End of a blog; beginning of a newsletter

I’m turning this blog into an email newsletter.

If you’ve enjoyed reading me here, please sign up for the newsletter A Register of Aliens. In a few weeks I will remove this blog from the web, and my homepage will become a static site with my bio and publication list. All the stuff that used to appear here will now appear in the newsletter. I considered just porting over the addresses of all the people who subscribe to the blog, but I hate that kind of scummy marketing move. So if you’re interested you’ll have to sign up yourself. Sorry for the make-work!

What will I be publishing in the newsletter?

  • The monthly reading logs you’re already familiar with from this blog.
  • A link post with behind-the-scenes notes when I publish a new essay, story, or review elsewhere. If more than one piece of mine is published in a month, I’ll bundle them into one link post so as not to inundate you.
  • Occasional newsletter-only essays, no more than one a month.

All told, you’ll never receive more than three posts a month, and usually only two.

If you’re among the few, rare people who still use RSS feeds (like I do), here’s the newsletter’s feed for your reader. That way you can still follow it as if it were a blog, should you prefer.

Why am I doing this?

  1. Because I have been told that I should have an email newsletter for the sake of my writing career. I have a few book projects in the pipeline, and, for nonfiction in particular, possession of an email subscriber base really helps selling a book to a publisher. I don’t want to write a newsletter in addition to a blog, so I’ve decided to turn the blog into a newsletter.

  2. Because most new followers in the last year have been using WordPress’s “subscribe by email” function. I think at this point the majority of my readers treat this blog as if it’s already an email newsletter. Unfortunately, the emails that WordPress sends to those subscribers are really ugly, and I don’t have any way to change how they look. Switching to a newsletter-first system will allow me to control how the emails look when they arrive in your inbox.

  3. Because my habits as an internet writer are already better adapted to email than to blogging. As you probably know if you’ve followed my blog for any length of time — and I’ve had a blog of some sort continuously since 2007, when I first went off to college (!) — I often get annoyed by my own archives and delete them all. No quantity of good resolutions can overcome this tendency. I’ve even deleted blog posts that had gone viral and received tens of thousands of views or were the top Google result for their topic. Real self-sabotaging stuff. On top of this I am a technical clutz who nonetheless loves to tinker with code, and so I have managed on several occasions to delete my archives by accident. Thus self-loathing and clumsiness have conspired to make my blog ephemeral, a private discourse for those who manage to read it when it’s published. I’m not a trustworthy custodian of my own internet writing. Switching to a newsletter will obviate the problem.

  4. Because I love the ethos of correspondence. When someone emails me about a blog post, I am always so much happier than when someone comments on it. I just don’t care for or enjoy comment sections. Lately, a few subscribers by email to this blog have told me that they assumed WordPress email notifications worked like newsletters, that they could reply to me directly by sending response emails to the notifications. Alas, that doesn’t work. And it made me sad to think of people trying to correspond with me and just sending their messages into a sea of silence instead.

  5. Because it seems to me that a lot of the energy and interactivity that once belonged to the blogosphere has migrated to the ecosystem of email newsletters. Every week I discover a newsletter by another interesting writer, the way I used to discover new blogs back in the late noughties and early twenty-teens. My newsletter subscriptions are beginning to overtake the number of RSS feeds I follow. Increasingly, my favorite internet reading comes in the form of newsletters. I’m sure this energy has everything to do with the way that platforms like Substack, Ghost, and Buttondown enable writers to monetize their newsletters. (Same reason there was a podcast boom.) And thus I expect the survival of the email newsletter ecosystem depends on the scalability and sustainability of paid newsletters. Are all the same people subscribing to these different newsletters? If so, it’s a bubble, and we’re in for a rude awakening. Or are different people subscribing to different newsletters? If so, perhaps this is a brave new world of independent publishing. Either way, for now the energy is real. I want to be part of it — not the making money part, but the conversation part.

Technical Details

I’m using Buttondown for my newsletter. Buttondown is free for me to use until / unless I get 1000 subscribers, then I have to pay $5 a month for every additional 1000. Seems reasonable to me. In the event that I breach 1000 subscribers, I’ll look into adding the possibility for readers to help pay for the newsletter hosting if they’d like, but I’ll never paywall any of the content. A Register of Aliens is now — and always will be — free.

Thank you for reading

If you’ve enjoyed my blog over the years, please do subscribe to A Register of Aliens. And if you really like my writing or me personally, then please consider recommending it to a friend or posting a link to it on your preferred form of social media.




What I Read, February 2021

Bland Fanatics (Pankaj Mishra)

A collection of essays criticizing the political and historical illusions of Anglo-American neo-imperialists. Mishra has a talent for stirring up heated opposition that more or less confirms his observations. He’s been threatened with lawsuits and publicly insulted by such recipients of his scrutiny as Neil Ferguson, Jordan Peterson, and Salman Rushdie. Most of the essays in this collection are book reviews, op-eds, or articles tied into news hooks. They are, in other words, journalism at its most immanent. But the extraordinary thing about Mishra’s journalism is that it’s also literature. This small collection would be an excellent entry point for a reader new to his work.

A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

A novel almost entirely composed of stylized and combative dialogue between the Edgeworth household and their acquaintances in the local parish. The story must be inferred from the insinuations of the dialogue. It’s a painful story, about parental domination and sororal cruelty, murder of innocents and romantic betrayal, religious hypocrisy, gossip, and the malevolence incentivized by inheritable wealth. It’s like a very heady, oblique, and cynical play. (I wonder if anybody has staged Compton-Burnett? That would be something to witness.) At times it feels like you’re reading nothing but scene after scene of elaborate greetings and farewells, the drawing-room ephemera of conversation; but in fact not a syllable is extraneous, and every one is a dagger in your throat.

