• October 9, 2015

    Keith Gessen

    Keith Gessen

    Two of Svetlana Alexievich’s translators responded in the Guardian to yesterday’s announcement that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature: Bela Shayevich, who’s at work on an English version of Second-hand Time, her “collection of oral histories from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the anti-Putin protests of 2012,” quoted from Alexievich’s introduction: “History’s sole concern is the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. . . . But I look at the world as a writer, and not strictly an historian.” And Keith Gessen (who translated Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster in 2004) reflected on the politics of her win: “When a critic of the Russian (as well as, in this case, Belarusian) regime receives a prize, it’s hard not to read it as a rebuke to the Kremlin. . . . But Alexievich’s work is also very much the opposite of most rebukes coming at Russia from the west. The people she talks to, the co-authors of her books, are working people, women and elderly people – precisely those who are left behind when we bring the former USSR our IMF-tailored ‘reforms,’ our sharp-looking investment bankers, our latest anti-tank weapons. Alexievich’s voices are those of the people no one cares about, but the ones whose lives constitute the vast majority of what history actually is.”

    If you missed this profile of “critic’s critic” and all-round delight George Scialabba, it’s time to remedy that.

    Mother Jones has an intriguing account of the protracted legal battle it just won after being sued by Frank VanderSloot, a major Republican donor—in fact, “one of the megadonors who will help determine who wins the 2016 GOP nomination”—over an article they published during the 2012 presidential primaries: “Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 percent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.”

    A former congresswoman has described having to remove all references to WikiLeaks documents she used in her PhD thesis, which had caused a university librarian to “completely, totally freak,” fearing she might be subpoenaed.

    As part of Dissent’s monthly interview series, Booked, Timothy Shenk has a fascinating conversation about politics and environmentalism with Jedediah Purdy.

    Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the New York Times magazine, on its relaunch earlier this year, and on giving up writing for editing: “What I always loved about writing was just putting on a show for the reader. I always thought about writing in a theatrical way, like you’re essentially staging a performance for the reader. And I think about the magazine that way. I think about putting on a performance.”

    It seems possible that a small rip will appear in literary space-time should too many Janeites contract “Ferrante fever.”

  • October 8, 2015

    Svetlana Alexievich

    Svetlana Alexievich

    The Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich, the bookies’ favorite, has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage.” “Life offers so many versions and interpretations of the same events that neither fiction nor document alone can keep up with its variety,” she told an interviewer when her oral history Voices from Chernobyl was published. “I felt compelled to find a different narrative strategy. I decided to collect the voices from the street, the material lying about around me. Each person offers a text of his or her own. And realized I could make a book out of them. Life moves on much too fast—only collectively can we create a single, many-sided picture. I wrote all five of my books in this way.”

    Revenge of the fact-checkers: Buzzfeed has gone through a 1998 book by presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, identifying all the quotations falsely credited (so it seems) to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the like. Huckabee, Buzzfeed notes, isn’t alone among Republican candidates in attributing “fake quotes to America’s founders. Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and former candidate Scott Walker have all done so.”

    As it is with movie stars, so too with writers of fiction—more of them are Canadian than you think. Take Rachel Cusk, whose strange, deft novel Outline has been shortlisted for two major Canadian awards in the last few days: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, worth $100,000, and the Governor-General’s Literary Awards, $25,000 (let’s assume that’s Canadian money).

    Investigations are still going on into the death, in 1973, of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and whether or not he was poisoned by the Pinochet regime.

    Pedro J. Ramirez, the notorious Spanish journalist and editor, has just launched a well-funded digital start-up called El Espanol, for which more than 10,000 subscribers apparently signed up sight unseen. Ramirez, who has often specialized in covering political scandals and corruption, has hired seventy-two journalists so far and promises “scoops every day.”

    Patti Smith will be reading and signing copies of her second volume of memoir, M Train, tonight at St. Joseph’s College, though it’s safe to say that anyone without a ticket by now won’t be getting in.

  • October 7, 2015

    Joshua Cohen

    Joshua Cohen

    If the premise of Stephen King’s Misery always struck you as an appealing one, now—or next week—is your moment. Starting Monday, the publishers of the newborn Useless Press (which aims to make “internet things” more interesting than the usual) will be metaphorically chaining the novelist Joshua Cohen to his desk, where he’ll spend his afternoons writing a novel live online for a week, subjected to feedback from readers every morning as the text emerges. If Charles Dickens had had an anxiety dream while writing the Pickwick Papers, it might have looked something like this: For five hours every day, you can watch, and comment. Mark your calendars (October 12) and bookmark pckwck.com.

