When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.
Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.
Sara Majka | Longreads | October 2015 | 23 minutes (5,561 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Sara Majka, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“This short story, about a woman who decides to travel to from city to city, working and eating in soup kitchens, is the previously unpublished title story from a collection I have been wishing and longing for for almost a decade. I first met Sara Majka in a fiction workshop at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where we both were enrolled as students. At the time, I was a new assistant editor at A Public Space and I brought Majka’s work to the attention of editor Brigid Hughes. If I recall correctly, her story was the only story I brought from my workshop directly to the magazine for consideration. It was a quiet and considered story with a singular voice. I was struck by how certain and precise the language was—how unusual and full of unspoken yearnings. She was able to convey so much disorientation, doubt, and pain through small observations and deceptively simple memories. Majka’s characters read as if they are feeling their way through a room with their eyes closed even though the lights are on—the reality of what is in front of them is difficult for them to process, the choices they are faced with confusing—despite their sincere attempts to find their way.
The story I showed Hughes ultimately did not end up in the magazine, (I later found it a home at Pen America), but she was more than intrigued, and later published another story and began a working relationship with Majka that led to the forthcoming publication of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, as a part of A Public Space Books, their imprint with Graywolf Press. These stories are a marvel and will break your heart. Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”
Over at New York magazine, Boris Kachka has a piece looking at how the tiny, Minnesota-based Graywolf Press became a major player in book publishing. As the publisher of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts(read the first chapter here!) and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Graywolf Press has helped turn “the previously unprepossessing genre of the ‘lyric essay’ into a major cultural force.” But what exactly is a lyric essay?
The term lyric essay was popularized in the ’90s by the writer John D’Agata (a Graywolf author) to describe a hybrid form of nonfiction that accommodates verse, memoir, and criticism. But its origins go back at least as far as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, journalist-critics whose work is magnetically personal. Its present-day progeny is more diverse and more direct, answering to a very modern hunger for well-worded social arguments rooted in identity and experience. It’s a rapidly expanding niche, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay can turn painful confessions into powerful exhortations while — in a different mode — Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti can make universal claims out of private stories. On this shifting ground, Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.
Dorthe Nors | Longreads | August 2015 | 8 minutes (1,904 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, translated into English by Misha Hoekstra, and chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“I first came across the intriguingly sparse work of Dorthe Nors in the pages of the literary magazine, A Public Space. And then the magazine went on to publish her first short story collection translated into English, Karate Chop, in partnership with Graywolf Press, and it became one of my favorite books last year. Although her stories are quite short, they are flashes of sharp and bright light into the otherwise obscure and dark corners of life. Last winter, a particularly cold and brutal season for New York, I helped curate a reading series for a temporary exhibition space called Winter Shack, themed around the idea of exploring the concept of “coziness.” In Denmark, I’d learned the pursuit of being cozy is a particular philosophy with its own rules and traditions, undertaken to beat the winter doldrums. We were lucky that Nors was game to send along an introduction to the Danish custom of cozy as well as an original short story that demonstrates the dangers of pursuing its creature comforts. Longreads is proud to be the first publisher of this eye-opening story about the happiest people in the world.”
My boss when I worked in London—someone who’d published Booker Prize winners, remember—used to say that two-thirds of publishing is about failure. I agree with that: it’s the nature of the business. And yet publishing is an industry that keeps attracting to it, in various ways, people who want it to be two-thirds about success.
There are dozens of obstacles to any given book succeeding. If a book succeeds it always does so against the odds. The odds in one generation might relate to the fact that people would rather be watching television than reading your book. The odds in the next generation might be that they’d rather be on their computer than reading your book. Once it was that people would rather be riding a bicycle than reading your book. It doesn’t do any good to be talking, as an author or publisher, about the obstacles. There are better uses of energy, I think. Yes, we can all feel helpless and wary in this industry sometimes, but it’s better, as a publisher, to look at the ways in which e-books and Twitter and so on can help us reach new readers, rather than treating social media as an enemy to literature. At the event for emerging writers at A Public Space last night, we had a full house. How? By A Public Space and Graywolf posting about it on Facebook and Twitter. Not a single piece of paper was printed, but people came. And these were informed people—they knew who we were and what we publish. They were the appropriate audience. No one turned up to try and sell me something that does not fit our list. Through Twitter we reached exactly the right people—tuned into the right channel—within a few minutes.