A quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen that I found particularly illuminating:

Q: If a writer can only get published online, does that really mean their work lacks “substance”? If you take an online story, print it out, and read it as a hard copy, does the story only then become substantive?

Franzen: Basically, yes, that is what I’m saying. Kafka is about as substantive as a writer can be, and it may be an interesting exercise to spell out the text of “Before the Law” in skywriting over Miami Beach, but I don’t think it will satisfy readers who care about Kafka’s substance. Part of the magic of literature resides in the making of the indelible mark — in our belief in its indelibility. Serious readers are able to invest even the crappiest, most beat-up paperback with a kind of magical permanence. To read Virginia Woolf on a little plastic screen that five seconds ago was filled with Ann Coulter is to undermine one of the basic conditions of literary reading. It’s to make all texts more or less equal and equally provisional. I admit that I may be particularly resistant to reading on a screen because I use a computer to write. When I see words are floating on a screen, I assume they’re still subject to revision. And it’s not that I assume they’re bad — I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting stuff getting published online. It’s more like the difference between fluorescence and a candle. Nothing you can do to a fluorescent fixture can make me want to have a romantic dinner by its light. Writing on the Web is at its best when it’s quick and spontaneous and in process. If there’s great fiction getting published online, I look forward to seeing it in print someday soon.

Ee-yep. What he said.


A great blue heron appears at the edge of the pond in our backyard. It bends and dips its beak into the water. Linda and Connor venture outside for a better view, but the heron senses their presence and flies off, its great wings folding and unfolding in slow motion as it rises into the sky.

At first I think Connor is disappointed, but I am wrong: it’s an excuse for a quest. Together the three of us march out into the chill for a minor adventure. A five minute walk gets us to another nearby pond, glassy and still, frustratingly absent any large birds. Another five minutes walk and we’re no closer to our quarry. I’ve forgotten a jacket and am starting to get cold.

We turn back, and that’s when Connor spots it, soaring over our heads like a missile, disappearing over nearby houses back the direction we’ve come.

This weekend, at the request of my five-year-old son, my family attended the HorrorHound horror movie convention at the Indianapolis Marriott. Gray skies and pissing rain made the convention seem more dour than it really was. At first I saw it as further evidence of the death throes of a genre I once loved unreservedly: icons like Romero, Barker, and Savini, now nearly out of work, reduced to scribbling on paper for cash. I changed my mind, however, when I saw the crowds of young attendees, enthusiastic in their Dawn of the Dead T-shirts, their Friday the 13th jackets. Appreciation for the genre still runs high, then, although it was unnerving the way young people were championing films from my own youth and not their own.

As I paid the plump, matronly woman for Connor’s “Hellraiser” mini-poster, my wife explained, perhaps to ward off criticism, that my son hadn’t seen the film but was fascinated by the Pinhead character nonetheless. Pinhead, Pinhead, Pinhead: that was all I’d heard from Connor all day, and seeing Doug Bradley in the flesh — pale, nebbishy Doug Bradley, who sat with equanimity in his black sweatshirt, dutifully signing autographs — had done nothing to dispel the mystique.

“Well,” the woman said, taking my cash. “There are worse role models.”

Roxane Gay provides her take here.

The recent arguments about fiction — traditional versus experimental, novel versus memoir, fiction versus reality — all seem to me to be beside the point. If people are dissatisfied with contemporary fiction, perhaps it’s because the classical approaches to fiction aren’t working or are becoming cliche; they no longer reflect the fragmented, ambiguous, self-conscious reality we all now endure. The solution, then, isn’t to hitch your wagon to “experimental” fiction or to release a manifesto, it’s to tell your story in a way that does reflect modern life — the same solution any writer has ever had. Don’t write a book like the ones you’ve already read. Writing like Hemingway or Heller or Stephen King is useless. The world in which they wrote doesn’t exist anymore. Create fiction that holds up a mirror to contemporary society. Ignore any or all conventions. Start from scratch.

In my view, arguments about fiction rarely boil down to two sides, but they’re often presented that way. Case in point: Christopher Higgs offers a rebuttal to Roxane Gay’s article here.

Other lists here.

