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.

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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.

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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: mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #33

The critic critique.

If you review books---if you review anything, really---you tend to collect critiques of criticism. Sometimes the critique is fired straight at you: Sometime in the late 90s, an East Bay Express reader sent a piece of hate mail in response to my review of a Sheryl Crow concert in Berkeley. She had a lot of things to say to me, but the only line I remember was a three-word wholesale dismissal of criticism as an enterprise: "Get a job." 

That's a decent summary of what the typical criticism-critique wants to say: That criticism is dishonest work, that it's writing-adjacent work, that it's PR work in journalism drag, a sheep in wolf's clothing. The gold standard of this line of attack remains Elizabeth Hardwick's 1959 Harper's essay, "The Decline of Book Reviewing," which bemoaned the way that "sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns." Hardwick's essay played a role in the creation of the New York Review of Books, which has had its contentious moments. But the NYRB can also be reliably sweet and bland, especially when it comes to reviews of its own contributors. In that regard, it exemplifies what critic Garth Risk Hallberg called the NYRB's "unapologetic boringness, its privileged hostility to privilege." (Critics do like to eat their own, perhaps because it often feels like they're the only ones paying attention.)

My own introduction to the criticism-critique genre was a 2001 Walter Kirn essay, "Remember When Books Mattered?," in which he regretfully recounts his stint as New York's book critic. There are echoes of Hardwick in the piece: "The sound of much reviewing nowadays is the sound of one hand clapping---of literature gently patting its own back, sometimes in praise and sometimes in reproach, for fear of breaking something. It's hardly the sort of racket that draws crowds."

Hardwick and Kirn (and plenty of other critic-critique writers like them) frame the ideal book review as not just a judgment but a provocation. It's the only form of writing---besides, I suppose, the manifesto---that seems to be asked to do this. Novels and poems and essays can provoke, of course, but only the most cynical critic would demand they do only that, to say that a novel loses value if "all it does" is draw our attention to something we haven't previously considered, or explore a theme, or possess a surprising lyricism, or pose a question. Critics tend to detest activist novels; why such tubthumping for activist criticism?

I'm thinking about this because I only recently came across London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers' 1980 essay "The Language of Novel Reviewing," which appears in her new collection, Human Relations & Other Difficulties. It too belongs to the criticism-critique genre---the tone is one of mildly patronizing dismissal. But rather than calling for knife fights, she fairly points out that the problem with reviews are as often matters of vocabulary as judgment. Because all reviews "must all in some degree be re-creations" of the book proper but feel the downward pressure of word count, compromises abound---critics throw up their hands at a novel's subtleties, overstate their graces, overidentify with their characters, and lean on cliches that overstate enthusiasm. "Experiment, symbols, allegory: reviewers don’t often like them," she writes. 

It might be more correct to say that critics don't like to summarize them. It's no wonder critics push for longer word counts, or take to blogs or Twitter threads (or newsletters!) to discuss a book, for the same reason people say they don't like reading print book reviews. The genre has inherent constraints---tight word counts, the presumption that your readers know nothing about the author at hand, style guides that dampen more freeform writing. 

So the deck may be stacked against the critic, but Wilmers is her own kind of idealist; rather than call for critics to stoke fights, she asks that critics simply recognize themselves as writers. "What is wanted of a reviewer is much the same as what is wanted by the reviewer: a modest, unemphatic originality, a meticulously circumstantial account of the novel’s merits, and a plausible (or should I say truthful?) response to them." If there are forces at work against that originality---word counts, "buzz" to be responded to, etc.---well, every writer of every stripe faces them. It's a job, after all.

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Things I'm reading and writing: At USA Today, I reviewed Salman Rushdie's overladen picaresque, Quichotte. Tobi Haslett's takedown of Thomas Chatterton Williams's memoir is harsh but, to the points above, a fine piece of writing in itself. Dan Piepenbring remembers his experience auditioning for the role as Prince's coauthor, which captures the star's bubble while subtly suggesting that working with him on a book would literally be too chaotic for words. Sandra Newman explores why Toni Morrison got reduced to a bunch of self-help platitudes after her death.

Thanks for reading. Stay in touch: I'm on Twitter at @mathitak and on email at mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #32

Reading: We're doing it wrong.

When I was in high school, a girl I was friends with suggested we go to a park where I could read poetry to her. It was a sweet idea, though we had different ideas about what this suggestion meant---she was a senior heading to college, and wanted a nice moment of closure with another bookish pal. I was a junior, and wanted [insert riot of hormones here]. But even though this wasn't a romantic meeting as such, it was built on romantic notions of what reading is supposed to be like. Shade trees, warm sun, open air, fine literature. Plus a couple of angsty, overthinking high-schoolers---My So-Called Life by way of the Levenger Catalog.