The Culture of Lies (Dubravka Ugrešić)

An essay collection (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) about living through the Yugoslav wars, mostly written while Ugrešić was still hanging on in newly constituted Croatia in the early 1990s, not yet driven into exile. Even though her new country was casting itself on the world stage — reasonably enough — as a victim of Serbian nationalism, she had no time for Croatian nationalism either, because history was being manufactured and dissembled in both countries in the rush to carve culturally distinct nations out of the corpse of Yugoslavia. These essays were among the acts of civic heresy for which Ugrešić eventually became so reviled in her home that she left Zagreb to live in Amsterdam.

Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (Thomas Mann)

An atrocious but fascinating book-length self-justification (translated by Walter D. Morris) of the sudden fervor for war that Thomas Mann discovered in himself in 1914. Better known, politically, for his later outspoken opposition to the Third Reich, a few years before that he was for a time — because of this book — a literary avatar of German chauvinism. His views caused a rift with his brother, Heinrich, who wrote a veiled critique of him in an essay ostensibly about Zola, and Thomas read this essay partway through writing Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. You can tell the exact moment in the composition of the book when this happened, because the text torques sideways to become personal, conflicted, and defensive. It’s painful to read, but fascinating. I’m writing something not exactly about this book but definitely including it, which will be published at the LARB sometime in the near future. (This thing I’m writing is a new departure for me, an essay in the form of a non-fiction short story, or a short story in the form of an essay. You’ll see.)

Bernard Shaw: A Life (A.M. Gibbs)

This — the fourth biography of Bernard Shaw I have read in six months, somehow — was research for the essay/story mentioned above. It is probably the best of the extant Shaw biographies for anyone just interested in getting a straightforward summary of his life and work, except for one thing. Gibbs scants the role of socialism in Shaw’s thinking as well as Shaw’s role in the foundation and early years of the Fabian Society. He does this out of a baffling and somewhat amusing embarrassment about the very idea of socialism. Gibbs seems genuinely nervous to mention Shaw’s central political passion, and he breaks his biographer’s cool every time it comes up — which is as seldom as he can help it — to make timid and contextually irrelevant comments about how Russian communism didn’t work out so great and how capitalism is awesome and inevitable. But unfortunately for Gibbs, a book about Shaw that doesn’t put socialism among the central foci of his life is an essentially misleading book.

(And thus Holroyd’s biography remains the best Shaw biography, I think.)

Cities of Salt (Abdelrahman Munif)

A novel (translated by Peter Theroux) not so much about any single individual or set of individuals — the protagonist role is handed around like a baton in a footrace — as about the overall consequences for the Bedouins of the discovery and exploitation of oil in their deserts. This novel is banned in Saudi Arabia. It depicts the consequences of the government of an unnamed middle eastern nation inviting an American company to extract its oil, promising confused and terrified citizens that all this will make them rich. A port city springs up out of nothing. Communities are displaced or economically enslaved. Islamic culture bumps up against the materialistic and hedonistic culture of the American oilmen. It’s a distressing story of slow-motion revolution from above and the collapse of a culture and a society.

The Jakarta Method (Vincent Bevins)

Speaking of distressing books about revolution from above, this is another one — about the absolute travesty of 20th century anti-communism, and about the horrors committed in its name. The book’s central narrative weaves together firsthand accounts of the bloody Indonesian military purge of the PKI (the Indonesian communist party), and shows how deeply involved the US and other anti-communist powers were in that genocidal bit of modern history. But it’s really a larger study of the way 20th century anti-communism metastasized into something far more dangerous and sinister than the form of ideological great power politics it purported to be. It broke and remade much of the globe in its indiscriminate violence and imperial terrorism. I listened to this book on Audible, while walking around Pittsburgh, and I may have to go back to lighter fare during those walks because every other day I’d find myself suddenly no longer taking my exercise but standing still with my jaw dropped listening to another horrifying chapter-climax.

Little Tales of Misogyny (Patricia Highsmith)

A themed short story collection — a nasty, black-humored one. Each story — very short, almost but not quite flash fiction — cynicizes about some example of a type of woman named in the title. For example: “The Female Novelist” (about a writer who persecutes her partners until they cheat on her, then capitalizes on the drama by writing stories about it), “The Mobile Bed-Object” (about a high-class escort passed from rich man to rich man until she begins to age and loses her exchange value), “The Prude” (about a woman so obsessed with her own and her daughter’s virginity that she ruins her life), “The Breeder” (about a woman whose only goal in life is to have as many children as possible, and thereby manages to ruin her husband financially and ultimately to drive him insane). It’s like a mean-spirited version of Theophrastus’ Characters. Surely it is one of the chief exhibits for those who wish to argue that Highsmith was a cruel and dangerous writer. I find something paradoxically purifying, though, in a book with this quantity of uncut disillusion, something exhilarating in its pessimism. But I’m glad not all books are like this.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Iain Banks)

A gothic literary novel about the scion of a wealthy business family who must attend a general shareholder’s meeting where the family will vote whether to allow themselves to be bought out by an American corporation. While he’s there he hopes to get some resolution of the two mysteries of his life: his mother’s unexplained suicide and the persistence of his own romantic feelings toward the first cousin with whom he once had a disastrous adolescent romance. I thought it was going to be a lesser Banks, at first, but by the horrifying and atmospheric climax I realized there is no such thing.

