Mark Athitakis Newsletter #13

Lists, lists, lists.

Front Matter

Making lists, like all creative acts, is a kind of hell. Cartoonist Chris Ware, a consummate creative neurotic, once wrote at length about the stress of drawing even a single panel featuring a character. “How old is he? What color is his hair? (What does hair color mean, anyway?) Also, should you show all of him sitting at that table, or should you just show his face? From the front, or side? If he’s tired, is he resting his head on his hand, or should he be yawning?” And he’s just getting warmed up.

Best-of lists can cause the same kind of anxiety for critics partly because, if you let it, the process can tie you up in knots over what kind of Statement you may be seen as trying to make. Inevitably, you’re making one. Many readers now habitually scan year-end lists with a representation checklist in mind, be it in terms of identity (how many women writers? writers of color? LGBTQ writers?) or provenance (how many small-press titles? how many works in translation?). Do a little bit to satisfy such scanners and you stand accused of tokenism; do a lot and you are (especially if you are, say, a middle-aged white guy) trying too hard. Don’t do it at all and you are a tool of the patriarchy, or postcapitalism, or both, probably.

And then there is matter of the familiarity of the books themselves. At year-end-list time we discover that there are books out there that are “safe”---usually a code word for somebody saying they’ve already seen Shtyengart on 15 other lists and are starting to believe that some kind of literary fix is in. “Safe” books have transitive properties: They produce “safe” critics. Buzz books, consensus books, “timely” books---all are proof that you are concerned with the momentary health of the publishing industry and not the enduring stability of the republic of letters.

And all this list-making anxiety may just be a way to forestall a deeper anxiety---that at the end of the day the great majority of that minority called the American reader doesn’t really give a damn and just wants to read Jojo Moyes, OK?

So, what book goes first? Tenth? Eleventh? Might a title enjoy a little grade inflation in the name of addressing those representation/provenance/familiarity issues? I’m an old hand at these lists now, old enough that keeping up appearances means less and less to me. But---if this doesn’t sound too pandering---I always tried to read broadly anyway. My reading life is blessed and also...er...often circumscribed?... by the choices of assigning editors, and I’ve been pegged as a generalist. I’ve cut and diced lists in various ways in the past, separating fiction and nonfiction, listing in alphabetical order, etc. This time around I decided to work by feel, more loosely than I have in the past, going through my reading log and slotting titles above or below each other just because it seemed right, letting fiction and nonfiction play together. (A lot of my nonfiction reading is about fiction, so it all kind of congeals anyhow.) I could have tried to be particular about where to put each of the Knausgaard and Berlin titles I like, but life is too damn short for that sort of thing.

Even so, I wound up with 40 titles that I think fondly enough of to recommend to a stranger who might like that kind of book. (It may go up to 41, if Richard Powers’ The Overstory fulfills the promise of its first third.) That’s a lot of books by some reckonings---perhaps this means that I am too soft or accommodating. But I wouldn’t have gotten into the racket of writing about books if I didn’t like them. Also, according to my pretty-fastidiously-kept reading log, I read 108 titles that were published or republished in 2018. That means that this year---as with most years---nearly two-thirds of the new books I read left me somewhere between indifferent and angry. Again: You don’t get into this racket unless you like books.

So, my favorite books of 2018:

Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

Lydia Millet, Fight No More

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

William Frederik Hermans, An Untouched House

Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke

Alberto Luis Urrea, The House of Broken Angels

Karin Tidbeck, Jagganath

Rebekah Frumkin, The Comedown

Domenico Starnone, Trick

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Winter; Spring; Summer; My Struggle VI

Joshua Wheeler, Acid West

Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)

Brian Dillon, Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction

David Sedaris, Calypso

Christopher Bonanos, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

Lucia Berlin, Welcome Home: A Memoir With Selected Photographs and Letters; Evening in Paradise

Jonathan Miles, Anatomy of a Miracle

Chibundu Onuzo, Welcome to Lagos

Anna Burns, Milkman

Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man

Julian Barnes, The Only Story

Madeleine Miller, Circe

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers

Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater

Katie Williams, Tell the Machine Goodnight

Thomas McGuane, Cloudbursts

Michael Ondaatje, Warlight

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Dwight Garner shares some highlights from his commonplace book. Erika Dreifus writes poignantly on being a Jewish writer in our current moment. Walton Muyumba considers the legacy of the Last Poets. Andrea Long Chu demolishes Jill Soloway’s memoir. I’m a dilettante with poetry and would happily read a contrarian essay about William Logan’s blind spots as a critic, but I still enjoy reading his hard-nosed, hard-to-please roundups in the New Criterion, both for who he celebrates (Ada Limon) and can’t abide (Ursula K. Le Guin: “There’s a breathless bit of Zen, a dash of lardish sentiment, and a lot of pure idiocy on every page.”). Books verticals are expanding, for now.

What I’m Writing

I reviewed Anna Burns’ Booker-winning novel, Milkman, for USA Today, and found the recursiveness that’s irritated many readers to a purpose. “Burns focuses on the psychological impact of the second-guessing, where even taking somebody to the hospital becomes fraught with political calculus. That can make ‘Milkman’ a relatively difficult novel to find a foothold in: The narrator can be both digressive and repetitive. But once Burns’ purpose becomes clear, her style powerfully evokes the narrator’s sense of emotional entrapment.”

End Notes

My Christmas-music counterprogramming lately, especially now that my son has become adept at playing “Jingle Bells,” is John Fahey, and though his Christmas album itself is lovely, his riffs on Christmas music as well are worth exploring.

Thanks for reading. Send your own lists and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.