Volume IV, Issue 4 -- November, 2003
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III. Under-reported Story of the Year
Robert: I still think the virtual American blackout on Susan Sontag's German Peace Prize Award runs second to the fact of the award itself. That is the story wasn't told, and then the story about why the story wasn't told, wasn't told. Really, isn't Sontag an important public intellectual? And doesn't the recognition of a major American public intellectual by a once and future ally, a significant European industrialized power warrant some attention?
I am currently working up a piece of ethnic paranoia which holds that there is something about intellectual Jewish women (Sontag, Hannah Arendt and to some degree Cynthia Ozick) that invites overheated, inordinate and vicious attacks. But I digress . . .
Alex: Clearly the media powers-that-be felt Ms. Sontag was out of line. It is impressive how completely that story was killed.
I'm disappointed there wasn't more attention paid to the work being done by the Dalkey Archive. Is it because they aren't a commercial press? Because they don't deal with celebrity authors getting huge advances? For some reason they just aren't considered a media story. And yet when you look over their catalogue and see all the titles they are keeping in print it's just amazing. They provide a genuine alternative to a lot of what's wrong with the publishing scene today, but I guess that makes them too "subversive" to bother talking about. They should be getting a lot more ink.
Michael: I'd actually expand on that: the Center for Book Culture (Dalkey Archive Press, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Context) isn't the only worthy organization getting too little attention. New York Review Books (and their NY Review Classics list) has expanded impressively over the past few years and should surely be getting more attention - as should a couple of other publishers whose work has impressed me greatly over the past year: Green Integer, Hesperus, and Pushkin Press, as well as serious pamphleteers Prickly Paradigm Press.
As far as my under-reported choice: I could always complain about the many, many overlooked and ignored books and authors, but I'm afraid the situation in this regard is much the same as usual (i.e. neither appreciably better nor worse than in most years). So I offer instead:
- the $100,000,000 gift to Poetry. From the curious gift giving (by someone deemed not capable of handling her own affairs) to the lawsuit against the bank taking care of the money and investments to the re-formation of the non-profit institution into the Poetry Foundation, but without (as far as I can tell) much change in who sits on the board (despite the fact that the job has changed entirely - from a board whose main job was to raise funds to one that pretty much only has to spend them) there's a lot of playing with a whole lot of money going on - and there's been relatively outside scrutiny. I thought there would have been several major-magazine exposés already; instead, one barely heard about this. Several stories appeared marking the one year anniversary of the Poetry-bequest, including one in the Wall Street Journal; nevertheless, I still don't think this story has gotten near the attention it deserves
- Amazon.com's used book selling. They've been doing it for a while, but I haven't heard much about the consequences of the marketplace part of the business. With second-hand copies of many brand-new books available, I'm very curious to know whether this has had an appreciable effect on the first-hand market. From Amazon.com sales through links at the Complete Review I can see an incredible shift to marketplace purchases - total unit sales in November were up 50% over last year at the CR, but our earnings are down 20% (because so many of the sales earn the much lower marketplace commissions). I have no idea whether the increased sales are due to the availability of cheaper products, but I imagine that this is cutting into sales of new copies at least to some extent - and I haven't read much about this.
- The burnt books in Iraq. Yes, some of the lost museum treasures stories were apparently overblown - but the burnt libraries (not only in Baghdad) apparently were as catastrophic as first reported. And there's been little mention of how much and what was lost.
Maud: I wouldn't have thought of mentioning the Dalkey Archive Press, but Alex is right to applaud its noble efforts and to call for more attention to be devoted to it. In keeping with Michael's observation that other organizations are republishing important works of world literature and that the phenomenon should receive more press generally, I should mention that a friend recently alerted me to the outstanding New York Review of Books classics series and pointed me to Raymond Queneau's Witch Grass. I can't recommend the Queneau or the other NYRB classics I've sampled since highly enough.
I also agree with Robert that the U.S. press should have done a better job of covering the Sontag speech.
