that their experience of The Empire Strikes Back and Citizen Kane has been wrecked. Enough time has passed that everybody who’s interested in those movies know the ending anyway. And perhaps just as important, those movies aren’t diminished by your knowing these things; is it impossible to enjoy Citizen Kane because you know about the sled, or even to enjoy it less?

Still, professional responsibility obligates me to take spoilers seriously and not reveal late-breaking plot points in a novel I’m reviewing. This got tricky lately in the case of Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise. The novel, concerning students at a high-pressure arts school, is about the warring perspectives of our teenage years---Choi explores the profound effects of how we’re treated and perceived in high school, yet it’s also a time when we’re most compelled to keep secrets, mindful of gossip and judgment. Choi artfully shows how that atmosphere of raw emotion can linger well into adulthood, and that’s all important to discuss if you’re going to explain to a reader what the novel is “about.” But that also means noting that nearly halfway through the book there’s a change in perspective---the novel you’re reading is actually a novel written by one of the graduates of the school.

Is saying this a spoiler, or just discussing the architecture of the book? A reader tweeted at me, concerned that I had ruined the book:

I didn’t think I had:

But like I said, these are judgment calls. As Laura Miller pointed out in her review of the novel, explaining the structure is essential to discussing its themes: “Spoiler-ish as this summary may sound, it seems a necessary spur to get readers unfamiliar with Choi’s work through the novel’s unexceptional first lap.” I strongly disagree with that “unexceptional” business, however; though the opening section gives off a whiff of unreliable narration, its observations of arts-school life are elegant and considered. No novelist would risk making close to half a novel bad on purpose, and for what it’s worth, I found the second half of Trust Exercise a little more dull and “plotty” as it moves toward its big reveal.

Which I won’t disclose, because good book-reviewing citizenship requires not giving away the ending. (This is why writing longer literary essays, or writing on older books, can be so appealing---you can talk about endings.) But not all spoilers are created equal, because not all works of narrative art are. Bad M. Night Shyamalan fare like Signs winds up sounding ridiculous when you explain what happens (Aliens! Water-averse aliens invading a planet whose surface is 70 percent water!) because bad art’s value resides exclusively in the kind of reveals that demand spoiler alerts. Media screener DVDs of the fifth season of The Wire---the final, no-good, garbage season---came with a please-no-spoilers note from producer David Simon: “[T]he newspaper arc will be a more intriguing and meaningful journey for viewers if they do not know, in advance, exactly how or why Detective McNulty or Reporter Templeton bend and violate the ethics of their respective professions, or how they ultimately are used by each other as a result.” This was another way of saying that those characters behaved so unbelievably that the producer had to stand in critics’ way in the hopes that viewers might find the show’s arc “intriguing and meaningful,” rather than the nonsense that it was.

The first half of Trust Exercise is a novel written by one of its characters. It’s such a good novel that it can bear you coming to it with this knowledge. You should read it.

What I’m Reading

Matt Jones considers what I’d thought of, thanks to John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, as the Yucca Mountain problem---how to communicate the existence of a toxic waste site millennia from now, when our environment and means of communication will likely be incomprehensible to our present-day selves. But the problem isn’t unique to Yucca Mountain. Michael Massing makes the business case for the humanities, as one must now. Colin Dickey explores themes of death and grief in the latest dire film version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. In Poets & Writers, William Giraldi explores the ugly nature of writerly envy through the ages (print-only). Roxana Robinson, author of a fine new historical novel, Dawson’s Fall, describes the uncanny process of reading its audiobook.

What I’m Writing

At the prompting of the Washington Post, I revised Newsletter #23 into a longer, hopefully more considered riff about Millennials, novels, and how we perceive literary greatness. It’s attracted more than 100 comments; maybe I’ll read them someday. For On the Seawall, I reviewed Colin Asher’s new biography of Nelson Algren, which I highly recommend, though the book makes a stronger case for Algren as a social critic than a fiction writer: “As an advocate for Algren’s fiction, Asher can be as disappointing a salesman as Algren’s father was a mechanic — his discussions of the novels themselves are mainly extended plot summaries that make Algren’s characters seem like flotsam on a turgid river, followed by sketches of the critical reception they received. Those reviews were increasingly distant as the years went on.”