Hygiene and the Assassin (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) in which the (made up) Nobel laureate Prétextat Tach has granted a series of interviews to select journalists on his deathbed. He humiliates them one by one, sending each away from his dark apartment a broken man, until the last interviewer appears — a woman, the only journalist who has read all his books and understood them — and she makes Tach confront the crime he has been hiding for years and explain the highly aestheticized theology of murder he has constructed to rationalize his past. This book is the first of Nothomb’s prolific run. They come out punctually, once a year, always a commercial success, and supposedly always only one of the four books she writes that year, longhand, without revising.

Loving Sabotage (Amélie Nothomb)

Novella (translated by Andrew Wilson) concerning a period when Nothomb’s family — the family of a Belgian diplomat — were stationed in China. She and the other diplomats’ children are confined to a single barricaded neighborhood, and within it they conduct a cruel and organized war against each other, traveling about in gangs, capturing their opponents and beating them up or urinating and defecating on them or playing nasty pranks on their food supplies. The six year old protagonist is one of the youngest but fiercest combatants. Then a new child appears in the neighborhood, a beautiful little girl who refuses to participate in the war, and the narrator falls in love. Unfortunately for the narrator, she has found the pre-teen version of an ice queen, and the novella becomes about the narrator’s struggle to impress, or even draw the attention of, her beloved. This book announces Nothomb’s central dramatic idea: the similarity, perhaps even interchangeability, of love and war. In most of her books, love becomes a kind of war or develops toward a climax of violence. Here the parallel is explicit.

The Stranger Next Door (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Carole Volk) about a retired couple who buy an idyllic house where they intend to seek ultimate solitude in old age. They have lived together — been married in the truest sense, insists the narrator — since they were six years old. After they move in, however, they discover that they live next to an intrusive, monosyllabic, and enormously fat doctor, who insists upon visiting them every day from four to six in the afternoon. Then they discover that he appears to be married to a literal monster whom he mistreats. Things deteriorate.

(There’s a reference to the main character of Nothomb’s first novel at the end of this one, which made the speculative fiction reader in me wonder if all her non-auto-fiction is supposed to be set in the same universe.)

Life Form (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) featuring the author as its protagonist. She gets a letter in the early 2000s from an American soldier stationed in Iraq who has gone on the opposite of a hunger strike (that is, he is frantically eating in order to become as large as possible) as a protest against the war. She responds, and a correspondence equally fascinating and disturbing arises. Buried in the crevices of narration here, there is a whole fascinating treatise on letter writing. Nothomb famously replies by hand to all her correspondence.

Strike Your Heart (Amélie Nothomb)

A novella (translated by Alison Anderson) about the first 35 years of a woman whose mother was jealous of her when she was born and therefore treated her with great coldness. This tiny fact about her is followed to its last consequence, through her childhood, her relationships with her siblings, her pursuit of a vocation, and her acquaintance with another little girl whose life has been blighted by the same problem.

What I Read, January 2021

I had such optimistic plans for January! I would wean my 2020-addled consciousness further off the news cycle, dive into some big writing projects, get back to serious reading. Well, a certain notorious week early in the month shattered those plans like a kid with a stick shattering the first delicate icicles of winter. That week I fastened myself to the teat of the news-cycle like a hungry puppy, wrote nothing but histrionic journal entries, and read nothing but dire op-eds and breaking news chyrons. But – nevertheless — some reading eventually occurred. And this is what I read:

Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru

A novel about a Brooklyn-based writer whose midlife crisis turns into a mental breakdown during a writing retreat in Berlin, where he meets, argues with, and is catastrophically triggered by an aggressive white nationalist. It is written in clean and often clever prose, and I certainly recognize the pathologies of feckless self-conciousness it depicts.

Luster, by Raven Leilani

A novel about a young black woman barely surviving in NYC who gets involved with a married white man a decade older than herself. But that’s not the heart of the story: through a strange sequence of events, the young woman ends up staying for several months with the man’s family, and the most complicated and interesting relationship in the book turns out to be that of the young woman with her lover’s wife, who works in a morgue. Wife and young woman struggle over the husband but ultimately it’s a novel about the protagonist becoming an artist, or at least making a breakthrough in her art, and it’s her rival in love who helps her do this. Really it’s quite a tender bildungsroman beneath the caustic narrative voice and purposefully scandalizing surface.

97,196 Words, by Emmanuel Carrère

A collection of essays (translated from French by John Lambert), each an example of Carrère’s signature self-saturated reportage. His pet subject is the double life: the criminal who hides his deceptions, the public figure whose face is a facade, the city so over-reported that it cannot be seen. For Carrère, the reporter — he, himself — always has to be in the story, whether he’s recounting an interview or reviewing a book. He makes clear in a short review of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer that he considers his relentless commitment to autobiographical cameo an aesthetic and epistemological principle. He feels obligated to a weird idea of truthfulness, obligated to pop up like an authorial jack-in-the-box because somehow that proves he’s not deluded by the false pretensions of objectivity. (I suspect he is, instead, deluded by the false modesties of subjectivity.) His self-insertions would be an intolerable mannerism if he did not also write a very supple, casual, and yet precise prose, and if he did not have a frank eye for the sensational element of whatever he chooses to write about. He’s really fun to read!