I’m not a conservative, but I’ll play:

1. The Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Although I had read other literary classics before this one, Golding’s book was perhaps the first book I read as an adolescent that showed me the power of language, symbolism, and carefully crafted narrative.

2. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

I read this book for a class in high school. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the book and put it off for weeks, but when I finally forced myself to read the first few pages I was hooked and consumed the book in a couple of days. I can’t recall if Hardy’s bleak worldview matched my own before I read Jude, but it certainly matched afterwards, at least for the duration of my high school years.

3. Firestarter – Stephen King

The first “adult” novel I ever read. (I was in seventh grade.) I don’t think it’s King’s best book, but as it introduced me to my lifelong love of supernatural fiction, I have to give credit where it’s due.

4. Bartleby the Scrivener – Herman Melville

Another book — technically a novella, really — from high school, read for a class in philosophy. This tale, along with Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” began my love for literary ambiguity.

5. Money – Martin Amis

Dark, volatile, and hilarious, Amis’s book is a masterpiece of voice and style. For years after I read this book and London Fields I found myself uncontrollably imitating Amis’s voice in everything I wrote, an annoying habit I had to force myself to abandon.

6. Jernigan – David Gates

Another masterpiece of voice, another dark, funny book. Gates was riffing here on Beckett, but as I hadn’t read any Beckett, I didn’t know that. Jernigan, the narrator, is egotistical, intelligent, self-conscious to a fault, and often very annoying. To this day his voice matches the one inside my own head, at least from time to time, as much as it shames me to admit it.

7. The Collected Strange Stories – Robert Aickman

Aickman’s amalgam of bleakness, horror, ambiguity, and the surreal was irresistible to me from the moment I read the first of his many great stories. (For me, the first was “The Swords.”) I’ve devoured his writing, admired it, imitated it, and, I hope by now, completely absorbed it. There is nothing I would rather achieve as a writer than the sublime effects on the unconscious he so deftly captured on the page.

8. The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa said his book was a “factless autobiography,” and that’s as good a description as any. From today’s perspective the book reads like a particularly insightful blog. Sections are short, like diary entries. Pessoa will begin with an event that struck him in the course of a day and then riff on it, turn it on its side, take it apart, look underneath it for meaning. A beautiful book that I constantly return to for inspiration.

9. Altmann’s Tongue – Brian Evenson

The stories in this book — many of which are less than a page long — are dark, ambiguous, and written in a deadpan style that somehow intensifies both the horror and the humor. I love all of Evenson’s work, but this book introduced me to his narrative approach and led me to write my own, far less successful short-shorts.

10. Fatelessness – Imre Kertesz

A few years ago, my own ignorance of world fiction — fiction in translation — began to embarrass me. I decided to rectify the situation by making a New Year’s resolution to read as many Nobel-prize winning authors, particularly foreign-language writers, as I could. The experience introduced me to a number of writers I’d probably never have read otherwise, including Kertesz, a Hungarian concentration camp survivor. Fatelessness is the story of another concentration camp survivor — Kertesz says the book is not autobiographical, but how could it not be? — a fifteen-year-old who somehow finds moments of happiness at the camp. What’s striking about the novel is the tone: the narration is unsentimental, at times callow, and utterly genuine. Like all children, the narrator perceives himself as separate from the proceedings, above the fray, almost immortal. He never succumbs to the idea the he’ll die, even when death for him is very close. The book is a testament to the way a state of mind can help anyone withstand the whims of fate.

At lunch today, as I stood in the checkout line of a bookstore, two policemen, plump and somewhat out of breath, entered the store. The reedy young man with the nosering behind the counter began speaking with them in low tones. A crime had been committed, then, the perp in hearing range. I bought my book and walked away. As I exited I heard the man with the nosering speak to the policemen in a stage-whisper: “He’s sitting in a chair in the back of the store.”

This was the culprit? I thought: which chair? I recalled seeing as I shopped a man in a chair at the end of one aisle, his legs stretched luxuriantly before him, his nose deep in a book. Was this the man? What had he done — tucked a book into his coat pocket? If so, then why had he stuck around? Strange to think of shoplifters casually secreting merchandise and then relaxing in a chair with a book, awaiting the inevitable arrival of the authorities.