It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.
Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:
At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.
But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.
I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.
So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:
Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.
Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.
Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”
So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.
The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.
That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genres – can inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).
And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?
That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.
And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …
Once again, I got emails – of a far less welcome kind this time, but book-bloggers can’t be choosers. Many of you wrote in response to my recent “Eight Great Books” post not to share my enthusiasm or to discuss my choices but rather to point out that the eight novels I picked were all written by men. My very first internal response to this was “Yes? So what? It’s possible they were all written by right-handers or blue-eyes too.” My second internal response was “No really – so what? I was rhapsodizing about how much the books in question moved and delighted me – it never occurred to me to check who was going to which bathroom.”
It shouldn’t have occurred to me, and it shouldn’t have occurred to any of you either. It reminds me of all the worst reasons why I left academia.
I dislike almost everything about this kind of non-issue. I dislike the insinuations that can’t help but come along with pointing out that everybody on my first list is a man – the foremost such insinuation being, of course, that I intentionally planned it that way and was hoping nobody would notice, the insinuation of wrongdoing. I dislike the reductivism of it all, the sense that readers today aren’t actually reading anything anymore but rather just checking off boxes and prepping their outrages for when they find trumped-up reason to pounce. Of course personally I dislike the inattention of it all – a casual glance at Stevereads over the years reveals absolutely no gender-bias (and, on a not-unconnected point, a casual glance at the books I’ve personally given to many of you reveals no such imbalance either). In short, the implicit accusation/complaint isn’t valid.
It prompts what I think is a natural – though entirely wrong – response on my part, which is to defend myself. To point out how many female authors I’ve championed over the years, to marshal a barrage of links back to the appropriate Stevereads postings, and maybe links elsewhere as well. But not only is that impulse entirely wrong, but it’s deeply unpleasant to feel, even for a moment, even long enough to call it wrong. Just like it would be deeply unpleasant for, say, the female readers making this point to go back over their last year’s reading and count up how much of it was by black people, or gay people. The instinctive response to go back and count up is irritating because it’s already complicit, even when no guilt can be assigned.
Still, I did say I disliked ‘almost’ everything about such a non-issue, right? There is, in fact, one part of it I like: it gives me a reason to concoct another book-list, and that’s fine by me (I also, as some of you were canny enough to point out, can’t resist a challenge). So here are eight really, really good modern novels written by women, even though that attribution is entirely irrelevant!
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)
Grant’s harsh and luminous novel about postwar British-administered Palestine stars strong-willed and intensely memorable Evelyn Sert, who opens things as forthrightly as she carries the whole book:
Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story. If you don’t like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and torturous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence? “Listen …”
Twenty-year-old Evelyn journeys to the hot, mesmerizing international city of Tel Aviv (wonderfully evoked in these pages) and there finds every aspect of her relatively pampered and privileged life challenged by the no-nonsense women (and one sensuous but deceitful man) who are working to get a nation born:
I told her my Hebrew wasn’t that good.
“Fine,” she said. “I speak six languages. Pick one.”
“English is all I know fluently.”
“Then you are a fool.”
When I Lived in Modern Times confounded a number of critics when it first appeared, and even now it holds the power to confuse in almost equal measure as it pleases. An apolitical novel about politics? A coming-of-age novel that seems at times almost disinterested in its heroine? And yet, re-reading it in 2011, I found it every bit as sharp and interesting as it was when it first appeared.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008)
I haven’t been a big fan of Morrison’s writing over the years, usually finding it deceitfully arch and faux-oracular (whenever some young person tells me Beloved is their favorite novel, I always want to advise them to get out of the house more often). But this slim, almost mythic novella of a wild and disconsolate 17th century America reads like one long prose poem. At its heart is the question of ownership in the free world, and one of its main characters, Jacob Vaark, embodies all the contradictions of that question – he has slaves, servants, a mail-order bride, and is himself owned by his vanities. Morrison sets up the happy beginning of his married life to Rebekka so deftly you know it’s all going to unravel horribly:
They settled into the long learning of one another; preferences, habits altered, others acquired; disagreement without bile; trust and that wordless conversation that years of companionship rest on. The weak religious tendencies that riled Rebekka’s mother were of no interest to him. He was indifferent having himself withstood all pressure to join the village congregation but content to let her be persuaded if she chose. After some initial visits and Rebekka choosing not to continue, his satisfaction was plain. They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed.