Thanks for reading. I’ve just started reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; send spoilers and other correspondence to I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #28

Bad is/is not good.

Front Matter

I don’t think bad books are all that bad. You should read them.

That’s not the same thing as saying I’m in the habit of giving bad books positive reviews, or that my judgment is (absurdly) off-base, or that I have a particular affection for kitsch. It’s more that as a reviewer, my inclination is to look for what makes a book interesting, even if it’s poorly executed. It’s a useful perspective as a reviewer—you’ll burn out fast if you just hate everything. (Probably if you love everything, too.) But I don’t think it’s a bad way to live as a casual reader either.

For instance: Earlier this week Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, came out in paperback. It’s bad. Not bad in the way so many debut novels usually are, with clunky plotting, weak characterizations, and overearnest messaging. But bad in a special way, interestingly bad, bad in the way the car Homer Simpson designed was bad, constructed out of half-baked rants and goofball characters and Kerouackian meanderings. It’s a slim thing that’s deceptively toxic thanks to the host of things structurally wrong with it, like a malfunctioning Diaper Genie.

When I wrote about the book for the Washington Post a year ago, I emphasized this badness, which caught a little attention. (Everybody loves it when a critic says something is bad!) That was gratifying, in a way. But every novelist has ideas, even Sean Penn, and I wanted to spotlight that too. “Penn is fixated on matters of populism and authenticity: Among Bob’s chief targets is a society that has been ‘marketed into madness.’ … Penn has a plain affection for the 1960s counterculture novel, from the let-’er-rip automatic writing of the Beats to Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ with its suggestion that an oppressive society will deem any outspoken, decent human being insane. In that light, ‘Bob Honey’ is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow.”

You could conceivably make a fine novel out of those constituent parts; Penn couldn’t. But it may be that decades from now, Bob Honey will likely possess a certain utility---its badness might reveal just how scrambled the Trump era made writers’ (and publishers’) brains while searching for the right language to address it. In that sense, Penn has written for the ages in a way that the author of last year’s consensus Good Novel hasn’t. I can’t recommend that you read it, but you should read it.

Writing in Standpoint, Theodore Dalrymple recently made a similar point: “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that there is no book, however bad or merely mediocre it may be, that has nothing to say to us, for every book tells us something,” he writes. To prove the argument, he closes his eyes and selects a random title from his shelves, landing on a 17th century medical guide. (I would like a photograph of Dalrymple’s library.) Discovering his time has not been entirely wasted by this dry and obsolete tome, he doubles down and dispatches his wife to a thrift shop to find him something appropriately shallow. (I’m reminded of Wendell Berry writing in Harper’s about having his wife handle typing duties, a tactic one letter writer mocked as “Wife---a low-tech energy-saving device.”) Said wife returns with a romantic thriller; he doesn’t bemoan his fate or feel his time was especially wasted this time either.

I don’t want to be too glib about this or come off as an apologist for mediocrity. Bad books can reinforce blinkered, stupid, or dangerous ideas. But badness not only puts the good stuff into relief, but is illuminating in itself; literary failures make up an Island of Misfit Toys of tedium, awkward phrasing, overreaching, historical neglect, general idiocy. So many terrible things are possible there, and a certain committed reader can find entertainment in the possibilities.

What I’m Reading

Terry Teachout explores the enduring appeal of the Western. Laura Yan investigates Eugene Gu, a doctor/online activist whose online persona (surprise!) hasn’t jibed with his real-life behavior. Daniel Mendelsohn looks at Ingmar Bergman’s novels and finds a keyhole to both his films and biography. Christian Caryl writes on the artist and critic Josef Czapski, witness to the Soviet gulags. Adam Nayman and Elizabeth Nelson apply more critical attention and devotion to R.E.M.’s Reckoning on it’s 35th anniversary than seems respectable, but it’s an album I love to pieces, so.

