A Hasty Response to The Late American Novel

I remember reading Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee’s anthology, The Late American Novel, a few years ago when it was called Kevin Smokler’s anthology, Bookmark Now. Kevin Smokler has more followers than I do on Twitter and is paid by Chris Anderson to do something in relation to books and marketing. When I read Bookmark Now in 2005, I had a beef with Kevin Smokler. But now I do not, although Smokler doesn’t follow me on Twitter. And I don’t follow him. I do not have a beef with either Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, but Max and I follow each other on Twitter. It may be that I am less angry now than I was in 2005, or that I like Max more in 2011 than Kevin in 2005. I feel compelled to point out that it is not 2005. I know this because I have less hair. The Late American Novel may have spoken to me six years ago, but I am not quite sure that it speaks to me in 2011. But then I have not yet opened its contents. I am about to. I will say that I do not see the Internet as a distraction or even an enhancement. It is a bit like a sex toy that I plug in from time to time. I am certain that I am not the only one that feels this way. If the Internet were to go away, I’d be perfectly happy. Because, aside from my extracurricular activities, I am surrounded by books and, if websites were to go away, you would find me in the streets disseminating pamphlets and circulars. You would find me giving speeches in obscure town halls. (Come to think of it, you may be finding me there even with the Internet. I comfortably wear the Internet as a surplice, but it is not the end all and the be all. It has yet to design the intellectual equivalent of exciting underwear.)

It remains unclear whether Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee will, in five years time, be paid by Chris Anderson (or some other dimwitted man who plagiarizes from Wikipedia and hosts conferences and edits overrated magazines and pays quirky and interesting voices a lot of money to transform into uncritical hacks in a few years) to do something in relation to books and marketing. But I don’t think they will. Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee are certainly more admirable and interesting in their 2011 pursuits than Kevin Smokler was with his 2005 pursuits. Looking at the list of contributors in The Late American Novel, there are only three names that make me want to throw the book against the wall and rage like a deranged animal for another random anthology so that I can peform the same eccentric test. And I have to say that, as anthologies go, this is a pretty decent batting average. I think there were more contributors who annoyed me in Bookmark Now.

I’m not sure I needed Thomas Allen’s “Notes on the Cover.” If you have to explain your book cover, it’s my feeling that you’re slumming it in some way. I also didn’t need Reif Larsen’s “The Crying of Page 45.” Larsen, who has littered this essay with annoying postmodernism (“Figure 3: The order of Chapters in Cortazar’s Rayeula“) didn’t get the memo that, thanks to the twee approach of McSweeney’s, pomo will be quite dormant for the foreseeable future. “I never arrived at page 45,” writes Larsen. And one longs to tell this precious writer that he’s not exactly making it easy to push beyond the third paragraph. One also wishes to tell Larsen that nostalgia is a terrible reason to read. One reads to get some sense of being alive. Or at least this reader does.

Which brings us to Marco Roth’s “The Outskirts of Progress,” with its second-person East Coast assumptions. First off, Marco, I may be skeptical, but I’m not pessimistic. Like you, I’m not a slave to technological progress. But unlike you, frequent railroad landscapes do not bore me. I also quibble with your suggestion that I am deracinated. I was just watered and taken for a walk. No knowledge is lost, if one looks hard for it. Please take more time formulating your thoughts.

The widely disseminated Davey Gates-Johnny Lethem exchange from PEN America (collected here as “A Kind of Vast Fiction”) is something one can get behind, especially in response to Gates’s idea about the “instantaneous opinion marketplace” and whether all future novels are, in some sense, historical. But then my own long-winded online presence would suggest that Gates and I are simpatico on this score. I also liked Deb Olin Unferth’s “The Book,” in which bullet points demonstrate the futility of attempting to announce the death of a medium. Elizabeth Crane humbly writes, “So I’m the last person to have any predictions about the fate of fiction in the future. Are there any original ideas anymore?” Hucksters and e-cult members: take note.

Leave it to Emily St. John Mandel to cut through the bullshit by opening her essay with this sentence: “There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me.” Bookmark Now prided itself upon insisting quite rightly that books were still alive in a digital age. The Late American Novel insists quite rightly that we are all no longer on the same team. Yet I flit around for an essay hoping to acknowledge this fragmentation and I find Katherine Taylor offering the advice: “Don’t go back to Fresno.”

That’s a bit like referring to “flyover states.” It’s impolite.

Maybe going to Fresno might give some of us a more reasonable idea about where books are heading and what regular people are reading. The Late American Novel, while refreshingly cheerful, doesn’t quite acknowledge this. But then neither did Bookmark Now. Rudolph Delson is wrong to suggest that there isn’t pleasure in knowing about novels. That’s like saying there isn’t pleasure in knowing about people. We should know about everything. But perhaps The Late American Novel is a necessary kickstart.


  1. I don’t even know how I found this site, but I find myself reading it more and more frequently. I am assuming you share my opinion of Dave Eggers and I think something can get under your skin even if you don’t have a soul, cuz what does the soul have to do with skin? But, personally, I don’t believe in soulessness, just as an aside.

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