Tag Archives: John Jeremiah Sullivan

The Year That was: The Best American Annuals

19 Nov
Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915 1965 edited by Martha Foley

Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915 1965 edited by Martha Foley

Since 1915 Houghton Mifflin (et al) has maintained the tradition of publishing a yearly anthology of short fiction (ably assembled, for many years, by Martha Foley) entitled not surprisingly Best American Short Stories. Leaving aside the unfortunate American overuse of superlatives, this annual collection is high quality rivaled only by the yearly O Henry Prize stories compendium. Each year a guest editor is presented with about a 100 stories, drawn from a very broad and diverse mix of publications and culled from a much larger group by the current series editor.

As is the practice of Best American annuals, novelist Jennifer Eagan guest edited 2014’s volume. Among the contributors are, CHARLES BAXTER, ANN BEATTIE, T.C. BOYLE, PETER CAMERON, JOSHUA FERRIS, NELL FREUDENBERGER, DAVID GATES, LAUREN GROFF, BENJAMIN NUGENT,JOYCE CAROL OATES, KAREN RUSSELL and Laura Van Den Berg. Worthy reading.

The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Eagan

The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Eagan


Sometime in the 1980’s Best American Essays  (and Best American Mystery Stories )was added to the soon to be burgeoning Best American brand under the direction of Robert Atwan. This year’s essays anthology is guest-edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, he of the celebrated essay collection Pulphead.  Even if you are not familiar with this  all-star cast of writers such as DAVE EGGERS, EMILY FOX GORDON, MARY GORDON, VIVIAN GORNICK, LESLIE JAMISON, ARIEL LEVY, YIYUN LI, BARRY LOPEZ, CHRIS OFFUTT, ZADIE SMITH, ELIZABETH TALLENT,WELLS TOWER, PAUL WEST and JAMES WOOD, be assured that the topics chosen range far and wide with refreshingly original explications.

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Baltimore’s talented crime story novelist Laura Lippman hosts this year’s Best American Mystery Stories 2014 and consciously avoids drawing from the usual suspects thus including surprising names for the genre— MEGAN ABBOTT, DANIEL ALARCÓN, RUSSELL BANKS ,JAMES LEE BURKE ,PATRICIA ENGEL, ERNEST FINNEY, ROXANE GAY, CHARLAINE HARRIS,JOSEPH HELLER, ANNIE PROULX and LAURA VAN DEN BERG.

Best American Mystery Stories edited by Laura Lippman

Best American Mystery Stories edited by Laura Lippman

Sometime around the turn of the century, someone over at Houghton Mifflin with a some marketing savvy added all manner of categories to the Best American brand which currently includes—Travel Writing, Science and Nature Writing, American Comics, American Infographics and Non-Required Reading.

Not to draw to fine a point but I am still troubled by the insistence on literary journalists and other wise thoughtful folks can not shed themselves of mania for superlatives. The Best American Stories don’t have to carry that name for me to be interested reading them.

Ostensive Definition of Greatness

26 Oct


Currently reading The Best American Essays  2014 ed by John  Jeremiah Sullivan (HMH)

Who Took that Photo ? Part II

7 Jun

Before television (in fact, before rural electrification) periodicals did what some tv programs still attempt to do. Before Henry Luce invented Life magazine, his pet project was Fortune (upon which he concentrated his fawning attention and upon which he lavished many dollars, employing talented artists, accomplished or yet to be. James Agee before he made his mark (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) (he was awarded Yale’s Younger Poets prize in 1934), was hired to travel to southeastern Alabama to write about white tenant farmers.He was joined by Walker Evans and they spent two months in Hale County, Alabama, living with three different tenant families. The fruits of that project were never published (until recently). The newly renascent Baffler #19, editor John Summers takes great pride in uncovering and publishing a good chunk of this mislaid gem. As John Jeremiah Sullivan observes

That’s the first thing to be said about this essay: Fortune was crazy not to run it. It was a failure of nerve, and a lost chance at running one of the great magazine pieces from that era. But who knows? It’s possible no one ever actually read it. I’ve worked at many magazines; you’d be stunned. Also: fifty pages on malnourished, fatigue-racked poor people? It was Fortune. Magazines do like having advertisers. Which only makes what The Baffler and Melville House have done more valuable.

