Open Letters for October!


The October issue of Open Letters Monthly is up, and the editors are enjoying the brief interval fondly (or sometimes grudgingly — I’m looking at you, Steve Donoghue!) known as the “Basking Period,” in which we sit back and admire the results of our hard work — and, of course, the hard work of our excellent contributors.

One of this month’s highlights is our Bestseller Feature, in which we take a hard look at the NYT fiction bestsellers. As you might expect, things don’t often go that well for the poor bestsellers (Greg Waldmann’s takedown of James Patterson’s Alert is both harsh and hilarious, for instance), but there are some nice surprises too: check it out to read, among others, Steve Donoghue on Debbie Macomber, Sam Sacks on Kristin Hannah, John Cotter on Jonathan Kellerman, me on Paula Hawkins, and Rebecca Hussey on Jennifer Weiner.

Rebecca also contributed a smart, thoughtful review of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City that made me even more interested in reading the book for myself (how I hadn’t even heard of Gornick until so recently is a puzzle to me). We’ve got a lovely essay-slash-review from Kerry Clare, as well, on Anne-Marie Macdonald’s Adult Onset; a fascinating piece from Victoria Olsen on the dancer Jane Avril; a review from Steve Donoghue of a new book on “The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar” — plus other reviews, new poetry, and links back to our previous bestseller features from 2008 and 2009.

As always, I feel proud and happy to help bring so much good writing together for readers. I really think we offer a good experience for writers, too: our editing is attentive and rigorous and focused on bringing out the best in every contribution. The editors do it all on top of our “day jobs” and with essentially no budget: I suppose there’s a way in which that is not necessarily to be celebrated, but the results certainly are.

Another New Month, Another New Open Letters!

RWA-300x242We did it again! A rich new issue of Open Letters Monthly is up, with something in it for every interest and taste. This month’s seems particularly good to me, and I don’t say that just because it includes four pieces for which I was the lead editor. A few highlights:

Victoria Olsen reports from the Romance Writers of American convention in NYC:

There are a lot of sexist assumptions behind the devaluation of the genre and its community . . . but here I’m most interested in the fact that these readers know all this already, they’ve heard it all before, and their pens are primed with rebuttals. The RWA convention made their self-awareness visible and explicit. These are women who know exactly what they are doing, who mean what they say, and who are willing and able to defend themselves.

Levi Stahl introduces us to Anthony Powell’s lesser-known novel Venusberg:

this is prose that is beginning to move like thought, to wend back in on itself and make discoveries along the way, an approach that will reach its apotheosis in the watchful narrative musings of Nick Jenkins in Dance. It also helps us begin to understand Powell’s protagonist, Lushington, revealing how observant he is, the first step toward helping us see him as something different from, and more thoughtful than, his giddier peers.

Alice Brittan examines Elena Ferrante’s phenomenally successful Neapolitan novels

I can think of many novelists whose prose is more startling or beautiful than Ferrante’s, whose plots and structures are more ingenious, whose anger at the systemic abuse of women and the poor is as explosive, whose depiction of motherhood is as unsentimental, and whose exposure of the hidden threads that turn the individual into the puppet of the state is as rigorous. But I don’t love most of their books like I love Ferrante’s, because they don’t make me feel what she does, which is that I am in the presence of “a bare and throbbing heart.”

Dorian Stuber adds to his growing body of work for us on Holocaust writing with his review of Jim Shephard’s The Book of Aron:

Children are always trying to decode a world that exceeds their understanding. Children in the Holocaust experienced this imperative in particularly powerful and perverse form. Where normal children wonder about life — where do babies come from? — these children wondered about death — what is happening to my world? Shepard suggests that a child’s point of view both incites and stymies readers’ ability to comprehend an overwhelming, traumatic event like the Holocaust. Children offer a powerful metaphor for the bewilderment and fear that adults too — both then and now — experience in the face of something like the Ghetto.

And that’s definitely not all: James Ross looks critically at the TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire; Stephen Akey thinks back on the book that transformed his idea of what it meant to be a reader; Steve Donoghue reviews a history of the world’s most famous chessmen; Dan Green reviews a book on the strange art of literary biography; and that is still not all — so go on over and explore for yourself.