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante

A novel (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) about the daughter of a Neapolitan intellectual who has renounced association with his lower class, religious family. The daughter overhears a chance remark from the father that she is beginning to look like her aunt. It makes her curious and afraid, because she knows this aunt is a figure of evil, and she worries her father thinks she is becoming ugly — her father! She is precipitated by curiosity into a painful discovery of old feuds and adult intrigues, and somewhere along the way the pain she stirs up in this way mutates into the more universal pain of adolescence. As usual in Ferrante, adults betray children, eros and intellect intertwine, and communal feminine identity forms a kind of answer to the insults and injuries of life. Unusually for Ferrante, religion is also a major theme and thread of the book, in fascinating ways.

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

A big novel about four interconnected generations of Zambians living in and around the capital of Lusaka. The story begins in the colonial period and extends past our present into an imagined future, and it all builds to a rather science fictional climax involving synthetic mosquito swarms and idealistic terrorism. It ranges across nine points of view — tied together by the dithyrambic voice of a chorus of mosquitoes — and it is composed of chapters that have the density and internal satisfactions of good short stories. It has speculative elements both fantastic and science fictional — a woman covered all over in unnaturally fast-growing hair, another who begins to weep and does not stop for half a century, a future Zambia where great powers have turned the nation into a lab for risky vaccinations and experimental technologies. In the familiar way of big realist novels rooted in a specific historical and geographical setting, it tackles the topics you would expect before reading it: colonialism, the complexities of race and gender, AIDS, neo-colonial extractivism and the poisoned pill of humanitarian aid, post-colonial political ideologies, and so on. But apart from all the novel’s ambition, I loved it because of the prose. Just quirky enough to goose my linguistic and visual imagination into a constant state of close attention, but never peacocking in that try-hard MFA manner we’re all familiar with — these sentences are the work of someone with total self-consciousness and control over the difficult interrelation between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and acts. Just a delight to read.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, by Patricia Highsmith

A short story collection composed entirely of revenge tales from the point of view of animals. An elephant named Chorus Girl tramples a cruel zookeeper. A Venetian rat eats the face off a baby. A cat named Ming tricks her mistress’s false lover over a balcony. There is something hypnotic about the formula. Each story follows a simple pattern: we meet the animal in its customary setting and innocent habits, then we meet the human whose cruelty or betrayal will push the animal over the edge, and then a decisive conflict climaxes in a death. Highsmith’s ability to keep a reader turning pages even in the presence of so unvarying a repetition is virtuosic — I felt like the victim of a mad scientist or cruel practical joker, but also I kept reading. The stories do not grow less interesting as the book continues. And I found that knowing the structure of each story in advance added a new element of suspense — how would Highsmith get her animal to plausibly kill a human this time? How would this hamster turn into a killer? Or this cockroach for crying out loud? (Actually, that one didn’t surprise me. I’ve had several near-death encounters with cockroaches myself.)

Sybille Bedford, by Selina Hastings

A biography of one of the 20th century’s most interesting writers. Bedford’s life was fissured by sometimes elective and sometimes imposed nomadism: she was always fleeing something, including, on two occasions, world wars. Her biography is the story of a difficult and not always successful attempt to combine beautiful living (she was a gourmand, prolific lover of women and men, frequent traveler, enthusiastic attendant and host of parties, and oenophile) with literary ambition. She wanted badly to be a great writer, and she was surrounded by great writers from a young age (Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley), but she sabotaged herself repeatedly and only summoned in spurts the discipline she required. Fortunately she did manage to write two of the century’s great novels — A Legacy and Jigsaw — as well as some fine travel writing and legal journalism. Hastings does what I always long for in literary biographies: she draws on research to show us the writer at work. I won’t say more because I have a review of the book coming out in February, which expands on all these points.

Providence, by Anita Brookner

A short novel tracing the main disappointment in the life of Kitty Maule, contingent faculty at a small provincial English university and subordinate partner in a tepid and perplexing relationship with a fellow professor. She would like to be permanent faculty and to marry her lover. She attempts to achieve these goals proactively, taking charge of her life for the first time, but because she is at the mercy of Anita Brookner things go about how you’d expect.

This was Brookner’s second novel. I’ve read six now, including the first and last and several from the middle of her career. They all have the same type of premise and the same arc, but these early novels have sharper climaxes, more stinging endings, and less richly precise and stimulating prose. The early novels that I have read also seem less self-contained than her later novels, by which I mean that they rely upon allusions to and discussions of the work of other writers — in the case of Brookner’s first novel, the other writer is Balzac, about whom her protagonist is writing a book; and here the other writer is Benjamin Constant, about whose work Kitty is conducting a tutorial for three students. This technique of subplot by way of literary criticism makes a primary text feel secondary, rather in the same way that Brookner’s characters often feel as if they’re not the protagonists of their own lives.

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

A novella about a trio of cursed New Englanders. A man with a hypochondriacal wife falls in love with their hired girl; the wife notices and finds an excuse to dismiss the hired girl; the man and girl, feeling trapped, attempt to commit suicide together and fail. I feel free to summarize the whole plot because this is probably Wharton’s best known story, or at least the one most often assigned in American highschools. I didn’t do normal school, so I hadn’t ever read it before. It’s not my favorite Wharton (that remains The House of Mirth), but I think it may be my favorite writing by Wharton — and that’s saying something, because I am always ravished by her sentences. There’s a quality of inexorability in this story, a quality I last encountered in Anne Brönte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Vivid nature writing — depicting a stark New England winter — interposes like an oblique commentary between fated narrative beats. Apart from the annoying slow intro section, it was perfectly paced. (I really dislike the practice, in Wharton and Henry James, of prefacing a reported story with a long, dry-as-dust account of the situation in which the narrator first heard the story. And yet, when Joseph Conrad pulls the same trick, I gobble it up with greed and delight. Mysterious.)

Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrère

An exuberant biography (translated from French by John Lambert) of a very strange Russian writer. It contains, of course, the inevitable auotobiographical cameos by the author (see my notes on him, above) — in this case, a truly irrelevant chapter about his boring failures at love and commerce in Bali. But the Limonov bits were great! The big conceit of the story is that Limonov is supposed to have lived many lives, more lives than you or me. He was an underground poet in Russia, a destitute and lovelorn immigrant slumming around New York, a celebrity memoirist in Paris, a professional revolutionary on behalf of an incoherent ideology, a political prisoner of great dignity, etc. But in fact Limonov’s antics struck me as pretty consistent throughout his life, the steady pursuit of personal aggrandizement through flashy, unmoored dissent and rebellion — getting to be a noble prisoner was a climax of, I would imagine, great personal satisfaction to him. In a way, impressing Carrère enough to inspire this book feels like a culmination of Limonov’s life, perhaps the best he could have hoped for.

Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw

The second volume of Kershaw’s big structural-sociological biography of Hitler. I listened to it as an audiobook while walking around Pittsburgh, just like I did the first volume. Much of the book feels like a series of exemplifications of Kershaw’s pet concept, that what happened in Nazi Germany can be explained above all by the phenomenon of “working toward the Fuhrer.” Hitler would set the ideological coordinates for his party in his repetitive speeches, and then party and government functionaries, seeking preferment and promotion in the personalized autocracy the German government became, would seek creative ways to carry out those ideological goals better than their colleagues. The flashiest and most extremist plans and proposals would make their way back up the ladder to be approved by Hitler and would, in turn, provoke him to ever more extremist expressions of the ideological goals they were supposed to instantiate. So, for example, the practice of euthanizing disabled babies was an initiative undertaken by a subordinate who thought Hitler might approve, and he did approve and ordered that such practices become general at the discretion of the subordinate, until it turned into a systematic massacre. The result of this dynamic across the many facets a whole industrialized modern nation was a perpetual motion machine of radicalization that swept the whole government in the direction of the horrors they perpetrated.

An Untouched House, by Willem Frederick Hermans

A short, devastating novella (translated from Dutch by Daniel Colmer) about an exhausted Dutch soldier in WWII who finds himself, through a complicated series of circumstances, on the Eastern Front of the war, where he speaks the language of neither his allies nor his enemies. He stumbles into a quiet, well-furnished house in an abandoned town. He decides to ignore the orders that took him there — he didn’t really understand them anyway — and pretend he’s the owner of the house if anyone tries to evict him. He’s dead tired of the war. Things get exceedingly dark because of his decision. This story rips your heart out, chews it up and swallows it, vomits it back onto the floor, then feeds it to a pack of dogs.

Angel of Oblivion, by Maja Haderlap

A novel (translated from German by Tess Lewis) based on its author’s memories of growing up in the Slovene community of the Carinthia region in Austria. From this minority population came the sole Austrian military resistance to Nazism, and so the narrator’s family and acquaintances are all haunted by their memories of WWII. Many of them were partisans, and all of them were oppressed by the Nazis who hunted partisans. Her father was tortured as a child, strung up from a tree and beaten nearly to death, and his violent PTSD terrorizes their family life; her grandmother was sent for years to a concentration camp; her aunt died in another; in the evenings the old people who live around her family’s holding drink and reminisce about who was shot, whose farm was burned, whose families were disappeared. Now, their valley is surrounded by German speaking Carinthians who look with disfavor and suspicion upon the Slovene community’s history of heroic resistance; but the war cannot be so easily erased from memory, it persists in fragmentary reminiscence and psychological trauma — and in the darkened childhood of the narrator of this novel. The story’s form reflects the growth of her terrible consciousness of history. Beginning as a series of beautiful innocent memories of her family’s bucolic life, the narrative is slowly darkened by the evidence of the war that emerges in her grandmother’s concentration camp stories and her father’s PTSD and the suicides that plague her community, until, as she grows up, the narrator pieces together her family’s, and then her region’s, dark history.

Originality and the Serious Writer

The “serious writer” is a concept that haunts the literary world. Even the kindest and least judgmental literary types I know, in unguarded moments of frankness, will express their views on the nature of the serious writer. Our favorite outspoken critics do it all the time in caustic terms.

Why “serious”? The word crops up, over and over again, with enough insistence that even though I dislike it, I’m inclined to take it, well, seriously. “Serious writing,” “serious literature,” “serious writer.” A glance at the word’s etymology shows it to be rooted in concepts of slowness, heaviness, importance; opposed to lightness, to jesting. Obviously plenty of writers designated “serious” are not unsmiling bores who refuse to crack a joke, so I think the slowness, heaviness, importance of the serious writer are qualities of their goal or purpose, or of their overall achievement in writing, rather than qualities of their sentences or of the personality of their authorial voice. Plenty of people take François Rabelais to have been a serious writer, for instance, even though The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel has the highest rate of fart-jokes per chapter I’ve ever encountered. So let’s dispense with facile objections to the word itself, and try to consider what readers and critics and writers are really getting at when they distinguish the serious from the unserious.

Here are the theories of seriousness I’ve most frequently encountered:

  • The Serious Writer takes pains over — and achieves — a special style.

  • The Serious Writer expresses or critiques the distinctive values of their era and society.

  • The Serious Writer serves the correct ideological programme (whatever one takes that to be).

