Authors of genre fiction like George R. R. Martin have a lot to teach me and other aspiring writers, regardless of what genre(s) we find ourselves belonging to.
Here are three brilliant lessons I learned from A Song of Ice and Fire.
1. Keep it simple. Then build.
Martin has a big task with the opening of this series. He must introduce a huge cast of characters while giving readers enough tension to keep them moving forward. The first events in A Game of Thrones accomplish this in a very straightforward manner. We open with a scene that sets up a familiar fantasy world: a spoiled noble doesn’t listen to the experienced veteran. The party meets their untimely end, but the author breaks away from this glimpse of the Others and uses the reader’s wave of interest to introduce the Stark family and Daenerys. We get sketches of the main characters, then some obvious foreshadowing with a direwolf who’s been killed by a stag. Martin builds on our familiarity with the Starks and uses it to give context to the next big event: a visit from the entire royal entourage. Martin has introduced a source of tension (Others) and 20 or so main characters within the first five chapters. Soon after he gives us the next sources of tension (Bran’s fall, Khal Drogo) which carry us through more world-building and character development.
Compare this with a more traditionally literary work, like Nabokov’s Pnin. While Nabokov’s cast is significantly smaller, he uses a similar technique of providing multiple small sources of tension to introduce us to the world and the character. Professor Timofey Pnin deals with a number of problems in the opening pages. He’s on the wrong train, he’s missing an important paper, he misses a bus, he’s lost his bag. Each problem is solved and then the next is introduced, one right after another. These problems propel the reader forward, but they also allow Nabokov to provide significant background information. The important paper is Pnin’s notes for the lecture he’s on the way to. His luggage contains his belongings, a description of which gives us insight into his character and where he’s come from. Pnin’s difficulties navigating the transit system set up his overall difficulties in America as a Russian refugee.
We really want you to read the novel-in-translation that we’re publishing by Russian author Vladimir Kozlov, called USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid.
So if you’re the first person to buy USSR using this special link (for $18 plus shipping) we’ll throw in Outline by Rachel Cusk as a free gift.
Yep, that’s a free hardcover edition of Outline by Rachel Cusk, which normally costs $26.00. Outline was named one of the best books of 2014 by The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The Independent; it’s been praised by such luminaries as Rebecca Mead, Geoff Dyer, Hilary Mantel, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Leslie Jamison; and it was recently selected for The Rumpus Book Club.
Plus, you know, you’ll finally have your copy of USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid, which we know you’re going to love.
Here’s the special link.
Only the first person will get the gift.
Update: Sold! Thanks for playing, everybody. We’ll have another special offer soon.
Let’s be honest. None of us has read all 16 books that are competing in this year’s epic Tournament of Books at The Morning News. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pick our favorites, make snap judgments, and moan about the eventual winners and losers.
Here is everything you need to know to fake your way through the tournament. From reviews to YouTube clips, from blog posts to formal interviews, we have compiled the best summaries of each competitor so you can get all huffy about your hasty opinions.
And just to make things extra contentious, I will list the books in numerical order, according to which ones I want to win.
– Brian Hurley
1. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Review at The New York Review of Books
Hitting Shelves at Fiction Advocate
2. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Review at Fiction Advocate
Hitting Shelves at Fiction Advocate
3. A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor
Review at Flavorwire
Excerpt at Fiction Advocate Continue reading
Ottessa Moshfegh begins her new novella, “I wake up,” and spends the next 118 pages exploring what awake means. It’s McGlue who wakes drunk, head split open, and he’s spitting teeth that “scatter across the deck like dice.” He’s bleeding and looking for a place to puke when he hears other men on the ship say that he killed Johnson, who was his friend, his close friend, and had saved McGlue’s life more than once. When they first met, Johnson had scooped McGlue out of the snow where he would have happily died drinking. This is the Johnson who funded McGlue’s booze habit and led them around the world, who woke McGlue in the middle of the night to share his “life words.” But now Johnson is dead and McGlue is stuffed in the hold of the ship where he tries to remember what happened. But memory, as Moshfegh writes it, is a lot like rolling the dice. On one toss you win and on the next there’s nothing—you get something somehow less than zero. So you keep rolling and rolling until it’s the rolling rather than the results that mean anything.