Perhaps this is my legal background talking, but the first underreported story that springs to my mind is the potential chilling effect of the USA Patriot Act on literature and journalism. I'll refrain from launching into a political diatribe here, except to say that I don't think comparisons to the Red Scare and the McCarthy Era are unwarranted.
Another semi-lawyerly concern of mine is the ever-increasing term of copyrights. Lawrence Lessig has done an excellent job of arguing that works should be allowed to enter the public domain in due course, but the Supreme Court has said, essentially, that only Congress can stop the copyright-extension madness. I think the press should be doing more to make writers and readers aware of the corporate machinery behind the extensions, and of the traditional view that the public discourse and arts benefit when there is free access to public domain works and "products of
inventive and artistic genius."
Michael: I'm in (sad) full agreement with the concerns about the Patriot Act and it's possible consequences, and don't believe there's been nearly enough discussion about it.
Alex: I really should have mentioned the New York Review of Books series. Who let Joyce Cary's first trilogy, or A High Wind in Jamaica go out of print? Thanks to the NYRB for bringing them back.
And I couldn't agree with Maud more on the importance of copyright extension and the impact of the Patriot Act. Even the name should scare people. Since I'm the only non-American here I guess I can't say that much, but I think LeCarré got it right with his column earlier this year on how the United States has "gone insane."
I hope you people can work this out. I think most of the rest of the world is just looking on in horror.
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IV. The Apocalypse is Upon Us
Michael: No, I don't think so. Not yet. Instead, it's the usual slow decline into mediocrity. But I don't think it's been a worse year than most and with signs of success from small presses (which dominated the Booker shortlist, among other impressive feats) and a definite slowing of the trend of shrinking of book review sections some of the most depressing signs of decline in the book world in recent years seem to have, at least briefly, come close to being stemmed.
Even the more disturbing things - great success for terrible books (The Devil Wears Prada), cutbacks and limited profitability at houses with some of the most "successful" books of the year (such as Harry Potter publisher Scholastic, and Hillary Clinton publisher Simon and Schuster) - don't seem worse than usual.
So my disappointments are smaller but (to me) still signs of decay and decline - perhaps influenced by my being an NYC resident:
- Janet Maslin becomes a regular reviewer at The New York Times. Not so much because of the quality of her reviews, but because of the books she reviews, as she appears to be the designated popular culture reviewer at the Times. 1 December: it's yet another James Patterson novel (The Big Bad Wolf); she acknowledges it's trash - but why is the Times wasting precious review space on trash ? (The occasional review of a trashy book I understand, but now it's pretty much guaranteed that there will be one a week). Given the good, important titles not getting coverage, the fact that one-fifth of the daily coverage of The New York Times is now given over to pretty bad books is troubling.
- The Village Voice's shrinking book reviews and coverage. Perhaps they were just late in hopping on the shrinking book review section trend, but their Voice Literary Supplement used to be a stand-alone section, in some years with ten issues; now it appears quarterly, at best, and isn't separate from the rest of the Voice (and there are fewer reviews). As bad: the weekly reviews in the Voice seem to have become compacted - mini-reviews.
Alex: I'd have to give the prize to poet laureate Andrew Motion's rap poem on Prince William's 21st birthday ("Better stand back/ Here's an age attack,/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine").
I used to think the position of poet laureate was worth keeping. But this sure isn't helping the cause.
Jessa: Can we just nominate everything that Andrew Motion did this year? The football chant ("but no swearing!"), the "rap," etc. I'm sure even some of his breakfast choices were embarrassing. Every time he shows up in the news, it's like watching my grandfather breakdance in public.
Robert: Happily, Jews (did you all know I was Jewish?) don't subscribe to visions of Hell and as far as I know, except for some medieval deviationists, don't include Apocalypse myths. My sense of the big A has always been of a New Yorker cartoon with a shaggy sign-bearing person proclaiming the end is near. Also, Signs of Declining Civilization was an undergraduate sport that went on far too long (in my life).