What I’m Writing

I reviewed Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise, for USA Today. “Choi elevates this stuff above high-school-confidential fare partly through the sheer richness of her prose: Choi’s talent is for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity. When a nervous student hits the stage, ‘his eyes are cast up, anxiously, as if he’s aware he is barely retaining the fickle attention of God.’ When Sarah despairs of her feelings for David, she sneaks into his car for solace: ‘The hushed night disappeared from view and she saw only the interior skin of this filthy armor of the boy she loved.’”

Thanks for reading. Send your lists of your favorite least-favorite books and other correspondence to I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #27

Notes from a flood zone.

Front Matter

So, are we in a monoculture or aren’t we? I’ve long figured that we aren’t. Music is broken up into microniches. Everybody seems to have written a novel or memoir or poetry chapbook. I get at least a dozen emails a day from publicists about forthcoming books. There are five brand-new stand-up specials I could watch on Netflix right now, and nobody can agree on which one of them is funny, or if any of them is funny. Beyonce---maybe we all agree on her? Or maybe the monoculture just says we’re supposed to agree on her, and then lots of us just go and do our own thing.

And yet, with antitrust prosecution a thing of the last century, what we consume is increasingly shaped by Google/Amazon/Apple in such a way that the “long tail” we talked about a decade ago is so attenuated that it hardly qualifies as a tail at all. The algorithm might be bringing us back to the age of three broadcast networks---or such a narrow mindset that we might as well be back in those days.

Or not! Because there’s still a lot of stuff out there, isn’t there? I confess confusion, prompted by Soraya Roberts’ smart essay, “On Flooding,” which makes a strong case for a creeping narrowness in our cultural discourse, as what few cultural writers are left circle sharklike around the same set of new movies, books, and music, chasing the objects that are most likely to catch our attention. Chasing anything else, when authority if not job security is measured in clicks, increasingly looks like an error. This behavior is less craven than the age of the hot take a few years ago, when writers were expected to produce opinions within 20 minutes of the existence of a thing that one might produce an opinion about. But flooding is more insidious too: It is, as Roberts puts it, “a mass torrent of the same stories by the same storytellers at the same time, making it almost impossible for anyone but the same select few to rise to the surface.” The best minds of our generation are putting their most thoughtful essayifying energies into the same stuff. Every week.

Reading at my usual pace, I typically finish one and a half or two books a week. If I wanted, I could map out all my reading for most of the year around titles that are consensus picks in the publishing world. Think of it as a pie chart with three slices—-two big, one small. One chunk is legacy authors---the Ann Beatties and Ron Chernows and Colson Whiteheads. Another chunk is relatively sure bets by lesser-known authors: the important new history book, the book version of that big New Yorker feat of reportage we all read (or at least shared) two years ago, an essay collection that speaks to our current moment, the memoir by that person who got put through the wringer two years ago. The remaining represents books by the bright young writers who’ve exited the MFA chrysalis and are being hyped as the next potential must-cover legacy author. Google “‘most anticipated’ and books and 2019” and you’ll get a bunch of lists that effectively break down that way.

For the average-to-serious reader, a few hundred books a year to choose from sure feels like fragmentation and abundance of choice. But Roberts is right to suggest that this state of affairs can also be a floodplain. You notice that more when the year comes to a close. “This is why every best-of list is identical,” she writes. “Everything is less white than it used to be, but all in the same way.” I get trapped in this myself. For a little while now, I’ve found myself covering the same book for one major daily paper that gets covered in a much splashier way by the same critic for a more major daily paper. Have I “made it,” or am I doing something wrong?

Yes, and...yes? I tell my editors to surprise me with suggestions; I do my best to pitch off the small-press titles that catch my eye. I raise a prayer of thanks every day that I don’t have to be a TV recapper. But it’s a job that, if you’d like to be surprised by it, requires some mindful effort. Roberts wants “more that is different, not more of the same differences.” It’s a distinction I suspect a lot of consumers of cultural criticism don’t think to make, but for we producers it an important part of the job, and probably an increasingly demanding one.