I have a writing deadline that may keep things a bit quiet around Novel Readings for the next little while. But I’m also reading Maus, and hope to have a chance to put some thoughts together about it after that, and classes start for me at the end of next week, so the new season of “This Week In My Classes” will also be kicking into gear.

February Reading: Open Letters Monthly and Vera Brittain

FoxTeaPhotoI’ve been so overwhelmed by winter (last night’s storm was another big one, but at least the 6 inches of fresh snow was of the light, powdery variety rather than the ice-encrusted kind!) that I almost forgot to give a shout-out to the new issue of Open Letters Monthly, which went up almost a week ago. I hope you have already checked it out. But if you haven’t, here are some teasers that I hope will entice you on over:

My brilliant colleague Alice Brittan writes on Norwegian phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love reading Alice’s pieces: she wears her erudition so gracefully, yet there’s an intellectual severity that also keeps us on our toes: “When reviewers praise Knausgaard for liberating the novel — as though it were a rigid and relatively parochial form like a haiku or a villanelle— all I see is evidence of amnesia.”

Regular contributor and now, happily for us, our newest editor Robert Minto writes one of my favorite kinds of essays: a smart and heartfelt appreciation of a cherished classic, in his case John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “in my irreligious adulthood, the book remains one possession from my childhood secure against retrospective distaste.”

Fox Frazier-Foley writes about the “kitchen witchery” she learned from her remarkable grandmother, and about the ways women have always passed down much more than recipes as they shared their wisdom — and their sometimes scary, sometimes funny, ways of using food to get what they want, whether it’s revenge (beware the “Punish and Banish a Bully” brownies!) or love (“Engagement Chicken”!). I could use some “Let’s Be Friends Cobbler” right about now, actually.

There’s much more, as always, including 19th-century photography, a new series featuring literature from and about China, translations of Anna Karenina, and new poetry. Go take a look — and while you’re there, notice some of the renovations we are undertaking, including a new widget that shows related reading at the end of every new piece. We have a rich archive, and this is one way we hope to keep more of it in sight!

You may notice that once again there is nothing by me in the main Table of Contents. That’s not really by design: it’s more a matter of how I’ve been ordering my writing priorities, as well as a few external writing obligations I’ve had, including the forthcoming review for Belphegor that I mentioned here, the essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that ran in 3:AM Magazine, and, appearing just today, a small but, I hope, not trivial “listicle” on Vera Brittain for the website For Books’ Sake, for their regular “10 Reasons to Love” feature. I’ve also been trying to step up the pace of blogging here, as I had been missing the energy I get from writing exactly what I want, without worrying about guidelines or audiences or whatever else.

I’ve also, just by the way, written nearly 16,000 words of my book chapter. It is still very much in the shitty first draft phase, but 16,000 words that need a lot more work sure seems like progress over no words, even if my faith in the whole project wavers daily (sometimes hourly). I am so glad I signed up for Jo Van Every’s Meeting With Your Writing sessions: you wouldn’t think something so simple would make such a difference, but not only is the scheduled “meeting” a great motivator, but her prompts are pitched just right to help you get moving without feeling harrassed.

My Open Letters silence will be broken next month, however, as I will be reviewing Diana Souhami’s new novel Gwendolen. “Souhami has breathed fresh life into a classic in ways that will appeal to readers entirely unfamiliar with Eliot’s fiction,” promises (or threatens?) the blurb. But what about readers who are familiar with it? Let’s just say that so far this reader is … skeptical. It hasn’t helped that Souhami seems to have gone to the Brenda Maddox school of how to write about George Eliot, who appears, god help us, as a character in Gwendolen — but no more about that now! you’ll have to wait for my review. In the meantime, happy February reading!

Open Letters Monthly and Other December Reading


It’s up: another new issue, and this one is as wide-ranging but also as deep as any we’ve published in a while. A small sampling:

Sam Sacks on James Wood and the Fall of Man:

But Wood’s story works brilliantly if it is taken as just that, a story—if it is read conditionally and gleaned for the truths of a work of fiction. Wood personifies the novel; he sets it on a quest, as in a Bildungsroman. He puts it through a crisis of faith and then follows it past obstacles and blind alleys, through low periods of stasis, and into the fugitive joys of innovation and discovery. Most powerfully, he animates the novel with a very human desire: like Thomas Bunting, and like Wood himself, it seeks freedom—from the outdated customs of its upbringing and the fear of public disapproval. Most of all it looks to throw off the chains of self-consciousness, or, to borrow a description from his collection The Fun Stuff, to get away from “the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.”