Morrison’s handling of her human characters can be as arch and unconvincing as always, but there’s a guiding spirit moving powerfully through this skinny book, elevating it from her usual stuff and repaying multiple re-readings.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)
This novel also features prominently on every ‘Top 50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels of All Time’ list I’ve made since it was first published (all the other 49 are by men, of course), and like most of the best Sci-Fi and Fantasy, it can be read and enjoyed by strangers to the genre. It’s the story of George Orr, a hapless citizen of the near future who seeks medical help for all the disturbing dreams he’s having. Unfortunately for him, he goes to Doctor Haber, a budding megalomaniac, who quickly realizes the unbelievable: George Orr’s dreams change reality itself. Haber of course wants to harness this power – first to get George to ‘fix’ everything that’s wrong with the world, and then eventually to simply transfer the power to himself, so he’s no longer limited by this well-intentioned milquetoast. And passive George is more than happy to let him shoulder the burden, although with a warning:
“Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes … But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. The must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully – as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously. Do you see? Does it mean anything to you?”
Haber doesn’t see, and in true Frankensteinian fashion, his power goes horribly awry – and reveals a layer to the book which Le Guin prepares carefully but which will still catch the reader deliciously off-guard. This author is a legend for other works – her beloved “Earthsea” series, and her two landmark science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, but this is her best book, as tense and elegant as a modern myth.
A Much Younger Man by Dianne Highbridge (1998)
This beautiful, wise novel has been a source of frequent irritation to me since the moment it was published, and the reason is the only thing it shares in common with the great World War Z: it’s virtually impossible to force people’s minds to remain open long enough to recommend it. I plugged World War Z way back at the very beginning of Stevereads, and I’m plugging Highbridge’s book now, for all the good it’ll do me – those of you who haven’t already dismissed it because of its cover will certainly read no further than knowing that the book’s plot is summarized in its title: mid-30s school teacher Aly falls in love with Tom, the teenage son of her best friend. There: the world faces a zombie plague. Sigh. Highbridge takes this very simple premise and treats it in a manner, as one critic put it at the time, “openly sexual but without a hint of lewdness or smirking.” Aly falls in love with Tom (and he very much with her) despite every caution sounding in her right from the beginning:
“Did you wonder why I didn’t play [his lute, for company] the other night?”
“No. I just assumed you didn’t feel like it.”
“I didn’t. Not like that, on show.” Then he says, with the barest pause: “I would’ve played for you.”
A small alarm bell rings somewhere in her head. She looks quickly at him, half-afraid to see the tell-tale intensity of an incipient crush in his eyes. Not really a problem if so, but better if not. He’s looking straight back at her. His eyes aren’t almost blue, as she thought, they’re grey and completely guileless. Somehow this is not reassuring. “I’d like to hear you some day, but I don’t know much about that kind of music,” she says.
“You don’t have to. You’ll see.”
And Highbridge unfolds it all with a deeply respectful intelligence. The result is one of the most honestly affecting novels of love and society that you’re likely to read in a full year – but Heaven and Earth couldn’t move you to try it, because you’re still staring at that cover. Sigh.
Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay (1923)
Macaulay is unknown today except for her quirky The Towers of Trebizond (those NYRB people again!), and I myself treasure her Personal Pleasures as I treasure few other books of occasional essays, but this book is her masterpiece, and it’s a mystery to me why Told by an Idiot isn’t both recognized as a masterpiece and taught as one (I can only assume it’s because made the tactical mistake of being a woman). It’s the story of the unforgettable Garden family – the clergyman father, his saintly wife, their vibrant, incredibly diverse children, whose stories unfold over decades and are chronicled by their sister Rome, the ultimate family-observer, who first goes through her own heartbreak, when the man she loves confesses that he’s already married and gets a typically Garden-family rejection:
“Rome, you can’t do it. Don’t you know, now you’re in my arms, that you can’t, that it would be to deny the best in us?”