This orderly plan went south quickly. The first complication was my choice in reading material. Rather than something swoony from Shakespeare or darkly romantic from Dickinson, I'd opted for e.e. cummings; inexplicably, my go-to choice was "anyone lived in a pretty how town"---a lovely poem in its way, but not a particularly romantic or gentle one. Its cadence is redolent of a hoedown. 

The locale we opted for was a small park in downtown Riverside, Illinois, a leafy and tony burg whose sinuous, curving streets were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It exists in marked contrast to the scruffier neighboring towns we hailed from, which mainly looked like they were designed by a guy named Biff. Alas, this was the year of a 17-year cicada brood, so pockets of the suburbs were all but coated in cicada shells; our sylvan retreat now looked like it'd been landscaped by H.R. Giger. So much for that. We retreated to the nearby public library, a handsome gray neo-Gothic pile, but I have a deep voice, and cummings' loping rhythms got me shushed quick. I tried reading more quietly. I got shushed again.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that I've been reading at the mall a lot lately.

We get sold on ideal ways to read---a quiet house or back porch, a comfy couch, a reading desk. But those options have been failing me of late---the house is either too quiet or reminds me of various honey-do projects to be accomplished. The laptop is too close at hand, twitchy to distract. Sitting on the back porch in August in Phoenix is equivalent to reading in a rotisserie oven. That rules out reading in parks here, too, though I'm inclined to think that people who say they love reading in parks are lying to themselves. Even if I could have swept that Riverside park clean of cicada shells that afternoon, there's still mud and bugs to deal with. And reading in parks is an avocation built for people with stronger backs than mine.

Similarly, the non-home places where we usually get told to do our reading are uniformly overrated. Commuter trains? I find it hard to focus during train delays, something the Washington, DC, Metro had copious supplies of when I lived there. Public libraries? They always falling short of the monastic silence you imagine is there, because for very good reasons libraries are now community and coworking spaces. Coffee shops and bars? You shouldn't have to pay a fee to have a place to read a book. 

So, that's left me with the mall, where I've found something like the platonic ideal for a reading environment: plenty of light, comfortable seating, the assurance that you won't be bothered by either pressing home needs or people interrupting you. (Trust me, nobody will strike up a conversation with you about books at the mall. Even if you sit near the Barnes & Noble.) And yet, there's a steady hum of humanity there that feels like clapping on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Anodyne adult-contemporary pop wafts somewhere in the distance (Adele, 70s Hall and Oates, like that); families stop at a neighboring couch to gather themselves and consume pretzel-based snacks, then move on.

I've never concentrated better, though I recognize this makes me seem a bit ridiculous; confessing this feels dangerously close to being the first step in becoming an Arizona stereotype who wants his AARP card a few years early, ready to power-walk past the Nordstrom and Macy's at a temple of late capitalism before dumping myself at the Sbarro, gorging myself through a hellscape with a soft-rock soundtrack and calling it healthy living. But being in the midst of all that at once allows me to recognize it as much as tune it out. Books are about people; reading while you're around them is useful reminder of that.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this. Some malls are noisier than others, and these days many are so financially unstable that sitting in a failing one would strike the wrong mood. The one I go to is hanging on, but it hasn't found a replacement for the Sears that shuttered last year. Half the food-court stalls are vacant; boutiques swap in and out as if the mall were a lab testing whether one place can sustain a dozen athleisure outlets. Probably not; in time the mall will likely be yet another imperfect reading environment, like all the others. But if the shopping-mall model collapses entirely, maybe we can move the libraries there. Open air, sunlight, plenty of books, and people nearby---but not too close. Finally, we'd all be reading properly.

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Things I enjoyed reading this week: Ian Frazier on the white-supremacist rhetoric of a century past; Ilana Masad on The World According to Garp and its pioneering "blurring of the lines between sexes and genders"; Art Spiegelman on the origin story of the superhero comic; Soraya Roberts on writing about black culture as a white (or nonblack) critic. As for me, at USA Today I reviewed Nell Zink's Doxology, an irreverent gen-X novel; I'd have needed triple the word count to explore its peculiar and funny fetishization of Ian MacKaye.

Thanks for reading. Email me: mathitak@gmail.com.

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #31

Pleasure. Ugh.

Someone on Twitter asked last week: "If you write about books/otherwise work in publishing, what percentage of your reading is for pleasure?"

