Tag Archives: Anthony Marra

Too Big to Edit?

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 June 2017.

As a member of the National Book Critics Circle, I had both the privilege and pleasure of reading all six of the finalists for the 2016 John Leonard Award, given for an author’s first book.

Of the six, I felt that five were exceptional, while the sixth was merely well done. When I mentioned my reading assignment to a friend — a successful author — he made a face at the idea of having to read a bunch of debut authors.

His reaction made me laugh. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read are debuts. To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone? (We will leave a discussion of the travesty of Go Set a Watchman for another time.)

One book that is as close to a “perfect” novel as I’ve experienced won the first Leonard prize, in 2013: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (reviewed for the Independent by Rimas Blekaitis). Marra’s triple-threat command of plot, character, and language is breathtaking.

The writing strength of debut authors is one of the primary discoveries I’ve made since starting to read as a reviewer. These days, if I’m looking for topnotch literature and the choice is between a veteran and a newcomer, I’ll take my chances on the newbie.

As I noted in a column for Late Last Night Books on a similar subject (“When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”): “Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically ‘showed promise,’ and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command.”

In contrast, I’m finding more seasoned authors whose latest works lack focus and coherence, and instead become, frankly, self-indulgent. What’s going on? Is it that publishers believe people will simply buy based on a name, and the content no longer matters? Do the authors think they’re too good to be edited?

If so, they’re both wrong.

Consider, for example, Emily Jeanne Miller’s review of Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch: “I’ve wondered if these rapturous reviewers actually read the book’s second half…The problem is [Tartt] (or her editor) didn’t know when to say when; instead, the details and descriptions, often of places, people, or events that have no bearing on the plot, abound, weighing the story down and ultimately becoming irritating. I found myself flipping through the pages, skimming over conversations and scenes to see if anything would actually happen, which often it did not.”

David O. Stewart’s hilariously frustrated review of James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun details a litany of authorial self-indulgence and editorial failings — though it’s hard to imagine that Burke would suffer anyone to edit him.

And it was obvious to me as I wrote my own recent review of David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama that the author had run out of time, word count, or both when he decided to compress nine years of campaign and presidency into a 50-page epilogue. “The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.”

As anyone associated with the publishing business knows, editing is increasingly the victim of shrinking margins and brutal competition. When anyone can publish anything at any time at little cost and thereby join in the elbow-throwing scrum for readership, editing gets left on the sidelines. Stories are rampant of how few editors remain on staff at the big publishing houses.

So why does it seem that debut books get the lion’s share of the editing? Possibly because the first book has to be strong in order to make the author’s name. Plus, rather often, the person who does the primary editing of a debut is the agent.

That’s certainly earning your 15 percent.

All of this is a bad strategy. Publishers may be saving money in the short run, and they may con readers into shelling out 25 or 30 bucks for that first poorly edited mishmash by an acclaimed author, but chances are those readers won’t make that mistake again. Life’s too short to read bad books.

As a committed reader, I want publishers big and small to embrace the mantra that good editing makes good books. In fact, I suggest a book that’s set to come out this October be required reading for any outfit calling itself a publisher. The book is What Editors Do (University of Chicago Press), and it’s edited by the inestimable Peter Ginna. (When you’re selected to edit a book about editing, you are officially the Jedi Master of your craft.)

I will totally own my word-nerd status by declaring I can’t wait to get a copy of this book. They had me at the first two sentences of the pre-pub synopsis: “Editing is an invisible art where the very best work goes undetected. Editors strive to create books that are enlightening, seamless, and pleasurable to read, all while giving credit to the author.”

Plus, there’s that acknowledgement of “the economic realities of publishing. What Editors Do shows why, in the face of a rapidly changing publishing landscape, editors are more important than ever.”

Can I have an “Amen!”?

By the way, if you don’t know, Yaa Gyasi won this year’s Leonard prize for her novel Homegoing (read Tara Campbell’s review here). Gyasi is a supremely talented young writer, and her debut is stunning in its scope and complexity. She deserves every bit of acclaim she’s received. Offhand, I don’t know who her editor is, but I’m sure hoping they stick around for her next book.


When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.

Book Review: The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories

This review was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 October 2015.

What is it about the spare beauty of Anthony Marra’s prose that makes us want to laugh and cry at the same time? His sentences are so deceptively simple and yet so layered with meaning that a paragraph, and then a page, and then a story leave a reader somewhat breathless and a little shell-shocked. Stack the interleaving stories on top of each other and it’s almost too much to take in.

This was the revelatory experience so many of us had in discovering his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and here is Marra again as he offers us the luminous, fully intertwined stories of his second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno. Each story is written to stand on its own, but the magic is revealed in how he has fitted them all together.

In Constellation, Marra introduced us to the bombed-out wreckage of Chechnya through two wars. Tsar bring us back again, in and around Grozny, designated by the United Nations as “the most devastated city on earth,” where reclaimed office doors from destroyed buildings are used to repave the streets because every cement truck is hijacked before it can reach a crater to fill it in.

There is also the frozen Arctic hinterland of Kirovsk, originally a forced-labor camp, which is chronically in the running for the title of world’s most-polluted city because of the Twelve Apostles — the dozen belching smokestacks of the nickel-smelting operation that blot out the sky — and Lake Mercury, “a man-made lake of industrial runoff whose silvered waters are so veined with exotic chemicals they lap against the gravel-pocked banks year-round, unfrozen even in February.”

The landscape of Marra’s work is an indelible part of the stories he tells and in so many ways inseparable from the characters he creates. Here, though, a landscape is very literally part of the story: “Empty Pasture in Afternoon,” a landscape painted by Chechen artist Pyotr Zakharov in 1843, together with the physical landscape depicted in it, serve as two of the many threads binding together the stories of Tsar.

(It’s instructive to understand how much of the backdrop of these stories is nonfiction, and a glance at Marra’s list of references underscores the point. Many of Zakharov’s works were destroyed or badly damaged when the Grozny art museum was shelled, and work continues on their restoration.)

The opening tale, “The Leopard,” is set in 1937 Leningrad and thrusts us immediately into the through-the-looking-glass insanity of Stalin’s communist purification. His purges are in full frenzy, as we learn from lead artistic censor Roman Osipovich Markin, whose workload of erasing enemies of the state from photos and paintings is growing exponentially in a country where the slightest suspected infraction earns the accused a prison sentence, deportation, or death.

Markin is practicing his own quiet subversion by replacing the faces of those he expunges with that of his brother, Vaska, whose arrest and death Markin failed to forestall. What causes Markin’s eventual downfall is not his very first insertion of Vaska’s face into that same Zakharov painting, or any of the hundreds of subsequent images he paints of Vaska from boyhood to old age. Rather, it is his refusal to fully excise the image of a ballet dancer he does not even know.

If “The Leopard” sets the stage for everything that comes after, the second story, “Granddaughters,” serves as a kind of Greek chorus to bridge the space between then and now, to explain what we need to know, and to introduce, directly or indirectly, virtually every other character in the collection.

From it, we grasp that Markin’s dancer was the prima ballerina for the Kirov before her arrest and deportation to Kirovsk, but what’s important is that she becomes “Galina’s grandmother.” Galina — beautiful, shrewd, lucky enough to make it big — is at the center of everything, though we only ever see her reflected through the lens of other characters.

With Marra, every detail holds meaning. The only question is: For which of these characters will we most ache, for whose redemption most yearn? It might be Ruslan, the former deputy director of the destroyed art museum, whose home and family are part of Zakharov’s ruined landscape. Possibly it is Vaska’s grandson Sergei, whose mere existence is Markin’s great triumph, but who fails even at becoming a proper drug addict.

If we listened to that Greek chorus of six breezily disloyal lifelong friends bound together in the wasteland of Kirovsk, we’d be prepared to dismiss Galina’s sweetheart, Kolya, as a two-bit hoodlum/soldier on whom she’s squandering herself. Don’t be fooled. Kolya is the one.

In fact, almost every character holds surprising depth, even Kolya’s big, lunk-headed fellow soldier, Danilo, who is forced to confront the lie that has sustained him and his entire army unit for ages. “His red eyes radiate substratum pain, an ache so deep and unyielding that Kolya witnesses it as a geologic event.” Every one of these characters is fully human. They are pricked and they bleed.

It’s also somehow disconcerting to be reminded that not everyone sees Vladimir Putin as a bad guy. “When the KGB man won the presidency in 2000, we celebrated…When our children read aloud that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century we nodded and told them, ‘This is the truth.’”

Truth, as always, depends entirely on perspective, and — fortunately or unfortunately — each of us holds one uniquely our own. The truth here is that Anthony Marra has once again delivered us a gift of heartbreaking warmth, humor, and humanity. Accept this gift.