What I’m Reading

Brenda Wineapple explores Walt Whitman’s relationship with his very own Boswell, Horace Traubel. Lauren Oyler registers a defense of Andrea Dworkin against the sexist misinterpretations of her work, though that doesn’t mean she’s always easy to defend. Elissa Gabbert skips through some examples of great parties in fiction. Nelson Algren’s publisher explains what makes Algren’s work so relevant today (though it’s odd to make such an extensive case for him without quoting a single line from his work).

What I’m Writing

I worked the legacy-author beat this week.

I interviewed Bret Easton Ellis about his new book, White, which is half an interesting set of autobiographical essays about growing up a movie nerd and learning to live with the compromised film version of Less Than Zero and the absurdity of American Psycho’s path to publication, and half a lot of bitching about Millennials. “Everything is a lament for me….My whole career has been built on lament. I was the old man on the porch with Less Than Zero, calling out those kids for what they’re doing. Nothing’s really changed.”

And I interviewed T.C. Boyle about his new novel, Outside Looking In, about Timothy Leary’s early LSD experiments. “I do not do the drug now. I never had particularly good experiences. Yes, I saw visions, and the early parts of the trip were quite enjoyable, as with any drug high. But my experiences beyond that were exclusively negative. I think my mind churns too much anyway to be in need of such a stimulation or reinforcement.”

End Notes

When I was in college I played guitar and sang (“sang”) in a pickup go-nowhere quasi-punk band called the Jimmy Carter Experience. We were as awful as our name---one of our songs had two drum solos for some reason. But I had a good time chording and screaming my way through Husker Du’s “Target,” which is as good rant about monoculture and consumption ruts as I know. But maybe if I were less nostalgic I’d know better ones, no?

Thanks for reading. Send your lists of the best least-anticipated books and other correspondence to I’m on TwitterBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #26

Routines, shelves, brains.

Front Matter

In Howard Norman’s forthcoming novel, The Ghost Clause, the narrator riffs on the novelist’s process. “Nothing particularly special about my writing life,” he writes. “Type up twenty pages on the Remington manual, crumple up nineteen. Cross out half of that saved page. How else to go about it?”

How else, indeed? There are countless author interviews and profiles that shed light on writers’ tics, processes, and routines, with the tacit promise that they might improve our own. Writer A can’t function without noise-cancelling headphones in her converted pre-Civil War barn; Writer B prefers to write in busy shopping malls. Writer A works with a Chromebook that has nothing loaded on it except a word processor and an app that’s just a drill sergeant yelling, “keep writing, dammit!” set to go off every half hour; Writer B uses a bespoke pen and paper made by fifth-generation family paper millers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yet all these details boil down to the same general guidance: Find time to make a mess, then find a way to fix the mess.

Still, I keep on reading these things, because even though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years now, I can’t quite shake the feeling that my process could stand to improve. If I were to give mine a name, I suppose I’d call it the Pomodoro/Squeegee Method*---a half-hour making a mess with one extended piece that’s not due for a while before washing my hands of it, then a half-hour untangling the stubborn last graf of a piece due a couple of days from now, then another half-hour polishing something else due tomorrow. Feel OK to not-great about all of it; alleviate the anxiety by reading, washing dishes, walking the dog. On deadline day, copy it into an email, do a final bit of fussing, hit send, but not before generally feeling at least OK.

It wasn’t always thus. Years ago, if I was writing a thing, all I was doing was Writing a Thing; ass in chair, laboring for the two, four, six hours it took to see the review, essay, profile, article, whatever to completion. I felt a bit more productive as a writer in the moment back then---I could say I completed a project instead of feeling like I do now, as if I’m forever pushing peanuts forward with my nose. But I’ve learned that writing tends to improve with some time away from it. Also, I smoked a lot of cigarettes back then.