 Cotton Tenants: Three Families by ames Agee and Walker Evans

Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans

Sullivan is referring to the recently published 30,000 word essay in book form, Cotton Tenants: Three Families James Agee and Walker Evans’ (Melville House) with an introduction by John Summers. I leave it to you suss outwhat it signifies that 70 plus years later Fortune magaizne is a running a review of the book in its June 10 issue

Here are some of Evans’s photos:

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph; Walker Evans

Photograph; Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

and a slide show here

This Is the Day: The March on Washington  by  Leonard Freed

This Is the Day: The March on Washington by
Leonard Freed

And yet another reminder of the power and poignancy of black and white photography is This Is the Day: The March on Washington (Getty Publications) by Magnum photographer Leonard Freed with textual embellishment by Michael Eric Dyson, Paul Farber and Julian Bond.The March, you will recall, took place on August 28, 1963 with a quarter of a million people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in a peaceful protest demanding equal rights and economic equality for African Americans. It was where Martin Luther King declaimed his famous “I have a dream…” Though
Malcolm X did refer to the march as the “Farce on Washington.”

Freed’s tome includes 79 images culled from innumerable photos he shot that day—before, during, and after the march. Included in this array is an account of the preparations leading up to the march by civil rights activist,author and statesman Julian Bond and some thoughts on its significance by Dyson.

You can find a sampling of Freed’s photographs here

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Currently reading The Celestials by Karen Shepard (Tin House)

To Instruct and Entertain

28 Mar

Rick Russo introduces his guest edited Best American Stories with an anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s visit to Carbondale Illinois where Rick happened to be teaching. The upshot is that Singer answered a graduate student question about the mission of literature with, “To instruct and entertain.”

Not a bad formulation, which as it happens has come back to me as I have been enjoying some critical journalism (by which I mean journalism that includes critical commentary as well as snapshots of the zeitgeist) Though this should be obvious one of the rewarding by-products of especially original writing is the extension of conversations that begin in that writing.

Here’s what I mean. Hari Kunzru’s 4th novel Gods Without Men(Knopf) has stirred a substantial critical wave. But I took Douglas Coupland’s critique to be the most satisfying. Coupland begins with an high charged idea

No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it’s true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.

Coupland continues with a brief for what he identifies as a new literary genre: Translit. Of which Kunzru’s bouncing chronology (1775 to 2008, 2009 to 1945, 2007 to 1958 etc) is a fresh example ( as are Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.”)

What makes the book a Translit gem is its elegant pinballing between Jaz and Lisa’s present[the 2 central characters] and multiple substories that all, in some way, use a three-fingered desert rock formation called the Pinnacles as a thematic, geographic and chronological tether

And he concludes:

This book strives to locate the profound amid what on the surface seems like the nothingness of the desert and the emotional sparseness of the age. It also wonders how technology connects us to our spiritual cores and where it fails. When Raj returns to his parents, he becomes the star child at the end of Kubrick’s “2001.” Raj is whatever and whoever it is we all seem to have become: a race of time-traveling time killers Googling and Wikiing until our machines transform into something smarter than ourselves, we humans left only to hope the machines may save us in the process.