    At this point, you may not have room in your life for one more Franzen piece, but just in case: Here’s the journalist Barrett Brown on reading Purity in federal prison.

    Yet more digital media workers are organizing: Al Jazeera America staff just voted to unionize, Arianna Huffington recently said she wouldn’t oppose plans to do so at the Huffington Post, and there’s a conference this weekend (starting tomorrow) in Kentucky to discuss a nationwide coalition. 

    All of which is somewhat cheering as we head into “media layoff season.” The Awl has gathered data on recent and rumored-to-be-upcoming job cuts, listed by publication and illustrated with a mildly disturbing meat-slicing stock photo (and they welcome further updates from anyone in the know).

    And as if journalists hadn’t been through enough lately, it’s going to be that much harder to find scoops via Twitter and Reddit, now that both are planning to keep those stories for themselves: Twitter staffers will be curating tweets into little narratives, and Reddit’s launching Upvoted, its very own news site (which, in a decidedly un-Reddit-like move, will not allow comments).  

    The poet James Fenton has chosen imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi to share the PEN Pinter prize with him.

  • October 6, 2015

    Henning Mankell

    Henning Mankell

    Best-selling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who created the character of Kurt Wallander, died yesterday at age sixty-seven. The Guardian noted that he “took the existing Swedish tradition of crime writing as a form of leftwing social criticism and gave it international recognition,” and the Los Angeles Times looked back at its own reviews of Mankell over the years, including one from 2006 that rather winningly admired his resistance to the “tendency among some Scandinavian writers (think Ibsen, Strindberg) to cast a sense of gloom over their works.”

    A Mother Jones reporter charged with trespassing at a Louisiana prison is to be tried this week.

    The Rumpus gathered a number of useful responses to the New Yorker’s Kenneth Goldsmith profile, prefacing the links with an apology: “We ran a blog post earlier today about Alec Wilkinson’s pretty crap piece about Kenny Goldsmith in the New Yorker which we characterized as ‘refreshingly even-handed.’ That description is only accurate if you define even-handed as a several-thousand-word tongue-bath in the pages of a huge magazine which both ignored and dismissed many of Goldsmith’s critics.”

    After the death of Carmen Balcells, the godmother of twentieth-century Latin American literature known as La Mamá Grande, it remains uncertain what will happen to her literary agency—“as much a cult of personality as an institution,” writes Rachel Donadio in the New York Times—which still represents everyone from Isabel Allende to the estate of Gabriel García Márquez. Balcells’s merger talks with Andrew Wylie (whom she claimed did not have “the flexibility and sensibility of a woman”) seem not to have worked out. “Clearly this marriage had not been consummated,” the London agent Andrew Nurnberg told the Times, saying that he had been in talks with Balcells himself very recently. Now Donadio predicts “a land grab involving some of the biggest personalities in world publishing.”

    It’s worth revisiting (or visiting) ten of the best pieces produced by independent multimedia organization Novara, who are raising money this month: There are interviews with Jacqueline Rose (also reviewed in the fall Bookforum) and Jeremy Corbyn, as well as segments that explain when white people were invented, and what neoliberalism actually is.

  • October 5, 2015

    Ira Silverberg

    Ira Silverberg

    Ira Silverberg—who has been the editor in chief of Grove Press, an agent at Donadio & Olson and at Sterling Lord Literistic, and the Literature Director of the National Endowment of for the Arts—has started a new position as senior editor at Simon & Schuster.

    In a new essay, author Jedediah Purdy dwells on the similarities between Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “They are representative work for a time when representation—politically, aesthetically—is at its most fraught, in speaking for others and also in putting forward one’s self.”

    When a journalist recently asked Patti Smith, whose new memoir, M Train, was published last week, if she’s single, the singer-writer responded: “I don’t think that’s any of your business.

    Discussing the mass shooting in Oregon last week, a Fox News correspondent pondered the suspect’s name, Chris Harper Mercer, and claimed: “I mean, his name doesn’t bring anything to mind, where he be—he doesn’t sound like he’s Muslim.” This, says the Washington Post, points to another reason that media outlets should name the killer: “It may serve to expose certain presumptions and prejudices.” At Poynter, Kelly McBride agrees that it’s important to name the shooter, and offers a list of reasons that journalists should do so. The Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting site remains skeptical, saying that media coverage of such shootings is “a sort of advertisement to mass murder.”