The story takes place in the 1850s. Moshfegh creates a world of ships and ports, drinking and fighting that is vivid and steady. But it’s McGlue’s voice, in first person, that makes the story compelling and holds my interest. He is brutal and tender. He can talk about anything and I listen, even when I know he’s lying. Moshfegh, who has previously written and published short stories and was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her work in The Paris Review, brings a trusty ear for words to this slightly longer form. Her language moves. On page after page are turns of phrase like, “He hands me the pen and points. I make a puddle of my name,” which are unique, even pretty, but aren’t just for show. They speak to McGlue’s consciousness. He is making a puddle of himself with booze, or by smashing his head and drinking his own blood when there’s no rum around.
Foreground: Baby. Background: Books.
I became a parent in the Spring of 2014. Which is a wonderful thing, but it means that I spent my severely reduced reading time with books like The Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Great Sleep (useful, but a pretty excruciating read); Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads (useful, and an enjoyable read); and The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (still a classic).
I did manage to pull off one half-assed review about a book I hadn’t finished reading, but for the most part my 2014 was spent dreaming of all the cool looking books I had no time to enjoy. Needless to say, this has left me woefully underqualified to make any kinds of judgments, even subjective ones, about the Best Books of the last 12 months.
And yet, I remain undeterred — what is the end of a year without a list of things? And while I may not have a top 10, I’m sure I can come up with something that fits our habit of doing odd and unorthodox year-end lists.
So here is my list of
Top Ten Books [I had Time to Read] This Year. Continue reading
Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to bang a teacher.
For as long as I can remember I fantasized about screwing an educator, but every year I was foiled. My teachers were either kindly old lesbians or profusely sweating heavy-set men with tobacco-stained teeth. Excellent educators and wonderful people, all of them, but not a sexual prospect in sight. I didn’t get my first attractive teacher until my last year of grad school. He had a full head of brown hair with a sprinkle of gray at the temples, wore elbow-patch blazers like Indiana Jones and smelled of pine cones and wisdom. I was newly married and not looking to mess that up. I graduated a year later without ever giving a blowjob during office hours.
The teacher is an enduring fantasy, like the librarian or the cheese guy at the deli (that just me?). It is this fantasy that makes us want to read works like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. As adults who have made their way past AP Algebra, we can see both sides of the equation.
1) Banging a high school teacher would have been the ultimate conquest and made for a shocking story to tell at cocktail parties in my thirties.
2) Banging a high school teacher would have made me the victim of a sexual predator and would have caused irreparable damage to my psychological well-being.
Which witch is which? Nutting’s Tampa, the story of a twenty-six-year-old eighth grade teacher who screws her fourteen-year-old male students, takes us inside the question. Continue reading
“Russian novelist” is a weighty phrase.
When I hear it, I brace for war, love, history, the high church, and earth-shaking politics; for an epic story that feels intimate. The names of the great Russian writers are like monuments: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov.
But literature is not a dead man’s game; it’s a living conversation. And I prefer today’s Russian writers to the old masters. Have you heard of Victor Pelevin, who writes trippy satirical novels about werewolves in Siberia and little old ladies in Moscow? I have read every English translation of Victor Pelevin that I have gotten my hands on. And Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who writes “scary fairy tales” with titles like There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby? She’s an international treasure. Not to mention Masha Gessen, whose fiercely independent journalism about civil rights in Russia has made her one of the most admirable public figures in the world.
All I’m saying is, today’s Russian writers are crushing it.
That’s why I was excited to get an email, a few months ago, from Andrea Gregovich. She’s a translator in Alaska, and she had recently completed an English translation of USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov. Andrea was looking for a small press like Fiction Advocate to help her publish USSR as an e-book. I didn’t know Andrea, and I had never heard of Vladimir. But I printed the manuscript and started to read it on a plane. Before the flight attendants came down the aisle with beverages, I already knew that we were going to publish USSR as more than just an e-book. Continue reading
I see baseball everywhere. It’s almost a curse. I can’t help but associate everything that happens to me with some fleeting statistic or apocryphal anecdote.
Playing baseball has taken me many places—to pristine ball fields in Egypt and to the diamonds of Breezy Point that Hurricane Sandy later destroyed. I exhibited some small modicum of athletic prowess on the field, and now I spend countless hours dissecting those memories. Recollecting, my past experiences become legend. Nostalgia grips me tighter as I drift farther and farther away from the time in my life when I actually played the game.
Many writers have explored this wistfulness. The table of contents of Baseball: A Literary Anthology from The Library of America makes it clear that baseball writing is as much a national pastime as the game itself. From Don Delillo to Roger Angell, Phillip Roth to Bernard Malamud, a certain type of author—he tends to be a man—can’t help but address the performance of baseball when making sense of the American experience.