  • The Serious Writer speaks for some prophetic demographic — whether a specific generation, or an intellectual elite, or the aesthetically sensitized, or some type or cross-section of the subaltern.

  • The Serious Writer participates in the evolution of their tradition, demonstrating continuity with it but also pushing it in new directions.

Yesterday, as I was listening to an acquaintance expound their belief in theory #2 above, I asked myself what I believe. It’s one of those questions that addresses itself to intuition or preconception more than to reasoned conclusion, because I suspect many readers and writers already harbor a gut answer. I certainly did. The theory of seriousness that surfaced in my depths surprised me, though it also made sense to me of some of my more eccentric opinions about how to be a writer and live a literary life. So here’s what I discovered that I think:

The serious writer says something new.

The moment this sentence occurred to me, I remembered something V.S. Naipaul wrote. So I burrowed through my notes until I found it. He wrote (in one of the essays collected in Literary Occasions):

Writing has always to be new; every talent is always burning itself out. […] Literature is the sum of its discoveries. What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good. And — though played-out forms can throw up miraculous sports . . . what is good is always what is new, in both form and content. What is good forgets whatever models it might have had, and is unexpected; we have to catch it on the wing.

This is useful, because Naipaul seems to believe something similar to what I do, but different enough that it helps me refine my own intuition on the subject. I dislike some of his equivalencies — for example, I wouldn’t say that what is new (nor what is “serious” for that matter) is equivalent to “the truly good.” The other qualities he mentions — impressiveness, intelligence, pleasurableness — also seem good to me. But another thing he says — that “literature is the sum of its discoveries” — unlocked some thoughts for me.

I already hold this view about philosophy. I concluded, as I was studying philosophy in graduate school, that the best philosophers fill unoccupied places in the logical space of the various problems they address. For instance, the question, “is it ever right to lie?” has a logical space of two possible answers and lots of different reasons one might adduce for them. To make a philosophical contribution to the ethical problem of lying, therefore, was to find and fill some previously unfilled logical space — to elaborate an original position on the problem. You don’t necessarily have to endorse the new position you have found (you might think some other, pre-existing position is the correct one) but you do have to provide a satisfying account of a new position, one that future philosophers have to take into account if they want to defend a position like the one you found or to rebut it. I’m particularly fond of philosophers with the negative capability to develop original positions that they don’t believe, out of a sheer explorer’s ambition to map the logical space — like Kierkegaard, say, with his pseudonyms. Obviously philosophical originality is an increasingly difficult task, especially with issues — like the ethics of lying — that have been discussed in great detail for thousands of years. On the other hand, philosophy does toss up new questions — for instance, new technologies give ethicists new problems — and also it develops in a fractal way, constantly refining and sub-dividing the big questions in ways that allow us to take new positions on them, or to find different reasons for existing positions.

But the fact remains that it was easier, in a certain sense, to be Aristotle than to be Wittgenstein. Aristotle just had to say anything at all about a bunch of his topics to fill an original logical space; Wittgenstein had to practically burst his brain to come up with original ideas about language and logic. (Although the kind of linguistic analysis Wittgenstein ended up pioneering proved to be such a fertile way to progress in philosophy — that is, to find and fill new logical spaces, and indeed to find new philosophical problems — that it completely dominated the next generation of English philosophy.)

Anyway, the point is: even before I started asking myself about “serious writers,” I had a prototype for the idea that originality is the objective of a certain kind of intellectual endeavor. Lots of philosophers would disagree with my view of philosophy, by the way. But then lots of philosophers would disagree about literally anything.

What could it mean to be new or original in literature? After all, virtually every story, poem, or essay is original in the sense that it constitutes a new and never-before-written set and sequence of words. (Apart from plagiarized texts, that is.) Putting together such a set and sequence is trivially easy. So if I associate originality with seriousness in writing, I must mean something else.

Things are about to get wishy-washy and mystical. I apologize in advance; this always seems to happen when one talks about literature.

I think the originality of serious writing is the distillation in words of an original point of view. Not a point of view in the narratological sense, in the sense writers mean when they say, “that story is written in third-person POV.” I mean a point of view, instead, which constitutes a certain way of looking at the world, a certain affective and intellectual way of reacting to experience.

Again, you might object that everybody possesses an original point of view in this sense, and that, therefore, it should be trivially easy to become a serious writer. But I think you would be wrong. True, everyone possesses an original point of view; but not everyone can express it, and much less elaborate an original point of view they don’t, themselves, possess (like a philosopher elaborating a position in logical space they don’t themselves endorse). While I believe, looking around me at other people, that every single one of them possesses an inalienable individuality, I find that most people express themselves in similar ways. This homogeneity only increases as the abstraction and technical difficulty of the form of expression increases: people are a little bit similar when they tell their everyday stories about work and family and so on; they are even more similar when they express themselves formally, giving a prepared speech or writing a letter or email, or making proclamations on their social media feeds; and they are most similar when they assay the settled forms of literary expression, writing a story or poem, reviewing a book. It is very hard to draw up out of the well of individual experience a unique point of view in writing, and those who manage to do so — like philosophers who manage to find and fill an unoccupied part of the logical space of their problem — set the coordinates, define the edges and possibilities, of literature as an overall historical project.