    The online betting site Ladbrokes has given Haruki Murakami 6-1 odds to win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, which puts him slightly behind the frontrunner, Svetlana Alexievich, who has been given 5-1 odds. Alexievich is from Belarus, and is best known in the US for her oral history Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, which was translated by Keith Gessen.

    At the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove says that Josh Tyrangiel’s departure as editor in chief of Bloomberg Businessweek and as chief content officer of Bloomberg Media is evidence that former mayor Michael Bloomberg is “reasserting total control over his privately held empire.”

  • October 2, 2015

    In the wake of another mass shooting, this time at a college campus in Oregon, there has been disagreement over how journalists should proceed in reporting such events immediately after the fact, especially when using social media. In responding to the events in Oregon, the president made a statement that Vox calls “as angry as Obama publicly gets”: “We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. . . . So we know there are ways to prevent it. And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue.  Well, this is something we should politicize.”

    As of November 1, Chris Cox, who has worked at Harper’s since 2010, will take over from Ellen Rosenbush as its editor.

    In the New Republic, Cathy Park Hong offers a corrective to the recent focus on Kenneth Goldsmith, writing that “the poetry world has been riven by a crisis where the old guard—epitomized by Goldsmith—has collapsed.” She writes about the new American poetry, “a movement galvanized by the activism of Black Lives Matter, spearheaded by writers of color who are at home in social media activism and print magazines; some poets are redefining the avant-garde while others are fueling a raw politics into the personal lyric. Their aesthetic may be divergent, but they share a common belief that as poets, they must engage in social practice.”

    The winner of this year’s Nobel Prize is likely to be announced soon. Cue the annual Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth speculations (“I wonder,” Roth winningly remarked last year, “if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy”). Other current bookies’ favorites apparently include Svetlana Alexievich, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Haruki Murakami.

    Jonathan Bate’s new book on Ted Hughes, which was to have been an “authorized” biography before access was withdrawn, nonetheless looks to offer new insight into both Hughes and Plath.

    For the Guardian, Michelle Dean interviews Eileen Myles.

  • October 1, 2015

    You can read Andrew Roberts’s review of Niall Ferguson’s authorized Henry Kissinger biography in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. But you might want to prepare first by reading this review of the review by Greg Grandin, author of a more critical Kissinger biography. He points out that the Times’s usual rules on conflicts of interest ought to preclude assigning this one to Roberts, an old friend of both the book’s author and its subject (Kissinger, in fact, originally asked Roberts to write the biography himself): “The Times might as well have asked Kissinger to review his own biography. Or, better, Ferguson himself.”

    Valeria Luiselli

    Valeria Luiselli

    Ta-Nehisi Coates and Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, are among the finalists for this year’s $50,000 Kirkus prize for nonfiction. Nominees for the fiction prize include Valeria Luiselli, Hanya Yanagihara, and the late Lucia Berlin.

    Yet another alt-weekly, the Philadelphia City Paper, will close next week.

    Newspapers may be suffering, but their old staple the crossword puzzle seems to be thriving. The Wall Street Journal started a daily puzzle recently, and now BuzzFeed is launching one too: The Observer has an interview with its twenty-two-year-old puzzles editor.  

    Emily Books is publishing a collection of work by the writer and poet Jenny Zhang, because, as Ruth Curry puts it, “You get the feeling that she loves being gross. She puts the grossness in service of something powerful.”

    Tonight at the Columbus Avenue branch of Book Culture, there will be a live recording of the Books & Authors podcast: Cary Barbor will be interviewing Eileen Myles about her new collection, I Must Be Living Twice.  

  • September 30, 2015

    Poets and wits may lose their advantage on Twitter if people no longer have to abide by the 140-character limit (it could well happen).

    The German publisher Axel Springer, which earlier this year teamed up with Politico on its make-Brussels-sexy European operation and recently lost out on a deal for the Financial Times, has just bought Business Insider for $343 million.

    Speaking of Politico, you may have missed its plan to save or eat journalism over the next five years. See the founders’ memo to staff: “Our dream is a Politico journalistic presence in every capital of every state and country of consequence by 2020. With each passing month, we grow more confident our model can save journalism in state capitals and spread it in new countries.”