And that’s something to think about

The kerfluffle over an NPR correspondent’s reportage of the depredations suffered by Chinese workers in Apple supplier’s factories is the issue at the heart of essayist John D”Agata and fact checker (at the time) Jim Fingal book. Though everybody seems to have reviewed The Lifespan of A Fact (Norton) I recall the New York Times review seemed to go out if its way to misconstrue. Additionally, Ren Weschler told me in a recent chat (to be published in the fullness of time) he thought the book was very witty. But Mark O’Connell at the Millions seemed to give the book the respectful and thoughtful reading it deserved

There’s a tightly compressed irony to all this, of course, and to the significant media controversy this book has caused. D’Agata deliberately exposes his own fakery here (although that is presumably not a word to which he’d grant any legitimacy in a discussion of art, even “non-fiction” art). In that sense, he’s dictating the terms of the controversy he has provoked. That’s one of many obvious differences between D’Agata and the haplessly duplicitous likes of, say, Mike Daisey (for whom I might have had slightly more respect if he’d responded to the controversy over the fabrications in his This American Life story with “It’s called self-promotion, dickheads.”) Surprisingly few reviews have mentioned the fact that The Lifespan of a Fact is, itself, a heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process.

Slate’s media guy Jack Shafer chooses to talk about D’Agata’s methodology in discussing Truman Capote’s ground breaking In Cold Blood:

But what joins D’Agata and Capote is this: Both love “real” facts, but when blocked by journalistic convention from the literary effects they desire, they willingly leapt that fence to create whatever rules they needed to enhance their work. Because he admits to his shape-shifting, D’Agata’s work is harmless. Capote’s book, on the other hand, continues to be taught in journalism classes, is celebrated as a masterpiece, and I would guess that it has been read by 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves educated.

In the end, Shafer denigrates both writers:

I believe in journalism, not journalists, and welcome anybody with a notebook, a recorder or a 94 percent total-recall memory to help clear our field and plant it with their work as long as they have a true story to tell. As for latter-day Capotes and D’Agatas, I can give you Google Maps directions to the land of fiction.

And finally (for now) if you have even a passing acquaintance of American periodical book coverage you ought to recognize John Jeremiah Sullivan who James Pogue aptly points out has been anointed—the occasion being the publication of his 2nd opus, Pulphead (FSG)
Pogue as a son of South expends much thought and verbiage on Southern culture and its writing tradition —an effort both useful and entertaining. But not what I expected given the tone of the opening:

Let’s start this thing how John Sullivan would, if he were writing it. There would be a brisk lede, too conversational to call punchy. The astute reader would already know he was reading someone who has mastered the conventions of magazine journalism so completely that he can’t quite take them seriously. Then, if the lede wasn’t personal, there might be an anecdote about how the piece came about, and even the less astute reader—or, more fairly, the reader who couldn’t care less about the conventions of magazine journalism—would be given a little lesson in authorial motivations. He might hear about the money Sullivan had hoped to earn, or why he wanted to profile someone the reader of, say, a men’s magazine would have every right to think was a waste of pages that could have been filled with pictures of Jessica Alba or spreads of tassel loafers. And Sullivan, modest as ever, would assuage him, and well before the moment when that reader might have given up and turned back to the Alba shots, too few to be really satisfying anyway, he would be persuaded by Sullivan’s apologetic enthusiasm that maybe Axl Rose is still worth 6,000 words, or that Levi Johnston really does say something about the American condition, and he would stick around for a tender portrait of some trivial-seeming shit and come out touched, and feeling a little smarter, a little saner, and a little closer to the unknowable forces that make Americans act the way they do.

Pogue does get to this vantage point:

“For people who have never heard of John Jeremiah Sullivan, or who don’t know what the fuss is about, or who didn’t know about the fuss at all, the thing about him is that he’s a very good popular magazine journalist who has fashioned himself as a Southern writer, and that the South is immensely, perhaps inordinately, proud of its writers. And as with any writer in the southern belletristic tradition, there’s really no need to look up a bio of him: it’s all in his books or gossip. All of the Pulphead reviews mention that Sullivan was born in Kentucky, which is a little misleading … while he has deep family roots in the state, his parents drove across the Ohio from their home in Southern Indiana to a hospital in Louisville, then drove back to Indiana with the newest Sullivan. You also learn that he moved to Columbus, Ohio when he was 11 and lived there until he finished high school.”