It follows that if one is interested in being a serious writer, one should be on the lookout for cliches. Not just cliched phrases, but cliched thoughts and reactions, cliched forms and patterns, the cliches of narrative trope and contagious opinion. Cliches at all levels of writing are the easily-caught viruses that suffocate a writer’s capacity to express an original point of view. I think a lot of the choices I’ve made were unconsciously aimed at ridding my own writing of the encumbrance of cliches. (I’m not saying that I’ve succeeded.) That’s why, from a very young age, I decided it would be better to come at writing slant, not through creative writing programs and courses but through the detour into philosophy. That’s why I prefer to read translated fiction, I think, rather than the newest English-language novels that all my friends are talking about — the further out of my context the majority of stuff I pour into my brain, the less likely it will be, I wager, to infect me with cliches. And that’s the reason I have an increasingly visceral reaction to social media. I’ve watched the original point of view of literary friends wilt and die in their writing as they become infected by the argot of twitter, dominated by its fads, inside-jokes, and organizing polemics.

Is it really worth organizing your life to improve the chances that you will be able to express an original point of view? Doesn’t it risk alienating you, in fact, from supportive communities and collective projects for the common good? Who cares if you become a serious writer? Some of my favorite living writers — some of them friends — don’t give two shits about originality, writing stories and essays that give vast pleasure to their readers despite open reliance on storytelling models and stylistic predecessors that anybody can recognize. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet I can’t shake the aspiration in my own heart to be “a serious writer,” in the sense I’ve outlined. Is it snobbery? The suspect competitiveness of masculinity? Narcissism? I’d like to let myself off the hook and say it’s an aspiration for my writing grown directly from my reading. Literature has been my lodestar for sixteen years now, and while I would be delighted simply to enjoy it until I die and to contribute enjoyable but unoriginal diversions to its vast body, my very love spurs me toward the hope of expanding its possibilities too.

I wrote all this as a private document to sort out my own thoughts, but now that I reread it I’m curious if readers of this blog have things to say on the subject, so I’m going to post it.

What I Read, December 2020

I read fewer books than usual this month, because I felt compelled to chew my way (before the new year) through hundreds of pages of accumulated unread issues of the magazines I subscribe to — the NYRB, LRB, Raritan, Foreign Affairs, NLR, Artforum, Bookforum, Asimov’s, and F&SF. I really let them pile up over the last few months, in favor of doomscrolling and wall-staring. But nevertheless, despite devoting days to that snowdrift of periodicals I did manage to read a few books. And here they are.

The Searcher, by Tana French

A novel about a Chicago police detective who has retired to rural Ireland where he is enlisted by a child to investigate her brother’s disappearance. It is as descriptively lush as French’s novels always are, but slower paced, populated (it seemed; I haven’t counted) by fewer characters, and focused intensely upon landscape. It mostly avoids what I consider to be her signature structural flaw, an over-reliance on flashbacks and flashforwards. This happened, probably, because The Searcher is written — for the first time in her body of work — in third person, a point of view in which it is harder to gracefully integrate flashbacks. Or so I have found. But if this choice gained her a new structural unity it also sacrificed one of the pleasures of her novels, which is discovering the very distinctive voices she crafts for each new narrator. I still read it like a thirsty man gulping water, of course: few writers at work today are more compulsively readable.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen

A partial biography of Charles Darwin — the dramatization of one strand of his life, from the weeks post-Beagle-voyage when he began to get an inkling of the idea of natural selection up until the publication of his great book. For me it was a sneaky late contender for my favorite book of the year. It is a tale of secret notebooks and wary correspondence, of the slow growth of a shattering idea whose thinker recognizes how poorly it will be received and devotes whole decades to building a shield around himself for the inevitable shitstorm, only to discover at the end of his labors that an upstart has stumbled on the same idea and is preparing, brashly, to trumpet it in the public square, and so the slow and careful thinker is forced to his desk like the pulpiest hack to condense volumes of data and loops upon loops of intellection into a single, persuasive book, which we know as the scientific classic The Origin of Species.

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker

A very short novella — almost a novelette — about an exorcist, set in one of Parker’s vaguely renaissance-seeming secondary worlds. As does every K.J. Parker story, it dramatizes the technical details of its central craft — in this case the craft of exorcism. What Parker did for the construction of seige engines in the Engineer trilogy, or for the management of bureaucracy in The Folding Knife, or for swordplay in the Fencer trilogy, he does for the extraction of demons (and the casting of large bronze statues) in this book. Also typical of Parker, the book features a character with a dubious penchant for sacrificing the innocent to prevent ostensibly greater evils.

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

A gothic novel about an English woman, a translator living in Prague, who becomes literally and figuratively haunted by a folkloric personification of guilt. I came for the unique and stylized prose — of a kind you can only get away with in a gothic novel — and stayed for the profound and uncomfortable questioning of the real ethical import of “bearing witness.” Like all the best horror, what’s most chilling here is the presentation of a plausibly selfish nihilism in human behavior, beside the ugliness of which the more sensational aspect of the horror — the scary figure of Melmoth — has an almost erotic quality.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

A novel, translated from French by Alyson Waters, about the strange adventures of a police officer in a small, isolated French village in the foothills of the alps. He first comes to the village to catch a serial killer; then he moves there permanently to serve as the local wolf hunter (a real government position); finally, with the advice and aid of a retired prostitute and an aristocrat from a neighboring town, he seeks a wife. These are the book’s three acts, and although they seem rather disconnected in summary like this, the whole thing hangs together like a poem through the repetition of hallucinatory images — blood in the snow, hunting horns, images of distance and remoteness and shrouding fog — and the increasingly inscrutable problem of the central character’s thoughts and motivations. He is described from without in a polyphonic oral history, refracted through a narrator who never met him but heard about him from the other denizens of the village. It is the kind of novel that defies any attempt to say what it is “about,” and which yet leaves a strong and unified impression. It was my first book by Giono; it will not be my last.