If I were of that mind set, though, I would agree about the crappy books, and the shrinking book pages and Andrew Motion and Steve King's pronouncements on literature as signals of the Ultimate End. I was expecting to get cranky as I, uh, matured but strangely (to me) I have not. And now that I think of it, regularly looking into the eyes of my six year old son Cuba, has a lot to do with saving me from an end game of embitterment and cynicism. And flashes of paranoia.
And that is the key (for me), really. History marches forward and its various culture/sub-cultures gallop, limp, mambo, crab walk along with it. Now maybe my son will not be an agent of cultural memory (though if my own childhood is a measure, he will be) but there will be others who are. And that has something to do with The Literary Culture not shrinking and not disappearing. I have this feeling that its size (however we quantify it) is relatively constant. It's only that pop/mainstream culture is so noisy and intrusive such a juggernaut that one might be righteously fearful of literature's extinction.
On the other hand, Patriot Acts, celebrity war criminals prancing around with impunity and a triumphalist clique in power seem to conjure up the nightmare landscape of jack boots, brown shirts and Kristallnacht, book burning and concentration camps (what is Guantanamo)?
So, no "It can't happen here" daydreams, friends. And if it all falls apart and the big A happens I'll be reading a (good) book. Poteet, poteet.
Maud: I think I'm going to have to be terribly one-note, here, and invoke again the anti-terrorism and USA Patriot Act legislation I mentioned in response to the "underreported story" question. Robert's mention of dancing celebrity war criminals is going to send me off in search of a nice bottle of Jameson's.
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V. Books of the Year
Michael: The toughest question of them all. I've read too little (though I'd probably say that even if I had read a thousand books over the past year . . . ) - and much of what I did read isn't particularly new. Limiting myself to books first published in the US in 2003 (more or less) I find that not a single one stands out as superlative, and so I offer a (preliminary?) list of the books that most impressed and/or were important, with brief explanations.
To this I also add a list of honorable mentions:
- A Whistling Woman, A.S. Byatt - the final volume in her quartet, a major piece of contemporary British fiction, certainly among the best novels I read in 2003
- The Man of Feeling, Javier Marías - an impressive small fiction, showing what one can still do with fiction
- Siegfried, Harry Mulisch - impressive display, again showing what one can do with fiction
- Radio Dialogs II, Arno Schmidt - fascinating literary appreciations, smartly done
- Living to tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez - fascinating life, neatly recounted
And a final honorable mention to Imre Kertész: I've read four of his works now (none yet available in English) and I've been very impressed - he was certainly the author-discovery of the year for me.
- Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi - because it made such an impression and did get people talking, and even if it isn't all that it could have been it's a worthwhile book
- Geist and Zeitgeist, Hermann Broch and Style and Faith, Geoffrey Hill - the first English translation of most of Broch's essays, and Hill's serious literary pieces: important stuff and it's nice to see that a commercial publisher (Counterpoint) is still willing to publish such books
- 9/12, Eliot Weinberger - fine and important little pieces in and of themselves, but also nice to see a small press (Prickly Paradigm) putting out such works (the same goes for Schmidt-publisher Green Integer, or UK publisher short books, all of whom seem to be carving out nice niches for themselves)
- A Dictionary of Maqiao, Han Shaogong - difficult work (especially in translation), but quite remarkable
Robert: Funny thing is a I have list just as long of new books that I wanted to
read and haven't gotten around to which in another important way makes this list
- Shipwreck- Louis Begley
- How to Breathe Underwater - Julie Orringer
- The Rabbit Factory - Larry Brown
- The 6th Lamentation - William Broderick
- Erasure - Percival Everret
- Saul and Patsy - Charles Baxter
- Train - Pete Dexter
- Reunion - Alan Lightman
- What I Loved - Siri Hustved
- Fabulous Small Jews - Joseph Epstein
- The Clearing - Tim Gautreaux
- Hell at the Breach - Tom Franklin
- On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction - Karl Iagnemma
- Bay of Souls - Robert Stone
- I Should Be Pleased to Be in Your Company - Brian Hall
- Dancer - Colum McCann
- A Memory of War - Fredrick Busch
- What We Lost - Dale Peck
- Harvard and the Unabomber - Alton Chase
- Genuinely Authentic - Michael Gross
- The Devil and the White City- Erik Larsen
- Moneyball - Michael Lewis
- Bugaloo - Arthur Kempton
- Death by Hollywood - Steve Bochco
- Under the Skin - James Carlos Bake
- Man Eater – Ray Shannon
- Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane
- Smalltown - Lawrence Block
Putting together this list made me very conscious of the books that are staring at me from my bookshelf and night table that I haven't yet read. A gut feeling says there are some winners there. That alone makes me feel like my list is incomplete or lacking. Anyway, my list is pretty much one of books that I would unqualifiedly recommend to anyone who was looking for something to read. There are no other claims, prescriptions or warranties tied to my suggestions. Okay?