“What’s the best, what’s the worst? I don’t know, and nor do you. I’m not an ethicist. All I know is that your wife, while she wants you, or thinks she wants you, has first claim … It’s a question of fairness and decent feeling … or bring it down, if you like, to a question of taste. Perhaps that is the only basis there really is for decisions of this sort for people like us.”
“Taste! That’s a fine cry to mess up two lives by. I’d almost rather you were religious, and talked of the will of God. One could respect that, at least.”
“I can’t do that, as I happen not to be sure whether God exists. And it would make nothing simpler, really, since one would then have to discover what one believed the will of God to be. Don’t do religious people the injustice of believing that anything is simpler or easier for them; it’s more difficult, since life is more exacting … But it comes to the same thing; all these processes of thought lead to the same result if applied by the same mind. It depends on the individual outlook. And this is mine … Oh, don’t make it so damnably difficult for us both, my dearest …”
Miss Garden, who never swore and never wept, here collapsed into tears, all her urbane breeding broken at last. He consoled her so tenderly, so pitifully, so mournfully, that she wept the more for love of him.
The Virago Press reprinted this great book in the 1980s twice – once with a hideous cover and once with a good cover. I’d take a plain brown wrapper, if I could see it reprinted today.
Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree (1985)
No, I’m not losing my nerve and desperately trying to work in a hated man onto our list! James Tiptree is of course the pen-name used by the late Alice Sheldon to write some of the best science fiction of the 20th century. Her novel Up the Walls of the World is a tour de force, and her short stories (such gems as “The Women Men Don’t See” and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and “Painwise”) likewise superb, but this novel – the last one she wrote before she killed her husband and herself – burns with a genius all its own, a genius I was at first slow to grant. The book tells the story of the planet Damien, where years ago the beautiful native species was horrifically tortured to produce a wildly valuable substance called Star Tears. In the present, a mixed group of tourists comes to visit the planet and threatens to re-awaken the tragedies of the past, since, as we’re told, the darkness that bred those tragedies never went away:
“All over this Galaxy, for as long as you live, there will be big crooks and little crooks and lonesome weirdos, Human and otherwise, dreaming up ways to get their hands on Star Tears stuff. Too abhorrent? Don’t you believe it. On the Black Worlds there are Human beasts who salivate over the prospect of torturing children. And passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”
This dark and almost hopeless note is struck throughout this novel (horrible to think of the suffering Tiptree must have been enduring herself, to tap into all this and then put it down so cleanly on the page), and yet, impossibly, hope looks to prevail. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction (and surely you don’t think that, right? Wouldn’t want to be discriminatory, would we?), you’ll like this book, one of the late classics of the genre.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
Those of you who’ve known me personally for a while might recall that I’ve been fervently recommending this book for over a decade, despite the fact that I’m a well-known Internet misogynist; even before The Last Samurai achieved its current mind-boggling and entirely deserved status as both a cult classic (this is one of those books that makes you feel like it was written for you, personally) and a literary landmark, I was telling any open-minded reader I could find that this was a literary landmark destined to be a cult classic. It’s one of the most dazzling literary debuts since This Side of Paradise – indeed, it raised the bar for dazzling literary debuts so high most first-time novelists can’t stand to look at it. It’s the story of a harried, hopeful young single mother named Sibylla and her odd, prodigiously gifted son Ludo, a monster autodidact whose intellectual appetites quickly outstrip even his mother’s high expectations:
Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for the past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969 – present, Mother and Child 1952-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.
The irony threaded through even that brief passage (with the texts Sibylla is typing for money silently commenting on her efforts to raise Ludo on her own) is choice, and it’s on display throughout the whole of this novel, which delights and surprises and ultimately moves with its strangeness and stanzas of staggering virtuosity. If Open Letters Monthly had been around in 2000, this is exactly the kind of book I’d have hoped Sam Sacks or John Cotter would decide to review.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
If this last title seems familiar, it should: not only did I give it rapturous praise over at Open Letters Monthly, but I was the very first person anywhere in the world to pronounce it brilliant, long before its publication, long before it won its shelf of awards: when two bits of it were excerpted in the Penny Press, I confidently predicted it might well end up being the best Tudor novel ever written – and I did all that despite the fact that its author is a woman!