And yet, the voice lingers. Perhaps I should be more like Donna Tartt who says she can move a comma around “for hours.” Or take the advice of much-mocked advice-giver Jonathan Franzen, pondering koans like “you see more sitting still than chasing after.” Or haul wood like Donald Hall, just as soon as I sort out where in Arizona the wood is, and where I might haul it to. Or just recognize that reading all of this is a form of self-medicating, a way to stave off the concerns of the work at hand. In the new issue of Bookforum, Rachel Syme recognizes that social media has increased the volume of these professional tips, and their constant presence at once heightens and alleviates our fears. “I live for those ‘here’s my process’ threads on social media where someone lobs an open-ended question into the void like a jump ball and everyone pounces,” she writes. “How do you find time to read? What’s your go-to healthy lunch to make while working from home?....No one answer to these queries is ever earth-shattering; it’s the quantity of replies that I find comforting.”

I agree, except for the sneaky feeling that the people are really doing it right are the ones who aren’t playing the game. I too have answers to questions about finding time to read (I wake up at 4:30 a.m.) and my healthy go-to lunch while working at home (hahahahaha). But answering the question never answers the question. There’s still a mess to make, and a mess to fix.

*Brand-name ideation like this is why I’m never going to get my own TED Talk.

What I’m Reading

Nan Z. Da contemplates what books do to our sense of time---even the books we keep around but haven’t gotten around to reading. Sandra Newman recalls the necessity, shame, and occasional pleasure of writerly hackwork. Cynthia Haven reports from a meeting with editors at the San Francisco Chronicle, where books coverage is being shifted from dedicated editors to the can’t-lose strategy of a couple of “book whisperers,” one of whom is “very good with data.” Alexander Huls dives into a theft of high-end Star Wars memorabilia that captivated that community. Kathryn Schulz remembers her late father’s precariously shelved library. An this Gen X-er finally navigated his walker to Anne Helen Petersen’s study into the question of why Millennials are having such a tough time adulting.

What I’m Writing

In the Washington Post, I review Namwali Serpell’s supremely confident debut novel, The Old Drift. “It is a novel about colonialism in Serpell’s native country of Zambia, but addresses themes of oppression and victimization from a slant angle. It is a multigenerational saga, stretching from the late 19th century to the near future, but the family tree gets so knotted that it complicates matters of legacy and inheritance. It is a story particular to Zambia, but also fiercely concerned with how all our lives will be remade by technology, which Serpell suggests is just old colonialist wine in new bottles.”

End Notes

Rereading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive a week ago reminded me to look up some of the songs she mentions. One of them was by a Phoenix folk-punk outfit called the Andrew Jackson Jihad (now AJJ), which I’ve spent the past few days binging on. They sound the Mountain Goats/Propagandhi collaboration that would’ve set my heart aflame in my more hard-headed, chain-smoking days. Now I’m just comforted to know that the kids still struggle with the frustrations of consciousness.

Thanks for reading. Send your writing routines and other correspondence to I’m on Twitter. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #25

Reviews, money, ambiguity.

Front Matter

I try not to get cynical about discussions about the “future of the book review.” Yes, every few weeks bad news seems to arrive about a books editor at a metro daily losing their job, or a notable publication “retooling” coverage in some way that seems to better please Great God Google but not necessarily readers. Every few months brings another lengthy disquisition about what’s been lost, and how the book coverage that remains is too chirpy, listicle-driven, and whatnot. Reading these articles have been a regular part of my life since at least 2008, when becoming a blogger all but obligated me to process and talk about this.

I, too, feel like a polar bear adrift on a rapidly melting ice floe. But I’ve also felt like that since—-let’s see here—-at least 2008. And---again, I’m trying not to be cynical---if I’m still floating, I’d like to think that part of that is because people are still out there advocating for the value of the book review. So I’m also not as cranky as many seem to be about Christian Lorentzen’s “Like This or Die,” his Harper’s cover story despairing of reviewing’s slow slide into craven click-chasing. The proximate cause for the piece was Lorentzen losing his contract as book critic at New York magazine in favor of literary coverage that was more interview- and list-heavy. Reviews, he was told, have “little value.”