Also, my comrades in tomes have very much influenced me to think about making some countervailing effort to balance my steady diet of contemporary fiction with not so contemporary writing. Thanks for that, folks.
Alex: I guess I only (only! only in this crowd!) read around 50-60 new books a year for review (I split my reading pretty evenly between new publications and older books). I couldn't possibly manage any more. It's part of what makes me wonder about these literary prize juries where they have to read 100 to 400 titles on a longlist. Whatever else you want to say about Kinsey's admission last year that he only glanced at a fraction of the books he was supposed to be considering for the National Book Award, at least he was being honest. It's one of the reasons why the whole idea of jury awards should be reconsidered.
Nothing knocked me out cold in 2003, but I did enjoy a few non-fiction titles quite a bit. Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919 impressed me the most. Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages was an interesting book on an important subject. Mike Jay went into Simon Winchester territory and outdid either of Winchester's books this year with a wonderful little historical sketch that didn't seem to get a lot of attention: The Air Loom Gang. I also enjoyed Marquez's autobiography.
I didn't read a whole lot of new fiction this year. Carey's My Life As a Fake and Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were probably the best. But I obviously only scratched the surface of what was out there.
Maud: I'm too changeable to enjoy composing lists like this, but these are my top ten at the moment. Tomorrow they might be different:
- Dan Rhodes - Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey
- JM Coetzee - Elizabeth Costello
- ZZ Packer - Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
- Alain Robbe-Grillet - Repetition
- Amanda Davis - Wonder When You'll Miss Me
- Tim Gautreaux - The Clearing
- Zoe Heller - Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking?
- Alasdair Gray - The Ends of Our Tethers
- Siri Hustvedt - What I Loved
- Jim Crace - Six
Jessa: I'm only going to write about the best reprints of the year, mainly because that's what I read the most of. I read a lot of 2003 fiction, but not very much of it made me really excited. What I found most satisfying was the following:
- 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray
- Hell by Kathryn Davis
- The Far Cry by Emma Smith
- Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
- Konfidenz by Ariel Dorfman
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Maud: I'd like to think we'll see more literary novels relevant to the current social and political situation. I'm not calling for didacticism, mind you. I'm just saying: Where's the contemporary answer to Camus' The Plague, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Heller's Catch-22?
I'm also hoping there will be increased awareness and recognition of online literary publications, particularly those dedicated to shorter, Internet-friendly works. I don't hold out much hope for e-books at present, though. The very thought of reading an entire novel online makes my eyes hurt.
Alex: Oh, I am definitely with you on more literary novels (or any novels) relevant to the current social and political situation. So much of the literary scene now revolves around historical novels, "magic realism", or cartoonish satires.
I still don't see e-books taking off. Nothing beats the technology of a book. Moving off topic (a bit) it's interesting to note how the experience of watching movies has started to imitate the reading experience. Like most people over 30 I wouldn't dream of going to see a movie in a theatre. So I've really enjoyed the whole DVD revolution (at least so far). DVDs make movies into books: you often watch them alone, they are divided up into chapters so you can stop them anytime and come back to them later, and many include a whole range of critical extras, including essays and introductions and editorial commentaries. A big improvement over VHS.
Anyway, my prediction has to do with retail. Amazon is apparently making money now. I really see online bookselling as having a bright future, especially if they keep up this free shipping. I live in the country and it's a real convenience for me. What does this mean? I think the monster book barn superstores are going to be in for a rough ride. These guys are going to have to scale back. I won't be too disappointed to see them go. Something about walking through their acres of books (and the long aisles of remainder bins) was starting to depress me.
I do think the small bookstores will be able to survive. In fact they might do better once the big box stores start closing. I still like the small bookstore atmosphere. Perhaps a renaissance of cafe culture is just around the corner!
Michael: My biggest fear: no end to the seemingly inexorable trend of print media online no longer being readily and freely accessible, making even less literary coverage widely available. Even sites that continue to be freely accessible have tinkered with registration- and pay-per-view requirements over the past year (The Spectator, The Independent, Evening Standard) - if they too go over to the dark side then that leaves only the last bastions of The Guardian/The Observer and the San Francisco Chronicle among the major sites with exceptional literary coverage open to all. I think we are already seeing the effects to some extent: The Guardian/The Observerseems the main point of reference in a great deal of online (weblog, etc.) literary coverage (and while they're great, I think that's also terribly limiting).
The only positive that may come out of this - and what I'm hoping for (and, I suppose, predicting) - : a greater shift to an online-focus in the literary debates, as sites and weblogs rely on and refer to one another more. The surge in literary weblogging over the past few months seems like a great step in that direction - but it's unclear at this point whether it will be sustainable (or - even better - snowball!).
As far as the literary scene in the US in 2004 goes, I'm afraid that it being an election year, and with the ongoing foreign military escapades the reigning president has involved the country in, focus will be on the non-fiction area, especially on topical books (i.e., the sort that are only of interest for a season or two). Fiction - i.e., worthwhile stuff - probably won't get the proper attention in 2004. I'd like to see (as Maud says) "literary novels relevant to the current social and political situation", but I'm not sure that's likely yet.
Robert:I have never in my life predicted anything except, occasionally, at a ball game, I have had a feeling that the batter currently in the box will hit a home run. Beyond that, I think prognostication is for real estate and financial speculators and farmers.
Having said that, well, what the hell!
- Amazon will open its first super store in Salt Lake City.
- Chris Hitchens and Henry Kissinger will meet face to face. Since I can't predict the time of day, I can only suggest their ensuing tête-à-tête will be, uh, newsworthy.
- The Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox will meet in the World Series. Cubs in six.
- Laura Miller will become the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
- Mario Vargas Llosa will win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- George Bush will not be elected President. Neither will Howard Dean.
- Elmore Leonard will publish another spiffy novel.
- Someone will finally publish an English language biography of Karl Kraus.
- Web-based magazines will start to make money- but not Salon.com and not the dreary offshoots of media conglomerates and their co-opted sellout hot shots.
- I'll be appointed the editor of the Paris Review. I will turn the appointment down as I will not live in Manhattan. Thanks.
- My co-panelists Alex Good, Michael Orthofer, Maud Newton & Jessa Crispin will all read some good books and prosper in the coming year.
Jessa: My prediction for 2004 is a dozen more "comics are literature, too!" articles, a dozen more "Is chick lit on its way out?" articles, and hopefully, finally, the death of snark articles. I predict James Wood will not be able to stick to his pledge and will write another vicious review. I predict the same for Dale Peck. He won't be able to stand being out of the limelight.
And this may just be me being optimistic, heaven forbid, but I think the small presses will continue their rise in success. The Random Houses and the S & S's tendency to deluge the market with shit will eventually be their downfall. Small, flexible presses that concentrate on quality will be more able to attract the public's eye. Consumers have brand loyalty to everything else. I have a feeling people will eventually figure out they can trust certain publishers over others.
But at the same time, I predict that Justin Timberlake's autobiography will sell a whole lot.
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