Alice Brittan on Colm Tóibìn’s Nora Webster:

Like the painters he admires, Tóibín is devoted to revealing the interior life of the individual, the emotions and thoughts that people hide even from themselves and that you can only see by looking closely and for a very long time. He writes the calmest prose I know. There is nothing showy or grabby about his sentences, and his narrative structures are fairly straightforward. Yet no living writer seems wiser. Few are as moving. “You want plot, read the newspaper!” he said in a recent interview. Tóibín is more interested in the moment when the action stops, and in people who look forward to getting home, shutting the front door, and quietly thinking it all over.

Steve Donoghue on yet another biography of that ‘pestiferous little Corsican,’ Napoleon Bonaparte:

veteran biographer Andrew Roberts this book season has produced an 800-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the mere thought of such a thing, let alone the brick-solid reality of it, is an extravagant, almost insulting imposition on the carefully-rationed spare time of his readers. Bonaparte is one of the most exhaustively-studied people in history; in less than a decade, we’ve had gigantic one-volume biographies, gigantic two-volume biographiesgigantic reprints of earlier biographies, studies of the Russian campaignthe Egyptian campaign and dozens of other studies large and small. Bonaparte’s every move has been scrutinized, his every utterance parsed, his locks of hair CT-scanned as often as any Egyptian mummy; no matter how galling it might be for professional historians to admit, there are no substantial secrets remaining in his life.

Greg Waldmann on Leon Panetta’s unworthy Worthy Fights:

Just as Panetta writes himself as a cliché, many of the people he writes about become clichés, and most of his ideas are clichés, too. Political memoirs are often badly written, so in a sense this is no surprise. The genre, however, is a deformed species of apologetic literature, and the way in which these former leaders go about justifying themselves is usually revealing in other ways. George W. Bush’s Decision Points was like its author: Manichean and self-righteous, yet fundamentally insecure. Dick Cheney’s memoirs were contemptuous and not a little sinister. Donald Rumsfeld’s were combative and condescending, quarreling in end notes about semantic minutiae. Worthy Fights, like its author, is stultifyingly conventional, cozy in its Washington milieu, grinding on for page after page of received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about people and the role of American power in the world.

There’s much more equally interesting and worthy of your attention, on topics from Norman Mailer’s letters to contemporary Serbian fiction, from new poetry to the collected stories of Frank Herbert: I hope you’ll head over and explore for yourself. I’m represented this month only through my behind the scenes editing work and my contribution to our annual Year in Reading feature, where my comments about discovering that there’s Dorothy Dunnett beyond Lymond won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog.

kinghereafterI am, however, represented in a couple of other publications this month — one of which is actually Whispering Gallery, the journal of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, where my essay on King Hereafter is being reprinted. Whispering Gallery is available in hard copy only, to members of the Society. I’ve never been much of a joiner (I don’t even belong to the George Eliot Fellowship! and I’m just a little bit scared of the enthusiasm manifested by the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America …) but Whispering Gallery looks like it’s a lot of fun. The last issue included an article called “Jerott Blyth: Dashing Hero or Dumb Idealist?  Part 2,” for instance, which certainly got me thinking, not just about how I’d answer this question (“a bit of both,” maybe?) but also about how great it is that Dunnett has readers who care enough to make this a 2-part feature. (Lymond was just voted “Scotland’s favourite literary character,” by the way, which is as it should be.)

And you’ll also find my byline on an essay in 3:AM Magazine this month: “Sex, Style, and Sewage Farms: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.”

Woolf, of course, dominates our picture of early twentieth-century women writers: Holtby paid a price in prestige for her commitment to the kind of social realism Woolf eloquently dismissed in essays such as “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” Holtby’s novels offer us not the “luminous halo” of consciousness, but the materiality Woolf rejected as lifeless; to Woolf’s rhetorical question “Must novels be like this?” Holtby implicitly replies that at any rate they can be like this and still convey something important, that the “series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” may reveal social patterns of genuine significance — not just artistically but politically.