I’ve had a hard time with Lorentzen’s criticism, which is well-informed but acerbic in a way that seems to foreground his mastery of the work at hand in a way that verges on superiority to it; even when he enjoyed who he was writing about, I wound up being put off by the book at hand. So I don’t keep up with him the way I do other critics. Still, he was plainly in line with the open-minded but not-easily-impressed writers the New York book-critic gig historically cultivated: Walter Kirn, Daniel Mendelsohn, Sam Anderson, Kathryn Schulz. It’s a loss. But of what sort, in what throughline of what trend?

While I was in New York last week to help judge the National Book Critics Circle awards, I took in an NBCC panel that considered the question. The official title of the panel was “The Stephen King Solution,” referring to King’s strategy to stop a Maine newspaper from gutting its local book reviews by encouraging people to pony up for digital subscriptions. That’s not a solution in itself---there are only so many Stephen Kings, and only so many writers with King’s clout to advocate on behalf of reviews. (As I pointed out from the peanut gallery, I live in the same metro area as Stephenie Meyer, and I have to imagine she is completely unmotivated to do anything on behalf of mainstream book reviewers, local or otherwise.) But King’s action, the panel agreed, spoke to two larger themes---the virtue of readers speaking out in defense of reviews, and the need to concede that we’re in an era of nonprofit and individual philanthropy when it comes to supporting journalism, and books sections would do well to get on board.

That sort of largesse has happened before---it’s what saved Kirkus Reviews from certain death in 2010. Alas, billionaires don’t scale. That is, there are only so many billionaires whose philanthropic interests intersect with the idea of, say, underwriting a newspaper books section, the way environmental and healthcare organizations have done. My hail-mary pass from the NBCC audience was to suggest that book reviews only survive in publications if there’s a social norm that it is good and necessary to have them. War coverage and sports have a perceived value that goes beyond their actual revenue. (Have you seen who advertises in the sports section? Strip clubs, orthodontists and pickup-truck dealerships can’t be carrying the freight of traveling beat reporters for five professional sports teams.) Book reviews are a vanishingly small budget line, relatively speaking.

But a day after I said that, the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it was removing a dozen newsroom positions. So how that kind of persuasion happens in book reviews escapes me. But non-cynical me---I’m trying, I’m trying---would like to think that the interviews and podcasts and even the listicles can create an environment where readers outside the lit-section bubble can see the virtue of thoughtful review coverage. And the new world that provoked Lorentzen’s piece isn’t exclusively chirpy; I haven’t yet run out of material to include in the “what I’m reading” section, even outside of the legacy publications. The blog era of 10-15 years ago changed books coverage in one way; the post-Buzzfeed era is changing it in another.

The same people who rolled their eyes at Lorentzen’s piece at being a same-old-same-old complaint are likely the same people who’ll tell you we must persist in the face of today’s avalanche of sociopolitical offenses, because sometimes the choir needs preaching to as a way to buck up the collective spirit. Lorentzen is nobody’s idea of a cheerleader; he’d be grossly offended at being called one, I’m sure. But his advocacy for book reviews has value, as all such advocacy does. Will it bring back the book critic job at New York? Maybe not in the short term. But I’ve learned to take the long view.

What I’m Reading

Nathaniel Rich semisuccessfully attempts to rescue Saul Bellow from his foot-in-mouth, Tolstoy-of-the-Zulus late period. Laura Demanski spotlights a handful of lesser-known Chicago books, which leaves me curious about Robert Herrick’s 1926 novel, Chimes. Jesse Singal swims in the Gowanus of YA Twitter. Leo Robson looks at the life of Stoner novelist John Williams and imagines the starchier, less pomo postwar American canon that might have been. (Though, as somebody who’s currently reading a biography of Nelson Algren, it’s a little disingenuous to suggest that we had only Strict, Serious Realism and Freewheeling Experimentation to choose from.) Lucy Ives contemplates the end of the social novel. Caleb Crain imagines a few mission statements for authors, and what they might signify for a writer who can’t identify a good one for himself. Gary Wills gently suggests we not be so very impressed with Thomas Merton.

End Notes

We all make our peace with uncertainty and ambiguity in our own way. I like how Iris Dement does.

Thanks for reading. Send contact info for book-loving big-money donors and other correspondence to I’m on Twitter. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

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