In Pogue’s 5200 words there is a substantial rendering of Sullivan in terms of his place in the Southern literary milieu and his specific talents—none of which I seen elsewhere. His last words on Sullivan convinced me:

…He’s good enough to take the model he’s already mastered to new places, the way his ledes and the structure of his essays already play with a tired form. It would be nice to see him be less modest about his intellect and moral sense, which, you have to think, would inevitably lead him back south—his only real showy moments come when he drops bits of southern history, or his knowledge of a local quirk. But what I’d like is something to convince us that kind of knowledge matters, that there are societal lessons to be wrung, like he wrings them out in “American Grotesque,” from the cloth of mountain anecdote and dusty genealogical diagram. No one is better equipped to do it

By the way, as I seemed not to read the venues that offer John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing I was not aware of him until I chanced on his piece on David Foster Wallace in one of those light weight men’s magazines See if that article doesn’t give credence to James Pogue’s essay.

Currently reading Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Putnam)

The King is Dead

5 Apr

Though he was hidden in plain sight (like so many fine authors ) having published a novel and a story collection, David Foster Wallace went unnoticed ( he didn’t make Granta’s 1996 “Best of the Young American Novelists”) until his 1000 page, 100 footnote novel Infinite Jest. I recall when I talked to Foster Wallace in 1995 ( a conversation I will try to unearth at some future date) he was serious, polite, edgy and seemingly uncomfortable. Not the least due to lame publicity like a New York Times Magazine article anointing him the “grunge” novelist. Oy veh!

Well, what could you expect? A pack of puerile cultural scavengers affixing themselves to a rising literary star is the way of the world is it not. Luckily, Dave Eggers arrived on the scene with a penchant for showmanship and an interesting book and a clear evidence that the kids were still reading (at least some were) You may not know anything about David Foster Wallace but you probably know he hung himself (the kind of thing TMZ would report) in 2008. Certainly in the intervening years since the publication of Infinite Jest Wallace secured a place for himself in American letters and no lesser authority than Time Magazine included Infinite Jestin its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list.

Now comes the post-humous publication of Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (Little Brown). You can read about how Micheal Pietsch, Wallace’s editor and Little, Brown publisher,took on the prodigious task of reading the pages Wallace left behind which he lovingly brought The Pale Kinginto a publishable and readable form in Lev Grossman’s faithful recapitulation of Pietsch’s editor’s note.

Grossman does offer this thought though:

The Pale King is complete in one sense: it asks a question and posits an answer. Here and there throughout the book, Wallace alludes to a state of mind, or perhaps a way of being, in which a human being can set aside boredom, or pass through it, to experience reality calmly and openly, appreciating it for its richness without demanding from it anything as easy or satisfying or ready-made as meaning. There’s both a whiff of dorm-room, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mysticism to this idea and a whiff of truth as well. Not everybody in The Pale King is able to find this state of mind, but everybody is looking for it.

Now, part of my motive for writing this notice is to suggest that you restrain yourself from reading the avalanche of chatter that the Pale King will surely loose—unless we are blessed with Charllie Sheen developing aphasia or some other next big thing. The NY Times has already had two reviews and one article on the faux embargo imposed by Little Brown (book was supposed to go on sale April 15 and reviewers were asked not to review or quote from it, or even mention they had copies in their possession). I say read the book. Or read something by Foster Wallace. Or listen to his Kenyon College commencement speech published as a wonderful little book This is Water.

Okay, you might read one piece on Wallace —which I found in an unlikely place—there being odd pockets of intelligence and insight in world of big commercial media. John Jeremiah Sullivan has some smart things to say about Wallace and his place in a fluid evaporating culture. I like this bit of acuity:

Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified. And Wallace was speaking to them; his native conscientiousness prevented him from shirking the role of sage altogether. It’s in this way that we can understand his frequent and uncharacteristically Pollyanna statements about the supposed power of fiction against solipsism, i.e., that only in literature do we know for sure we’re having “a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness.”

By the way, I have read about 100 pages of The Pale King. It is hilarious. It is dark. And it is dense.