It’s exciting to contribute to another great online journal, and also gratifying to see all that work I did on Brittain, Holtby, and the Somerville novelists bearing new fruit. I’m actually working on another short piece on Brittain for another site, so more about that when it goes live early in the New Year.

Open Letters Monthly, September 2014 Edition


Another new month, another new issue of Open Letters Monthly! As always, I hope you’ll check it out; I think almost anyone could find something of interest in it! Among my favorites this month are Laura Tanenbaum’s review of Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past, and Erin Wunker and Hannah McGregor’s essay on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. You’ll also find Steve Donoghue on 13 Days in September, Lawrence Wright’s new book on the Camp David negotiations; Justin Hickey on Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman; Robert Minto on a new book on the Hundred Years War; two new poems; and more! My own contribution this month is a ‘peer review’ feature on the critical reception of Elena Ferrante. The more of her reviews I read, the more I felt that something was going on that deserved some closer scrutiny. My conclusion? Well, you’ll have to pop over and read the piece, won’t you?

August in Open Letters Monthly — and an Interview


Once again it’s a new month and so we’ve got our new issue up. One neat new thing is the graphic “slider” at the top of the site, which showcases a range of pieces from the magazine (and which will also include new blog posts and highlights from Open Letters Weekly). We think this adds a bit of dynamism to the front page and we hope it will help visitors to the site spot things they’re interested in reading easily — though scrolling down the page to see the full Table of Contents and links to recent posts remains the best way not to miss anything.

MaryBarton-195x300As always, I think there are a lot of pieces well worth your time. Favorites of mine include Jessica Miller‘s smart and probing review of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex; Dorian Stuber‘s thorough piece — as much essay as review — on Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue (about Gertrude van Tijn, whose work with the Jewish Council during WWII helped over 20,000 Jews escape the Holocaust but also involved her to a vexing degree in what some have seen as collaboration with the Nazis); Elisa Gabbert’s typically sharp critique of Ben Lerner’s regressively metafictional 10:04; and our collective feature on ‘minor’ works by major writers from Shakespeare to Muriel Spark. My contribution to this list is Gaskell’s Mary Barton; as I say there, in its day there was nothing obscure about Mary Barton, but thanks to Masterpiece Theater, today it’s North and South and Cranford that most people know, and I’d guess (though this may just be me) that these are also taught more often than Mary Barton.

I thought I’d also mention here, for those of you who might have missed it, that writer and editor Matt Jakubowski interviewed me for a series he’s beginning on the role of critics and criticism. We did the interview by email and then he cut and tidied my long responses into a single rather more manageable and coherent piece. I really appreciated his thoughtful questions; it was useful to me to look at my trajectory in the way his inquiries prompted me to, and also his interest in my critical work and approach was encouraging in a way I hadn’t quite expected — the internet is a big place and it’s easy to feel a bit lost in the crowd, so knowing that someone like Matt cared enough to single me out for a chat was a real boost. I’m looking forward to seeing his other interviews as they appear.

Open Letters Monthly July 2014!


We did it again! And though I think this almost every month, this issue is a particularly good one. As has become traditional for our July issue, we all pitched in for a summer reading feature: this time we each recommend a book or two that’s hot hot hot! (My romance-reading friends will appreciate that one of my recommendations is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible: I’ve come a long way!) A significant highlight is editor John Cotter’s account of what it’s like to lose music — gradually, stutteringly, but inexorably — in which he manages the very difficult feat of writing poignantly about personal loss without becoming lachrymose or sentimental. My colleague Alice Brittan reviews Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen: how I love the graceful, meditative way she writes. Steve Danziger adds to his OLM credits with a look at the obsessive eccentrics who collect 78 rpms: Steve is another favorite contributor for me because he writes about subjects I don’t expect to be interested in but always draws me right in. Greg Waldmann takes on the Taliban; Justin Hickey continues his work on science fiction with Robogenesis; Steve Donoghue covers what sounds like a great book on jazz age New York; there are two new poems; and that’s not all!

My own main contribution is an essay on K. M. Peyton’s Pennington trilogy, a “YA” series that continues to be a favorite of mine. Inevitably, I found myself reflecting on the recent debate about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction, but rather than focusing on that argument in broad or abstract terms, I decided to write about Peyton’s books as I would any other. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding: either they stand up to that kind of critical attention or they don’t.