Hitler: 1889-1936, by Ian Kershaw

The first volume in a two-volume study of Hitler’s life. Kershaw approaches the man from a sociological perspective, seeking the structural conditions for his acquisition and concentration of power. His thesis is that Hitler’s sole talent was propaganda; but, also, that this talent intersected fatally with unusual historical conditions perfectly aligned to elevate the right propagandist to absolute power. Hitler possessed all (and only) the virtues of the demagogue: single-minded commitment to a small set of core themes that he could emphasize or suppress with great sensitivity to an audience, an intuitive grasp of the techniques of self-advertisement, an insatiable appetite for symbolic domination, and, crucially, the ability to speak movingly to large groups of people. But the nature of propaganda as a talent, the way it necessitates constant escalation and ever-greater mobilization of its target audience if it is not to be exposed as empty posturing, especially when it is not tempered by any other talent or moral commitment, leads inexorably to catastrophe. That’s the implicit lesson of the duology, the first book of which is subtitled “Hubris” and the second “Nemesis.”

I listened to this book in audio form while taking my daily ambles about town, masked up, glasses fogging. It’s the first biography I’ve read via audiobook. My usual walking accompaniments are either urban fantasy detective novels or string quartets. I found listening to a biography as I walked more engrossing than I had expected, and will probably listen to many more that way.

Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman

A memoir about the author’s brother, who was incarcerated for his role in a homicidal robbery. Wideman’s other writings are primarily short stories and novels, full of nonlinear, fragmentary narratives and sudden cadenzas of introspective wordplay. It’s fascinating to see what such an innovative writer does when confronted with the demands of nonfiction. It is a twisty, montage-like memoir, braided from many strands: essayistic reflections on brotherhood, race, and the injustices of the carceral state; a straightforward retelling of the brother’s involvement in drug-dealing and robbery, stylized in his voice; scenes depicting what it’s like to visit a high-security prison and to live in the constant knowledge that your brother is there; and isolated memories from a shared childhood, memories that probe how two men, so similar in personality, who share a family and a neighborhood, could have such widely differing life outcomes — in Wideman’s case a Rhodes Scholarship, high-profile teaching positions, and an award-winning writing career; in his brother’s case a failed attempt to become a drug-dealer and a life-sentence in prison.

The window in the room where I am typing these words looks over a highway, down into the valley where the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh lies. Homewood serves as the setting for scenes throughout Wideman’s work, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve been steadily reading him since I discovered my physical proximity to the regions of his imagination. The library I frequent — also in Homewood — has well-thumbed editions of all his books. I hope to have read them all before I leave Pittsburgh.

The Dollmaker, by Nina Allan

A novel in which a man slowly travels across a blighted English landscape to rescue from an asylum his pen pal, a correspondent with whom he has fallen in love by letter. His adventures are braided with one side of the correspondence — the pen pal’s side — and with fairytale short stories from a book he is reading. Each inset story uncannily echoes his own life and mission. The interplay between the stories, the letters, and the narrator’s own life create a gothic atmosphere of unease.

The book reminded me strikingly of Melmoth (see above). In the first place, both punctuate realistic narratives with fantastical and eerie stories-within-stories that complicate and render uncanny the primary narrative. Also, both manage to be profoundly creepy without ever (to my mind) quite becoming about the shivers they provoke — the creepiness is atmospheric and also a side-effect of the metafictional aspects of the narratives. Melmoth has a somewhat simpler structure and a clearer moral message, while The Dollmaker is riddled with ambiguities that effectively conceal or mystify any simple lesson you might try to draw from it; but the experience of reading both books was equally delightful in similar ways. I think the gothic novel as a form is in exceptionally good hands.

A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

A mid-20th century novel, translated by Erdag Göknar from Turkish, about the doomed love affair of an Istanbul flaneur. For once the adjective “lyrical” is not a cliche: not only is the great mass of this book comprised of the detailed, quasi-poetic descriptive prose we tend to call “lyrical” — much of it devoted to the seemingly endless transfigurations of water and light as seen from a caïque (fishing boat) in the Bosphorus — but also songs, lyrics, are a primary structuring principle and theme. The central plot, a summer romance between a newly divorced woman and a newly minted academic that swiftly gutters and fades with the seasons, for reasons and in a manner clearly intended to make some sort of allegorical comment on midcentury Turkish culture and politics — plays out the story of a song that comes up over and over again throughout the book; and the characters, in their long discursive conversations about philosophy and history, allude to the idea that songs are somehow more real or permanent in their expression of a culture’s essence than the contingent doings of individual people. This was the second book I read this year set primarily in Istanbul. The other was a collection of stories by Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Between them they account for my growing interest in the modern history of the City of Two Continents, and in Ottoman high culture — the music of ney flutes and the drinking of rakı, calligraphic miniatures and Persian poetic forms. For Tanpınar, these things are clearly the objects of a conflicted nostalgia. His primary concern is to figure out the lineaments of a Turkish modernity that would not, in its pursuit of new ways and ends, discard what is unique in Turkish history. Such concerns are remote from me, not least because of my profound ignorance of Turkish history, and as a consequence a lot of the import of this novel — and it is clearly intended to make a lot of urgent points — went straight over my head. I appreciated it as a description-heavy, slow-moving, and immersive realist novel, pregnant with meanings I could not quite work out — this is the half-blind experience of translated literature I enjoy.