Very few of the novel’s characters are – this is mostly a man’s book (with the very notable exception of the odious Anne Boleyn), featuring one of the most brutishly masculine main characters in recent fiction: Thomas Cromwell, the mysterious street lawyer Henry VIII came more and more to rely upon to do his dirty work, a character virtually all Tudor fictionizers have almost automatically chosen to portray as a plain-and-simple villain. In Wolf Hall, we don’t think of Cromwell that way, even though he’s ruthless and dangerous. We see him being underestimated by every grandee in the land (except for one devastatingly sharp moment with the king, where Cromwell learns the unpleasant lesson that having a Tudor estimate you accurately is most definitely NOT a pleasant experience), even when, as with the old Duke of Norfolk, they know they’re underestimating him while they do it:
“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”
“Will they be the same, my lord?”
The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”
He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.
“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that …” he touches a medal, flinching. “God forbid I should …”
Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”
“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”
“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”
Like many people in this splendid, bottomlessly re-readable novel, Norfolk finds himself casting around searching for a reason to validate the visceral dislike he feels for Cromwell. In this case, the duke (whose spindly body Cromwell has already taken in with a glance) pounces on Cromwell’s admission that he himself had once been a soldier:
“I was a soldier myself.”
“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”
The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”
“So I noticed.”
The fast-paced bounce of this dialogue is maintained throughout the book, which is similar to The Lathe of Heaven in being a genre-buster, something you can hand to even the most adamantly anti-historical fiction reader, confident that the book will hook them. I’ve never known it to fail, which certainly hasn’t been the case with any of Mantel’s earlier books. This one is a bolt from the sky, it’s so good.
And there you have it! Eight great novels – by women! The cosmic scales of justice are re-balanced, although how they could ever have been un-balanced I don’t know. After all, the field of fiction is almost thoroughly dominated by women. Against our paltry Tolstoy, Thackeray, and Fielding, women have a dozen giants right off the tip of the bat – a preponderance so great it’s only become seriously endangered since the late 20th century, when the proliferation of make-weight MFA programs with delusions of cultural oppression began graduating legions of utterly talentless female degree holders, thus muddying the waters almost opaque for genuinely promising young women like Tea Obreht.
But that’s a worry for another day – for right now, the universe is restored to order, and with luck Stevereads is restored to the good graces of all those of you who wrote in giving me dirty looks! I whole-heartedly recommend each of these woman-authored books, and I could easily double the length of this post with additional names, many of whom I’ve also praised on Stevereads in their own right over the years. So now perhaps the issue of my raging misogyny can be tabled, and I can return my attention to higher literary matters …
I made my faithful way through the main attractions of the latest Harper’s in order to reach the end. I read about evil Mormons, and I read some bombastic editorializing, and I read an entertaining little squib of a story by Justin Torres (clearly a young author to watch – still prone to gimmicks, still not quite seeing that they are gimmicks, but with a very alluring confidence in his own prose), but the whole time I was holding my mental breath, waiting to get to Zadie Smith’s “New Books” column.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I consider (somewhat to my surprise, having been underwhelmed by her fiction) Smith one of the best fiction reviewers working today (my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks would also be on that short list), and it was an amazing, unlooked-for little gift when she suddenly started writing her detailed, lively pieces regularly for Harper’s. She’s one of the only literary journalists who can so naturally meld the personal with the professional that her pieces always feel like sparkling, invigorating talk about books, rather than the considered and reworked essays they are. She differs from Sacks in this way; his own reviews are almost awe-inspiringly removed from the purely personal – they read like scripture: “And Jereboam begat Gath, and Gath begat Askelon, and Askelon thought the metaphorical underpinning of the latest Julian Barnes was splenetic at best,” etc. Smith will sometimes swoop in mid-review from a stunning textual survey to a childhood vignette on her mother’s porch, then back again, whereas watching Sacks attempt such a thing would be as painful as watching William James try out his signature fox-trot on “America’s Got Talent!” … each to their own strengths: neither can Smith match Sacks’ gravitas. An author reading a pan of his work by Smith can put the magazine down and say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” The same author reading a pan of his work by Sacks (at a surgical 200 words, in the Wall Street Journal) is likely to say, “Well, I think they’re still hiring down at the sawmill.”