I didn't respond, because the question made me upset when I first saw it. "It's all pleasure, dammit!" I said, flinging down a galley of another mediocre-to-OK forthcoming novel. OK, I…didn’t do that. (Just like I've actually never done that thing where you throw a book against a wall when you don't like it. Not my temperament. Also, I worry about ricochets, don’t you? Hitting the dog, busting a lamp...) Maybe I was upset because the question unearths some of these issues that I just tend to power through without contemplating too much---that maybe reading outright stops being fun if you make it into work, that if you're not reading for “pleasure,” maybe you're reading the wrong way.

But—-and I recognize that asking the question makes you look pedantic—-what do we mean by “pleasure,” anyhow? I've been writing about books---and feeding 80-90 percent of my book reading into writing about books---for so long I only vaguely recall what doing it any other way might be like. Sometime in the late 90s, I made an explicit decision that I wasn't going to treat classics as something I might catch up with during my retirement; I was going to start reading them now. Was this a commitment to pleasure, or to edification? The line was always pretty fuzzy to me; still is.

In any event, my reading immediately after that decision was almost comically determined and programmatic. I read the Bible cover to cover. I read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2. I read a lot of Czelaw Milosz; I read a lot of Philip Roth. I don't tell you about this ambitious reading with great pride. I read too quickly back then, too poorly---I approached books in the same collector-geek spirit that moved me to get completist about, say, Clash albums. And while there was a lot of pleasure in that reading---I discovered Portnoy's Complaint and My Antonia and Native Realm---the experience seemed to hone a certain kind of ruthlessness in my reading habits. It's an attitude that equipped me pretty well for reviewing work, where the pleasure of reading is always competing with the notion that you'll also be writing about that pleasure (if there is pleasure there). You're always reading as a kind of rehearsal for talking about reading.

James Wood said in an interview once that that's what a critic does---read in two ways, experiencing what a book is doing and how it's creating that effect. It's immersion, but not so deep that you lose yourself. I think what the Twitter poll was trying to speak to is whether people in the “biz” have the capacity to lose themselves. Don't you ever just want to read on one level? If you're in publishing, you may tire of looking at every manuscript as a potential commercial good; if you're a critic, you might tire of reading through the filter of interpretation, or trying to sell readers on a book, or put them off it, or just talk about what make it interesting.

But we people who "write about books/otherwise work in publishing" aren't the only people who behave this way, who read on two levels. Book club readers, people who write thoughtful Amazon and Goodreads reviews for no compensation beyond likes and follow-up comments, people who chat up the clerk at the bookstore counter about books, are also doing that work, no? For any serious reader, professional or no, the act of reading is about both the book itself and the meaning that we make of it. 

So maybe what bothered me about the question, beyond how it prompted me to think about what “pleasure” is, is that there's a bit of a humblebrag embedded in it---that we people who do things with books for a living are encumbered by all the thinking we’re doing, while people who don't read books for their job...aren't. But we all make decisions about what a book is going to mean for us. And critics and “regular” readers alike are both chasing that moment when a book forces the matter, demands to be heard and thought about. Fun.

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A few good things I read recently: Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wesley Morris' essays for the New York Times 1619 Project; Emma Baccellieri's profile of the keeper of the super-secret mud that is applied to every major-league baseball; Leslie Jamison's layover tales; Daniel Mendelsohn's interview with Poets & Writers as part of its ongoing Q&As with critics. Hanging on to this bit: "I can’t imagine any serious writers really think about pleasing their readers: You write to please yourself, to scratch an itch, to answer a question that burns for you." Also, I wrote about Caleb Crain’s second novel, Overthrow, a sensitive tale about love and the surveillance state, for the Washington Post.

Thanks for reading. Write me: mathitak@gmail.com

Mark Athitakis Newsletter #30

So I took a vacation. A vacation from the newsletter, you may have noticed. My hiatus was partly a function of an uptick in work, and partly a function of my ongoing thinking about how healthy it is or isn't to write for free. I guess I've decided it's healthy enough, for now, to write this. 

But I went on a vacation-vacation too: Last month, my wife, 8-year-son, and I spent a week driving through California, starting in Gold Country (memorable for a chilly but revivifying dip in in the Yuba River), then down to Sacramento, then San Francisco (where I was the subject of an interview that may or may not wind up in a documentary; more anon, maybe), then down to Monterey and Salinas. Steinbeck country.