    Julie Schumacher

    Julie Schumacher

    This week the Thurber prize for American humor went to a woman, Julie Schumacher, for the first time in its history. A small victory, too, for beleaguered academics, whose plight is illuminated by Schumacher’s winning book, Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel told through the recommendation letters a professor must write for almost everyone he’s ever met.

    Digital staff at Al Jazeera America voted yesterday on whether to go ahead and unionize after management there refused to recognize their efforts voluntarily. The results will be out on October 6, but meanwhile the bosses at AJAM look tougher than those at VICE or Salon, or even Gawker’s “intensely relaxed” Nick Denton, all of whom have conceded “at least de facto union recognition.”    

    Amid the latest Republican efforts to remove Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler and his wife Lisa Brown gave a million-dollar donation to the organization, which Brown noted had “gone through a series of unfortunate events” this year.

    Tonight at McNally Jackson, don’t miss Lydia Davis, August Kleinzahler, and others reading from Lucia Berlin’s story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women, which Joy Williams will review in the next Bookforum.

  • September 29, 2015

    Ben Lerner

    Ben Lerner

    The latest MacArthur “genius grants” have been announced, and the twenty-four new fellows include the writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ben Lerner, who told a reporter that getting the no-strings award, which pays out $625,000 over the course of five years, “takes away all your excuses to not be doing the most ambitious work.”

    The New York Times mourns the end of “tabloid culture”: After massive layoffs, which came on September 16 “with the swiftness of a Soviet-era purge” the Daily News is completing its transformation from, as former News columnist Michael Daly put it, “a New York paper for New York people” to a mostly digital creature that will “read the same from Brooklyn to Bahrain.” One longtime reporter told the Times: “I can’t remember the last time someone on the staff sent a note saying, ‘Hey, good piece.’ What they say now is, ‘Hey, we broke the March record for page views!’”

    Claudia Rankine’s Citizen received another honor in the form of the £10,000 Forward Poetry Prize.

    As his “blazing blue streak of a literary memoir” I Can Give You Anything But Love appears, and some of his out-of-print novels are due to be republished, the New Republic asks if this will be “Gary Indiana’s year.”

    Some are asking if we still need Banned Books Week (that’s this week, so feel free to skip straight to Friday if you’d like).

  • September 28, 2015


    Lucia Berlin

    Lucia Berlin

    A new NPR article about book blurbs points out that they aren’t “exactly meant for readers,” and that by the time a book is actually published, the blurbs have “already done most of the work [they’re] supposed to do.” Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette, says that agents get potential publishers to look at a manuscript by listing endorsements “from authors you’ve heard of. That’s the way the agent is getting the publishing community to read this book ahead of all the other thousands of books on submission at that time.” The article also interviews novelist Gary Shteyngart, who has written more than 150 blurbs, about his criteria for endorsement. “I’ll look at a first sentence [of a galley], I’ll look at the cover and it just comes to me,” he says. “Reading randomly from a book is also very helpful. Sometimes I try to read further—but you know, how far can you get? Does anyone even read these books anymore?”

    In an excerpt from her forthcoming book, M Train, Patti Smith explains how she gained admittance into the Continental Drift Club, “an obscure society serving as an independent branch of the earth-science community.” She was invited to join the society, much to her surprise, after sending written requests to photograph the boots of the CDC’s founder, the explorer Alfred Wegener. “I am certain I didn’t quite meet their criteria, but I suspect that after some deliberation they welcomed me due to my abundance of romantic enthusiasm. I became an official member in 2006.”

    The winners of the fifteenth annual Online Journalism Awards have been announced. The top honors in the breaking-news category went to recent start-up reported.ly for its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, The Baltimore Sun for its reporting on the Baltimore riots and the Freddy Gray case, and to the Globe and Mail for its reports on the shootings in Ottawa. The winners of the general-excellence category were the Missouri public-radio station’s website KBIA, Quartz, and the Washington Post.

    The staff of Atavist magazine explains why they’re “discontinuing our native mobile apps to place all of our focus on the web.”

    New York’s McNally Jackson bookstore is hosting two highly recommended author events this week: On Tuesday, Choire Sicha interviews Eileen Myles, who has just seen the re-release of her classic novel-in-stories Chelsea Girls and the publication of her collected poetry collection, I Must Be Living Twice; and on Wednesday, Lydia Davis and August Kleinzahler discuss the stories of Lucia Berlin, recently collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women.