I celebrate all these first-rate critics for their differences (except when they differ from ME, as each and every one of the scamps has been known to do at one time or another), and I eagerly look forward to reading their latest thoughts in the venues lucky enough to have them. Sometimes, this can be distressing – in the latest Harper’s, Smith begins by singing the praises of the great science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, and that immediately set off alarm bells. First-rate critics of science fiction are extremely rare, and Smith certainly doesn’t qualify (nor does Sacks – “Due to the number of moons in the night sky, the reader must surmise that Equinox of the Lobster-Men does not, in fact, take place on Earth at all …”). But all begins well enough – she heaps much-deserved superlatives on Le Guin’s two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and only occasionally does she inadvertently reveal her underlying discomfort with the genre. Whenever her snobbish instincts begin to bubble too near the surface, she taps them off by tossing in a term in German – we get Verfremdungseffekt and Jus for no conceivable reason other than Smith wanting to avoid having her fellow Po-Mo lit-snobs pull her hair in the hallway after class. What remains is a solid, inviting appreciation of Le Guin’s work and attitude, which is always welcome.
Smith follows the Le Guin foray up with something in many ways even less comfortable: the latest book by the fantastic Magnus Mills. An author (and, one suspects, a reader) like Smith has absolutely zero chance of ever fully getting an author like Mills, but she’s game to try. It isn’t a pretty attempt – at one point she starts just jerkily reciting the names of Shakespeare plays in order to regain her balance (call it the book-nerd’s “Serenity Now!”), and it’s clear the whole encounter has shaken her a bit. She finishes up by wholesale retreating – she runs to the comforting arms of Rimbaud.
And then she drops her bombshell!
I have to fess up to my own irrational fantasy – the one where it’s possible to write a novel, teach class, bring up a kid, and produce a regular column: at the moment a speculative fiction for me. With regret I must say good-bye to New Books – at least for a while – and welcome my brilliant successor, Larry McMurtry.
I moaned aloud over my zuurkoolstamppot: No! Perhaps the most important thing Smith shares in common with Sacks – and Clive James, and Ferdinand Mount, and Michael Dirda, and Sam Anderson, and Anthony Lane, and even Christopher Hitchens – is perhaps the one essential trait all first-rate literary journalists must have: humility in the presence of the written word. The author under review might screw up, he might misfire, he might be an idiot – but he’s engaged in a holy task, and it trails a holy solemnity behind it. The author might make the biggest mess since God created basset hounds, but the best literary critics take that mess seriously because the act of creation is holy to them (which is why they can get so all-fired angry when a thing is done poorly, or lazily, or insultingly).
Larry McMurtry is 80 years old. He’s the author of two very, very good novels (The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls) and two great ones (Lonesome Dove and Moving On) – think about that for a minute: two very, very good novels, and two great ones – that’s more than almost all authors can do, or even approach. This is not a man who can be humble in the presence of the written word, and with good reason: this is a man in whose presence the written word is humble. Which makes him a great choice to write book-commentary for Harper’s or anybody else on Earth – wherever it happens, I’ll buy it. But it makes him a lousy choice to write a regular column dutifully reviewing new books. What’s he supposed to say, about any of them? Larry McMurtry is supposed to set aside time to make notes on a jaggedly-written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Iceland? Larry McMurtry is supposed to patiently deconstruct the way a precocious author’s circus-metaphor goes astray? Larry McMurtry is supposed to be doing this? What’s next, making Herman Melville clerk in a customs house?
It won’t work. McMurtry will stay on-target for one paragraph, perhaps two, and then the book will be forgotten and the rest of the column will be “and then Renny Price and Wally Stegner and I – all three of us drunk as newts – snuck into Katy Anne Porter’s kitchen late at night and commenced a grand attempt to bake her a cake. She flicked the light on and covered us all with a sawed-off shotgun, and it was only a call from Bunny Wilson that saved our hides …” And that will be undeniable fun to read, but the world of serious fiction-criticism will lose a very high-profile venue until such time as McMurtry sees fit to vacate it.
Don’t mistake me: it’ll be great to have more McMurtry prose in the world, in any venue, at any time. But I’m nevertheless wondering if Zadie Smith might respond to a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign …