So this all started innocently enough. Most every day I post a “song of the day” on Blip.fm, and broadcast it to Twitter and Facebook. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a great live version of Matthew Ryan’s “Guilty,” the lead track on his first album. I wrote this:
“SOTD: Matthew Ryan – Guilty. With MR’s new album out, I went back to revisit his first. Anger w/guitars replaced by resignation and drum machines. http://blip.fm/~16kmew”
I’m friends with Ryan on Facebook, so he saw the post and responded with this:
“Surprised you hear resignation on the new album John.”
I countered with, “Ah, the perils of fitting a coherent thought into Blip.fm’s 140-character limit. The larger point was that you seem to have made the shift many so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ have, resigning yourself to the fact that things are the way they are and learning to cope with the aftermath (both personally and globally) rather than rail against it. Regardless, I love the new stuff as well as the old (though I do love it when you fire up the electric guitar).”
To Matthew’s credit, he responded, “Let’s discuss this!”
We took the conversation private, if only so that we wouldn’t be hampered by Facebook’s own limitations on length, with the idea of posting the entire conversation here. I typically conduct Q&As in lazy fashion, sending a batch of questions, getting responses and then running the results. Having already been burned by using shorthand to get a point across, I decided that something more organic and reactive was needed. Matthew agreed, and what follows is our conversation.
Before we get into it, let me thank Matthew publicly. Few artists have the guts to discuss their work so openly and candidly. The result is a conversation that I hope opens people up to what is not only one of Matthew’s best albums, but one of the best albums of the year, I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall.
TIRBD: I have come to realize that I am a music listener first, a lyrics/vocals listener a distant second. I can listen to a song for years without really paying attention to everything going on lyrically, only to be surprised when it finally registers. If something doesn’t grab me musically — a hook, a beat, a feel — it’s lost to me. I can think of one act whose lyrics alienated me after the music hooked me: Fountains of Wayne, a band I once loved, and whose music is right in my wheelhouse — well-crafted power pop with hooks galore — but whose lyrics I find too cute to the point that they’re now cloying.
So, I came to your music because of, well, the music. Your first two albums were a visceral rush; yes, the angry young man thing. I heard defiance, a simmering rage, some self-loathing. And again, this was largely divorced from the lyrics. It was the sound of the music that conveyed this, the medium as message, I suppose. Subsequent works seemed more resigned, more jaded, but also, as you have pointed out, perhaps cautiously optimistic.
Spending a lot of time with the new album on headphones, the songs have opened up lyrically for me, and what I took for resignation and frustration on the surface comes across now as a guarded sense of hope. It’s as if you are more hopeful than you think you have the right to be, and you’ve undercut yourself — consciously or not — but conveying these lyrics on a bed of melancholy only occasionally shot through with the verve that suggests conviction. There is doubt here, again more in the feel of the album than in the words.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a failing on your part; far from it. Rather, it’s a way to make the songs more complex, more resonant. They can mean one thing today, another tomorrow. The result is probably your most finely crafted, textured album of your career.
MR: I’ve often wished I approached what I did when writing and recording in a more Amish light so to speak. Simpler. Because what I’m often trying to communicate is complex. Not that it isn’t direct, because it is. I admire what Justin Townes Earle has done. And I love what Gillian Welch does with Dave Rawlings. The Gaslight Anthem, Frightened Rabbit. These are all some fairly recent things that I like as well. And they all communicate directly from a point of view.
But I guess in my work I’m looking for our humanity in what feels like a chaos of sorts. Again, both in the intimacies of our lives and in the larger plots of social and literal upheavals. A lot of the characters I write about are both heroic and sometimes complicit in the wrong turns we take. But above all they persevere because I guess in my heart of hearts I believe that we are good engines.
The music that I’ve been laying my stories over for the last few years is intentional. And I believe I do it to symbolize the numbing beauty of the information age and how it surrounds (particularly) us in western culture. These are very new challenges to our humanity. New technologies always ease things for us, but they also confront, change and challenge us in ways we rarely expect. The explosion of media, information and speed in our culture has made for a fascinating landscape. Both dangerous and incredibly useful. But as always, we’re still human.
I guess in short, what you may have initially taken as resignation is in my mind what the act of perseverance sounds like. It’s an inch-by-inch reclamation of intimacy with the self in a blizzard.
I’m all for simple, but complexity is what keeps people coming back, be it musical, lyrical or otherwise. I love the idea of you trying to convey the “numbing beauty of the information age” in your music. That would certainly explain my takeaway of resignation.
That word, resignation, seems to be our flashpoint, the unfortunate choice when trying to sum up your recent work in a word. Are you familiar with Greg Brown? He’s an Eastern Iowan, like me, writing often about the Midwest. He is singing more directly, but gets at some of what you’re talking about. It’s less resignation than a warning: This is how it is now, and in some cases it’s exactly what you wanted. Good luck. The best is “Your Town Now” (http://youtu.be/tDLn29ByeoY).
And yes, perseverance is a much better word. It doesn’t connote giving up. Perhaps an acceptance that things are the way they are, but not assuming (or allowing) it will always be thus.
Greg Brown is one of my favorite writers. I swear I can hear shadows of his song “Brand New ’64 Dodge” in the melody of the song I keep mentioning, “This Is the Hill.” I’m not afraid to admit my influences and they range from dirty soil gravel like Mr. Brown’s and Bob Dylan’s to the ethereal beauty of Eno and The Blue Nile to the melancholy of early Sinatra and Joy Division; to the grand fists of The Clash and U2. All of it leans to define our humanity’s ability to remain a glowing hopeful heart vs. all the things that undermine and oppress. We are living in uncertain times with a confluence of technology and philosophies seemingly determined to tear us apart and isolate us. I am committed to be part of something that glues us back together and gives us maybe just a glimpse of our skin in all the flash and quickness. I believe that’s an important part of my occupation.
Much of I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall is trying to communicate with the generations younger than us, John. I wrote the songs with them in mind. Some are even talking just directly to them. I hope some of them hear it. It’s understandable that it overwhelms us at our age. Every generation is and should be challenged by the ideas, culture and dreams of the generation behind it. But today there is something more troubling going on. And I worry how young people will respond, or how they feel about what they see and experience. They’re marketed to in ways we never experienced. Or at least by the time the flood started, we we’re old enough to discern. The disinformation via outlets is constant. I’m not saying they can’t find their truths and their happiness. But it sure seems a higher wall to climb these days. All of this and I haven’t mentioned the political landscape and the friction between philosophies and the debates over global issues and climate change and water and capitalism and unions and farming and food and pollution and security and work and religion and on and on and on. Geez, most peculiar times.
This leads perfectly into a topic I’ve wanted to cover: the evolution of the sound/style of your music. You began as a pretty straightforward guitar-bass-drums guy, and then introduced more textures with subsequent albums. Did that feel like a natural evolution, using the sounds you needed to properly convey the songs the way you wanted them to sound? I wonder too if it had anything to do with moving to a smaller label and doing things more on your own. It’s easier to use a drum machine than to book studio time and line up a drummer, I would imagine.
Then, as you’ve moved more fully into your current sound, which blends folk, rock and electronics rather seamlessly, do you embrace that as a better way to communicate with the younger generation?
That’s an interesting question and I want to try and answer it as honestly as I can. I wouldn’t say it’s been a necessarily conscious decision. More like a series of trees lying over the road that lead me to take several turns to get where I was headed. And I promise you, the sound will change again. I’m still searching.
But from there to here… I guess the first thing that I noticed when touring with May Day was that the room was full of men. And at that time, they were generally older than me. It was kind of weird, ya know? I wanted to reach all people. All races, nationalities and sexes. So that kind of put me off a little. Not that I have anything against men. Just, you know, diversity is a sign of real communication.
Second, and I don’t mean this creepily, I felt like there was some sex missing in a good bit of my earlier records. Though East Autumn Grin started to rub up against something. Pun kind of intended. But that would be my one complaint about the Alt Country/Americana scene that I came up in, the music generally has no sex. I know how this sounds. But real sex operates on a very primal level. Sex is part of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s essential to it actually. So that led me to want to understand feel and groove a little better. I actually experimented quite a bit with that on an album that never came out between East Autumn Grin and Concussion. If that album had come out, none of what I’m doing now would be a surprise. It was very ambient and beat driven and yes, even in 2000 I had one of the songs remixed by a NYC DJ whose name escapes me. I thought the emergence of house and techno was exciting because it was all about sex and freedom. Yes, it was formulaic and they had no songs, but they presented a degree of liberty and rage that rock music wasn’t really dealing in.
God, I’m going on and on. But I also grew up loving Eno and Joy Division as much as I love Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. So honestly, these were all elements I wanted to welcome and hopefully help to redefine what a singer/songwriter can be. Because to be blunt, I love songs but the production for a lot of singer/songwriter stuff bore me to tears. It has no cinema. The good stuff always has cinema. Whether it’s produced into to it, or it’s just there by some magical means. Nick Drake had cinema. It wasn’t insert white guy here. He was special.
The other reasons were utilitarian. Particularly after I left the majors. The budgets were such that I couldn’t fully cast my records in the way I could on A&M. And that led to just accepting at times what I felt were performances or approaches on songs that weren’t quite right. There are few things worse for a songwriter than feeling that you did a disservice to a song. It’s hard enough to get a song heard, let alone if it’s wearing a funny hat and has got a wedgie because that day in the studio was clown car day. So I concluded that it’s unfair to hold others responsible for what imagination or my mouth seems unable to communicate. They weren’t getting paid enough to be put through too many paces. So I decided I would take the responsibility on myself and do the very best I could to get the music from inside my head to some recorded medium. Lately that’s a computer and some dented mics. And it’s been a very exciting journey into the unknown for me. These albums have been real exploratory and visceral challenges. I’m just as proud of them as I am of my big budget albums, partially because I shaped them with my own hands. This process is more like painting than being in a street gang. But like I said, that’s changing again. I feel a more gang approach guitar oriented album coming very soon. The idea is exciting me again. And that’s only when you should do something creative, when it excites you.
“This Is the Hill” is obviously a very hopeful track and clearly means a lot to you. Why is it a bonus track and not on the album proper? It fits with other tracks thematically (“I Want Peace,” “I Still Believe In You”).
“This Is the Hill” was intended as a postscript to the album, almost a summation or a provocation of sorts for a solution to the themes, troubles and heartaches on I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall. This album is looking at the small in us to find the big so to speak.
My writing over the years has changed from introspection and probably a fair amount of self-obsessed to a wider screen. There are some lines in a song called “We Will Not Be Lovers” by The Waterboys that have always stuck with me, and I’m pretty sure altered how I view us, all of us.
“Now the world is full of trouble, and everyone is scared. Landlords are frowning and cupboards are bare. And people are scrambling like dogs for a share. It’s cruel and it’s hard but it’s nothing compared to what we do to each other.”
Those lines kill me. They ring truer to me now than when I first heard them. The macro is found in the micro and vice versa. “This Is the Hill” traces a similar line, it is far from resigned. In fact it’s frustrated and disgusted. Many of the songs on I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall are tricky, they look like one thing, but they’re about something else. For instance, “I Still Believe In You” could be taken about two people, maybe lovers. But, it can also be about the minutia that separates up from our dreams. YOU in that song could be the dream itself, or YOU could be all of us, and our ability to preoccupy ourselves with diversion and entertainment while on many levels checking-out on the real plots in our lives as individuals and collectively.
CONTEST: I have two copies of Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead to give away. To enter, leave a comment with the name of your favorite rock writer or favorite profile of an artist, and let us know why. I’ll draw two names at random on July 8.
Before reading Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, my previous experience with Neil Strauss was limited. I knew that he had written for several publications, and that he had written books about Motley Crue, Jenna Jameson and pickup artists. His work for the former didn’t catch my eye in such a way that made me seek out his work the way I do that of folks like Greil Marcus or Ben Ratliff. And his work on the latter probably steered me the other direction. Strauss had cast his lot with those on the sleaze end of the spectrum, so I didn’t look to him for serious journalism.
The litany of names on the cover of his book made me curious enough to ask the folks at !t Books for a review copy. When you’re promised interviews with R.E.M., Radiohead, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, etc., it’s clear you’ll probably find something of interest. What I did not expect to do was read this cover to cover, nor did I expect to take away true insights. I did both, and in doing so, quickly realized that this is the best book about music I have read in years.
Why? Well, as Strauss tells it, it is because he did this right, which means that before he had done it wrong. As he writes in the introduction, once the interview is done, the writer is pressed by deadlines, the stylistic constraints of the publication and the whims of the editors. The real person gets lost.
He went back to the 3,000 interviews he has conducted and “searched for the truth or essence behind each person, story or experience. Often it came from something I had previously ignored: An uncomfortable silent, a small misunderstanding or a scattered thought that had been compressed into a soundbite.”
That might sound strange; isn’t that what profile writers try to do the first time around? Yes, that’s the idea every writer subscribes to, but it doesn’t happen very often. As you’ll find while reading this book, these are the snippets that get left behind when the narrative is crafted, the rough edges. For the most part, these feel like the rare moments when these artists were real. An interview is a dance, with the subjects working hard to put forth the version of themselves they want people to see, and the writers working hard to penetrate that shell.
The fascinating thing is to see Strauss, who I associate with caddish behavior if for no other reason than the company he keeps, being a sympathetic ear. If these transcriptions are truly accurate, then he is among the most gifted interviewers I’ve read, able to show true empathy and understanding. His genuine interest and positively gentle approach (or so I assume; it’s hard to fully glean that from words on the page) cause these artists to let down their defenses are share genuine thoughts and feelings.
As if that wasn’t enough, Strauss also won me over with the book’s format. It seemed too clever by half at first blush, interview snippets broken up throughout the book, ostensibly grouped in thematic bunches. But it works. You’ll get two pages of an interview with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page where they discuss the co-opting of their sound by artists like Lenny Kravitz, followed immediately by two pages of Kravitz expressing disbelief that anyone could hear Led Zeppelin in his music. All of the material from one interview may be spread over half a dozen snippets peppered throughout this 500-page tome, but as you pick up the rhythm of Strauss’ organization, you’ll find yourself surfing through this effortlessly, marveling at the connections being made from one artist to the next.
Even the index is entertaining, as Strauss eschews the typical listing of famous names to instead include entries for “Best car wash in L.A.” and “Guys who say they are never going to date models or actresses but then end up engaged to one.”
At the outset I said I didn’t seek out Strauss’ work the way I did my favorite writers and critics. With Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, Strauss has vaulted to the top of that list. The interesting thing will be, now that he knows the right way to do things, will his profiles reflect it?
I came across a copy of Bob Dylan’s Saved at the local public library a couple of weeks ago, and it was the catalyst that led me to a reassessment of Dylan’s trio of so-called Christian albums, Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.
Thirty years after the fact, these albums don’t feel like the radical departure they were depicted as at the time. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have felt that way – a sense of betrayal, really – at the time. But rather that the value of hindsight affords me the chance to hear these in the full context of Dylan’s catalog. With that context, these feel less like Dylan allowing his talents to be diminished as he channeled his new-found faith and more like an artist who was burned out finding a new subject that positively revitalized him.
I won’t get into the particulars of Dylan’s conversion – you can read much more about it elsewhere – but will instead focus on the music he made during this period. After the Rolling Thunder Revue, which seems like the culmination of his second great phase, Dylan seemed to be searching for a new direction. Street Legal, while containing its share of strong mid-period songs, seems to be an album by an artist searching for a larger narrative. On its follow-up, Slow Train Coming, Dylan has found it.
The album is clearly the strongest of the three Christian albums, as a Dylan still in full ownership of his songwriting prowess brought those powers to bear on these new lyrical pursuits. “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Precious Angel” and “I Believe in You” are a strong 1-2-3 punch to start the album, the middle of those about as gorgeous a song as Dylan has recorded. There are clunkers here – “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is a misguided bit of comic relief, and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” feels a bit hamfisted among its neighbors – but this is a potent album.
Saved is the most overtly religious of the three albums, as Dylan’s faith seems to be in full flower. This is as close as he got to a gospel album, from the praise-worthy title track to the quietly insistent gem “Pressing On.” The singer’s passion elevates some of his most pedestrian songwriting, the fiery performances making this a real joy to hear.
Shot of Love feels like the other end of the bell curve that started with Slow Train Coming. Where that album signaled the ascent of Dylan’s faith, this one records its recession, at least from a musical standpoint. The religious content is still there, of course, but the music is more interesting and thus not as beholden on the singer’s delivery for their success. That he continues to sing with verve that practically oozes a focused intent certainly delivers these songs to a place otherwise unobtainable. Classics like “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and “Every Grain of Sand” make this otherwise uneven album worth hearing.
Ultimately, these three albums are full of love songs. The problem for some is the subject of that feeling. One can try to divorce them from that source as they listen, but Dylan’s passion is difficult to ignore.
Not everything here is good, but the best of it is fairly outstanding. A playlist assembled from many of the songs mentioned above makes a 10-track collection that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with nearly anything outside of Dylan’s ’63-’66 heyday.
“For people of influence in any walk of life, from corporate leaders to sports stars, the question of when to leave the stage is a crucial one. Do you go out at the top of your game, giving up any shot at further glory? Or do you dig in until the end, at the risk of tarnishing a distinguished career?” he writes. It’s a valid question, and one certainly worth discussing when it comes to Dylan. But his answer is flawed.
Rebuttals to his piece are several, but I’ll focus on one here: the notion that Dylan might somehow tarnish his legacy with subpar shows well past his prime. Jurgensen himself answers the question before it is asked, writing, “After 50 years in music, his place in the pantheon is unassailable.” Yet, he goes on write, “Firing the debate is his status as the ultimate music icon, the caretaker of a body of work that, many would agree, stands in contrast to his current sound,” going on to wonder, “if he plows on indefinitely, could the accumulating career lows undermine the highs?”
Anyone who asks such questions doesn’t understand Dylan or his music, for the artist is perhaps the greatest example of one whose art is never finished. Recordings capture moments in time. And these are truly moments. Any listen to the outtakes from a session reveals that Dylan attempts songs several different ways before deciding on one to release. Listen to the versions of “Mississippi” on the late period odds and sods collection Tell Tale Signs. All are different, all are wonderful. There may be one “official” version of a song, but only in the marketplace; not in Dylan’s mind.
As Greil Marcus wrote in a review of the Japanese-only release, Live 1961-2000 – Thirty-Nine Years of Great Concert Performances, “Then comes ‘Born in Time,’ and you figure it’s time to hit the restroom. There’s a long line, though, and you lose out on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe.’ It will never be sung and played quite like it is this night in 1975. You missed it. Or would have, if this record didn’t exist.” (Taken from Marcus’ exhaustive, fascinating new book, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010.)
A live Dylan performance today offers a similar opportunity. He’ll never play the same song the same way again. You may not like this version of that song (or any song, as Jurgensen’s reports of mass walk-outs are to be believed), but someone else might. One fan laments these changes, telling Jurgensen, “What you’re used to feeling from his music just isn’t there.” Another, however, follows one disappointment-fueled show with another, declaring, “Compared to last time? 180 degrees!”
The newish book Advanced Genius Theory by Jason Hartley offers some related food for thought. The book posits that advanced artists — those like Dylan, Lou Reed and Neil Young — who have alienated fans along the way by seemingly betraying what they initially stood for, are actually too far ahead of the rest of us to be understood. The theory is more complex (and convoluted and, ultimately, indefensible) than that, but it sparks interesting debate. In writing about Dylan, Hartley rightly argues that “(Their fans) look to artist to make the sacrifices that they are afraid to make themselves. In Dylan’s case he was expected to be loyal to a style of music so a bunch of white college kids could feel as if they were making a difference.”
Forty years later, that is still happening, to a degree, as people look to Dylan to help them recapture something to which his music contributed. But Dylan has moved on, even as these people seek to remain in place. “Don’t Look Back” wasn’t just a catchy lyric, it was clearly a defining statement of purpose.
Yes, it’s understandable that someone could be disappointed by Dylan’s voice — Jurgensen cleverly calls it “a scatting Cookie Monster,” while I referred to it as a “compromised croak” in a review of an October 2007 show. But there were transcendent moments in the show I saw, and, I’m sure in every show Dylan has performed since. To suggest that he should hang it up is to suggest that fans willing to pay their money down for a ticket should be denied the chance of witnessing their own transcendence. Had Dylan listened to the calls from detractors in the mid-1980s, we wouldn’t have Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft,” and if he heeds this new batch of naysaying, who knows what we’ll miss?
In his new book (and I use the term “his” loosely, as will become clear in a moment), he makes the case that fiction is dead, and that nonfiction, specifically something he calls the “lyric essay” is the new best way to communicate. In making his case, he decided to construct the book largely through the work of other people. More than half of the 618 numbered paragraphs in the book are drawn wholesale from other sources, and are thus the words of other people.
“A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean,” he writes. “I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it.” What he wanted to do was to simply have these lifted bits intermingle with his own, without attribution. His publisher thought otherwise, and forced him to include a list of credits. He asks the reader to ignore this, even to cut these pages from the book. “Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of culture? We do – all of us – thought not all of us know it yet,” he writes.
So, how did that blip of punctuation above derail his argument? In a chapter headed “reality,” he includes a bit about the Stevie Wonder Song “Fingertips – part 2,” and how it is so real because someone in the band yells out a question about what key the song is in. Thing is, this isn’t Shields’ sentiment, but that of John Mellencamp. The snippet felt out of place and not in Shields’ voice, so I looked it up and found the following credit: “John Mellencamp (!?)” I can only interpret the part after Mellencamp’s name as snark, as in, “can you believe this guy thought that deeply about something?” If the source of a comment truly didn’t matter, if Shields’ reappropriation the context in which it appeared was the only thing I needed, then why did Shields’ feel the need to add that little hipster wink to the credit? It’s because he wanted to communicate that he was cool enough to join you in your surprise that Mellencamp would utter something so, well, real. As such, the source does matter. It matters a great deal.
That is far from the only flaw here. Shields has crafted an extremely thought-provoking argument here that explores the notions of fiction, non-fiction and reality that had me rethinking many long-held beliefs. The problem is that he writes in the same sort of absolutes that I’m sure bug him about people against whom his views differ. In a section about appropriating parts of the culture to reassemble them and say something new, he writes, “Anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate in to a new work, and having preexisting media of some kind in the new piece is thrilling in a way that ‘fiction’ can’t be.” He’s certainly entitled to such a view, but to state it so definitively, to say, in essence, that fiction can’t be thrilling, is just dead wrong.
And that is just one of many instances where Shields circles back around to make that same point. He can’t imagine writing fiction any more, and can’t bring himself to read it, either. Fine, but in doing so, he is cutting himself off from a lot of great new work. God forbid we allow fiction and non-fiction and whatever new style Shields deems worthy to coexist, to march in zigzagging parallels toward the future, each adding something to the culture and to people’s enjoyment of it. In stating things so emphatically, Shields has joined the disturbingly growing group of people who have found that stating anything with enough volume, bluster and lack of room for argument makes people listen to you. In this, he is no different from Bill O’Reilly or Jeff Jarvis or anyone else bold enough to declare “that” is dead and “this” is the only sensible way forward. Call it the dick move; if you’re a big enough dick about things, you’ll energize your base and those against you in enough volume to create the kind of tension between the two camps that ultimately solves nothing.
It’s too bad, because Shields is clearly on to something. His notions of appropriation and repurposing leave a lot of room for exploring new ways to make literature and other communicative media take a leap into uncharted, exciting new territory. Seeking a way to do with writing what hip hop has done with music is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. But while no one would deny that as exciting as new music forms can be, sometimes a guitar-bass-drums combo can scratch an itch in a way that nothing else can, Shields seems to suggest that his new way is the only way. That’s a ludicrous argument. It’s no surprise. A look at Shields bibliography shows some of his motivation. After three well-reviewed but commercially dead works of fiction, he found his niche writing non-fiction that was as much about himself as his putative subject. If his forays into fiction failed, why not declare the entire form dead?
Anyone falling for that argument would, of course, but cutting off their nose to spite their face, ignoring the work of innovative fiction writers like Jonathan Lethem, J. Robert Lennon and David Mitchell, who continue to, yes, thrill as they seek new forms. I’m glad Shields is out there doing what he does, much as I’m glad the above writers and thousands more continue doing what they do. Contrary to Shields argument, all are contributing mightily to our culture.
I’ll start with Midlake because this whole thing started with Pitchfork’s trashing of the band’s new album, The Courage of Others, saying it “is a step down on songcraft, atmosphere, and apparently, even self-awareness.” Writer Paul Thompson said the album “just feels so monochromatic, so flatlined, even the tiniest signs of life have no power to resuscitate.”
I had heard the album early, finding a download back in December that I was eager to cue up. I liked it a lot, the songs reminding me of what I liked best about The Trials of Van Occupanter, the band’s breakthrough sophomore disc. The review surprised me. I was expecting the typical fawning Pitchfork “best new music” tag, but instead found a dismissive 3.6 rating.
The review made headlines elsewhere. Stereogum commented on it, saying “Forget what you’ve heard: The ’60s Brit folk-nodding The Courage Of Others is a beautifully downcast, pleasingly oddball trip.” Of course, the only thing a Stereogum reader would have “heard” about the album was the Pitchfork review posted earlier in the day.
So, who is right? No one and everyone, of course. Music appreciation is subjective. That’s clear even within the confines of Pitchfork. While one reviewer can’t get past Midlake’s consistency and monochromatic sound, another is willing to tolerate it in the Album Leaf. A day after the Midlake takedown, Ian Cohen gives Album Leaf’s new A Chorus of Storytellers a 6.3. This despite the fact that “the beauty LaValle conjures is effortless but ultimately less impressive for not having any sort of contrast” (that’s another way of saying “monochromatic, kids) and that “Album Leaf should never have to apologize for not rocking enough” (could that be something akin to “flatlined?”).
Pitchfork can’t even agree with itself on Midlake. Van Occupanther, the album that The Courage of Others is seen as a step down from, earned a 6.8 upon its release. Does that mean that Courage is only half as good as Van Occupanther? Of course not.
This brings me to Autechre. I have been getting into some electronica (or IDM or whatever else it’s called), and have been grabbing everything the local library has in a bid to make up for a lot of lost time. I’ve read a lot of praise for Autechre, including comparisons between its work and that of Radiohead at its glitchiest. OK, I’m in. So, I picked up Quaristice, the band’s latest album. I’ll admit, the 7.5 rating on Pitchfork intrigued me. What would I give it? Maybe a 3.6. It just did nothing for me. And I can’t fault anything more than the rating in Mark Richardson’s review, for he was spot on: “Even while Quaristice is in some ways the most listenable album they’ve created in a decade, it’s ultimately no easier to parse, and can be very rough going indeed if you’re not in the mood for their peculiar world.” Count me among those not in the mood.
So, what’s the point? If you’ve read reviews at all, you already know it: They’re the opinion of one listener, nothing more. A handful of people were disappointed by the Midlake album, giving it a negative review in part, it seems, because they expected a leap forward instead of a look back. Others of us really like it because it’s more of what drew us to the group in the first place. My worry is that the negative reviews are shouted much more effectively than the praise. There is value in reviews all along the spectrum, no question. Here’s hoping that people are savvy enough to take them as one input in the decision-making process and not ascribe them the power of arbiter.
The list: Sherman Alexie, Donald Antrim, Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Tony Earley, Nathan Englander, Jeffrey Eugenidies, Jonathan Franzen, Allegra Goodman, A.M. Homes, Matthew Klam, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Rick Moody, Antonya Nelson, George Saunders, William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace.
With 10 years of hindsight, how did they do? Pretty well. There is one bona fied star in Chabon, several winners of prestigious prizes who also have bestsellers to their names (Eugenidies, Diaz and Lahiri) and plenty of critically acclaimed authors like Moody and Saunders. The late Wallace seems to deserve his own place as someone who, at one time or another, fit all three of those categories.
What is most striking, however, are the names that at one time seemed to guarantee excitement but which today sent me to Wikipedia to determine when their last publication occurred. Could Klam really not have published anything since 2000′s Sam the Cat? Whatever happened to Englander? Or Antrim?
My own biases/myopia/limited tastes play a part to be sure. I know Goodman is a big name, but have never read a word beyond the story included here. I’m completely unfamiliar with the work of Nelson or Danticat, but know each has legions of fans.
As with all such lists, the most interesting thing is to look at who made it and who didn’t. In the opening Talk of the Town essay in the issue, “Reading Ahead,” then Fiction Editor Bill Buford writes that the magazine “set out to answer the question, ‘Who are the 20 best young fiction writers in America today?’ Does best mean ‘most promising’ or ‘most accomplished’? We settled on a definition that includes both senses, and tried to accommodate the obvious names and the not-so-obvious.”
They did limit themselves by considering only American authors age 40 and under. Even at the outset there was hedging, or at least a healthy caveat that admits such lists are dubious exercises. Such a list in 1899, Buford writes, would not have included Willa Cather or Edith Warton or Theodore Dreiser or Jack London or… you get the point.
Anyone could make a compelling argument for or against nearly all of the picks on the list, though one omission did strike me as odd. Tellingly, there is an ad for Stewart O’Nan’s Prayers for the Dying on the bio page that lists the 20 who made the cut. O’Nan’s output since would certainly merit strong consideration, as would that of a couple dozen other authors who were not selected.
A close look at the list shows that the magazine wasn’t exactly taking chances with its choices. By 1999, Chabon had already published Wonder Boys and was at work on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; Moody had penned three novels, incluing The Ice Storm and Purple America; and Vollmann had published nine works of fiction. Then again, Diaz had published just one story collection, and Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, had just been published.
There was precedent, too. Granta published its own list of the Best Young American Novelists in 1996, with six overlapping with the New Yorker list (Alexie, Canin, Danticat, Earley, Eugenidies and Franzen). Some obvious omissions from the New Yorker list, including O’Nan and Lorrie Moore, are present here.
Hindsight offers some comedy. Buford writes about the novel being “Oprahed,” something selectee Franzen would learn about firsthand more than a year later when his book, The Corrections was selected for the TV star’s vaunted book club. He expressed misgivings, she rescinded the invitation, and the book club’s relationship with modern literary fiction (and, it seems, the populace’s view of it) was never the same.
It was clearly a different time. The Talk of the Town piece that follows Buford’s looks at Karl Rove, already being called “Bush’s Brain,” and the machinations he had under way that seemed to point to a presidential bid by the then-Texas governor. The Internet was nowhere near the force it is now, (there are actual ads without URLs at the bottom) and publishers still paid large advances and sent their authors on long book tours.
A good story is a good story, regardless of the time or contest, and many here are are top notch, making the issue a very compelling read. The only vexing thing is that five authors’ stories are only teased, and appeared in each of the next five issues of the magazine. Actually, that’s not the only vexing thing. As is too often the case with the New Yorker, at least five of these so-called short stories are actually novel excepts (such as Chabon’s “The Hofzinser Club”) though not billed as such.
In the end, the issue provides an interesting lens through which to view the turn of the century literary fiction landscape, capturing, fairly effectively, the consensus critical picks for success. Not all of those selected would be included on a list that sought to gather the best writers of the past decade, but all 20 moved forward from this point with significant work. We can be disappointed that Franzen has yet to follow up his 2001 novel, or that Earley has managed just one post-Jim the Boy novel this decade, but prolific folks like Alexie and Chabon somewhat make up for it.
Summing up his Talk of the Town piece, Buford seems to foresee the divergent futures of the chosen ones. “What is the future of American fiction We can’t know. But the Polaroid of this generation, snapped as the century turns, offers a satisfying picture of a highly accomplished group of writers robustly taking on the stories of their Americanness.”
Below is a list of the included stories along with their eventual home under the author’s name. Those listed as “uncollected” may have appeared in anthologies, but have not been issued in a book by the author to the best of my knowledge.
“I Can Speak!TM” George Saunders, In Persuasion Nation
“Asset,” David Foster Wallace, uncollected
“The Toughest Indian in the World” by Sherman Alexie, The Toughest Indian in the World
“Hawaiian Night,” Rick Moody, Demonology
“Raft in Water, Floating,” A.M. Homes, Things You Sho
“The Local Production of Cinderella,” Allegra Goodman, uncollected
“The Saviors,” William T. Vollmann, part of the novel Europe Central
“Party of One,” Antonya Nelson, Nothing Right
“The Volunteers,” Chang-Rae Lee, uncollected
“The Hofzinser Club,” Michael Chabon, excerpt from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
“Vins Fins,” Ethan Canin, uncollected
“An Actor Prepares,” Donald Antrim, uncollected
“The Wide Sea,” Tony Early, excerpt from Jim the Boy
“The Oracular Vulva,” Jeffrey Eugenidies, excerpt from Middlesex
“OtraVida, OtraVez,” Junot Diaz, uncollected
“The Failure,” Jonathan Franzen, excerpt from The Corrections
“The Book of the Dead,” Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker
“The Third and Final Continent,” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies
“Peep Show,” Nathan Englander, uncollected
“Issues I Dealt With in Therapy,” Matthew Klam, Sam the Cat
In the book, Denby, the New Yorker’s film critic, addresses snark, something that is, well, see the thing is, he never really defines it. He spends plenty of time telling the reader what snark is not — a definition that boils down to any social or political commentary with which he agrees — but surprisingly little time telling us what it is. It’s a sort of dangerous “I know it when I see it” argument that, as a good liberal, Denby ought to be above.
Contest interlude: Because Denby doesn’t define snark, I’d like you to. The comment offering the best definition of snark by midnight Sunday wins a free copy of Snark. Let the games begin.
That’s not to say the book isn’t interesting. He fashions it as a sort of modern day answer to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” a tangentially related poem that was told in eight “fits,” an early term for a canto. Denby adopts that conceit, if not its form, calling his “a polemic in seven fits.” Of course, his fits are more, well, fitting with today’s term, for they read at times like a child throwing a tantrum. He reserves particular vitriol for bloggers, online commenters and sites like Gawker. These arguments — which, if the subjects are to be believed, are wrong as often as not — center on the notion that any critique without a larger motivation, usually political, is snark.
One bit of wrongheadedness comes at the expense of an acquaintance of mine, Patrick Beach, a writer with the Austin American-Statesmen. In a piece about Nancy Pelosi that he calls “hapless,” Denby recounts that Beach wrote she was “arguably so left leaning that her parenthetical should be D-Beijing.” “China is certain authoritarian, a nationalist-capitalist hybrid nightmare, but does it make much sense to see it as “left” any more?” he writes. “Moss is growing on Beach’s keyboard.”
Now, ignore the fact that his parting shot is, of course, snarky, and think of this: could it be a joke of geography, asserting that someone in California (Pelosi’s home state) leaning very far to the left might find herself in China? Maybe. Or maybe Beach used a well-known trope to make a point, kind of like using moss as an antiquated indication of being out of touch. Whether I’m write or Denby is, he is clearly the one looking for offense and finding it all too easily.
And the other book, the one that complements Snark? It’s Unpacking the Boxes, “a memoir of a life in poetry,” by form Poet Laureate Donald Hall. In it, Hall wanders a meandering path through his writing past. If a book can have gravitas, this has it. It was a pleasure to join Hall as he recollected and recounted stories from his life that shaped him as a poet. In lesser hands it would be the offputting work of a name dropper, but Hall’s reminiscence’s are fond, rarely bitter. Someone with his life and career could surely find things to be snarky about if he so chose, but he doesn’t, and the result is a book that made me eager to carve out a moment so I could return to my visit in Hall’s world.
What does this have to do with Denby? He could learn a lesson or two from Hall. Denby misreads situations, overanalyzes and is quick to look for a slight. It’s everything Hall, at least as indicated by Unpacking the Boxes, is not. And while one is posited as an important book — that would be the one subtitled “It’s Mean, It’s Person and It’s Ruining Our Conversation” — the other is the one that tackles weighty topics with grace and humility. It is Hall that will stick with me, making me want to persevere and make the best of bad situations, and Denby who appeals to my baser self, all but urging me with his whining prose to call him dirty names.