The stop in Salinas was something of a last-minute decision---the only destination of interest there for me is the National Steinbeck Center, a smallish museum near the smallish downtown drag, and I'm not much of a Steinbeck fan. I dutifully read Of Mice and Men in high school, and I've read The Grapes of Wrath twice---the first time not very seriously after college, feeling a bit superior to its straightforward plotting. My second pass came about ten years ago, after I spent some time working on a project about Richard Price's novel Clockers. David Simon---ex-Baltimore Sun journalist, creator of The Wire and Treme, man with seemingly bottomless reservoirs of time with which to tussle with far-right dipshits on Twitter---has said that Clockers is “to the cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath is to the Dust Bowl.” My second read after that didn't make me love Steinbeck more, exactly, but it bolstered by feeling that the social novel---the simply written social novel---has its uses, much as Woody Guthrie's songs about the Okie migration have their uses.

Still, I arrived at the museum mostly thinking of Steinbeck as an artifact, a remnant of the time when a novel had more power to bring the news than it has in generations since. (FDR explicitly pointed Americans to it, saying, "I have read a book recently. It is called The Grapes of Wrath. There are 500,000 Americans that live in the covers of that book"; even Reader-in-Chief Barack Obama didn't work so hard to draw a line between fiction and policy in his much-parsed summer reading lists.) The museum doesn't do much to alter that impression. After watching a brief video about Steinbeck's life, visitors are sent across a courtyard to the museum proper, which mostly presents Steinbeck's life and works as if trapped in amber. There are historical artifacts about Steinbeck and the migrants and cannery workers he wrote about, some bemusing---he carved a box out of mahogany to contain the manuscript of East of Eden he delivered to his agent. There are some videos of film versions of his work, with compare-and-contrast displays about the distinctions between the book and movie. There's some information about the controversy Wrath stoked, and a cubby that included a typewriter, which took some explaining to my son.

If you're a fan of Steinbeck, or just a fan of novels, it's worth a peek if you’re in the neighborhood. But it was peculiar to feel such a strong disconnect between a writer's work and his meaning---an almost effortful evasion of the question of why Steinbeck might matter today. Because he can. Driving from Monterey to Salinas, you'll pass a lot of farmland, and on our drive we passed a few groups of workers hustling double-time to gather up crops. Migrants, likely; underpaid, undoubtedly. Relevant to the messages that Steinbeck wanted to send about society and labor, assuredly. But the museum doesn't speak to that beyond pointing to his roots in the region.

Indeed, it avoids making much of an argument for reading Steinbeck, excepting his famous-writer bona fides. (Nobel Prize! Film adaptations!) It wouldn't be so hard, I thought, to replace some of those videos of movie and theater performances with present-day writers who might make the case. Simon, perhaps; wouldn't Bruce Springsteen spare a few minutes? I think of the working novelists who've made migrants and/or California part of their work---Valeria Luiselli, Elaine Castillo---and think clearing space migrant stories now would make the museum more meaningful and less of a museum.

Of course, I have no expertise in running a museum, and don't know what it takes to get people through the doors. (And to be fair, the Center hosts an annual festival with more forward-thinking programming.) But it seems that Steinbeck, perhaps more than any of America's famous mid-century novelists, deserves the kind of attention a living writer receives, the writer whose ideas remain in play today.

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Like I said, I’ve been busy. Mostly with writing. Among the pieces I'm proudest of lately: A feature for Humanities on Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, with an emphasis on the peculiar cultural life Wright cultivated in the Arizona desert. An essay on the works of Howard Norman, read through the filter of his peculiar interest in the ghost story. Reviews of Jess Row's White Flights, an excellent set of essays on race and American fiction, Karl Marlantes's Deep Rivera hefty social novel about unionizing loggers, Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, a slim social novel that's one of my favorites of the year. I've also been doing some teaching.
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Among the better essays I've read since I've been away: Chavisa Woods' essay on how we've gotten Valerie Solanas wrong; Lili Anolik's oral history of the literary culture of Bennington College in the 80s; Emma Hunsinger's exquisite coming-out memoir, "How to Draw a Horse"; Jody Rosen's deep-dive into the Universal Studios fire; William Langiewiesche's stemwinder on Malaysia Airlines flight 370; Rachel Cusk's essay on Yiyun Li's devastating storytelling; Claire Lowdon's defense of John Updike; Chris Dennis' up-from-addiction essay, "Eldorado, Illinois"; and Namwali Serpell on Toni Morrison, written months before her death but capturing the virtues and power of her innovations more strongly than any of the encomiums that I've read in the past week or so.

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Will I be back to a weekly routine on this newsletter? Find out next week! I'd like to, but we'll see. In the meantime, I’ve missed hearing from you; one benefit of writing for free, at least, is that you get more interesting email; drop me a line at mathitak@gmail.com.

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