Lately I’ve been reading lots of new releases! Mostly books by friends and acquaintances. But not always! Sometimes just the books that’ve been getting a lot of buzz (for instance, Katherine Heiny’s collection Single, Mellow, Carefree and Rachel Cusk’s Outline both came out this year). In one case, I read a story collection that’s gotten no buzz (my review is one of only three on Amazon), just because it was discounted and I felt sorry for the author.
It would be easy to say that I’m reading new releases as a way of keeping up with what’s going on in the world of literature today, but that would be a lie. In reality, it’s mostly sympathetic magic. I have a book coming out, and I want people to read it. But for years I’ve mostly ignored new releases. So in order to convince myself that my book won’t be ignored, I’ve changed my ways and am starting to pay attention to new releases.
In reading new books, you do learn a few things. For instance, I’ve been hearing for years that Modernism was a sterile flower and that no one nowadays (except in the small presses) is writing formally atypical novels, But Rachel Cusk’s Outline (out from FSG) was a deeply strange novel: a book of conversations that the protagonist has with students and acquaintances over the course of a week or so in Athen.
And when you read contemporary books, you’re almost guaranteeing that the gender balance of the books you read is going to be much better. For instance, in the last six years, only 25% of the books I’ve read have been by women, but this year that number is more than 50%.
I do miss old books, though. I am fundamentally pretty conservative on issues like the worth of the canon. The canon is heavily weighted towards white and male authors, and that is annoying and fundamentally limiting. But the problem is that the books in the canon are often pretty good. Like, whatever you might say about, say, Ulysses or Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or The Charterhouse of Parma or Cousin Bette or The Sound and the Fury, it would be hard to argue that those books aren’t worth reading today and that it’s a bad thing that we have cultural institutions which have kept them from being forgotten. The most you can say, I think, is that those cultural institutions ought to have kept other books–books by nonwhite and female people–from being forgotten as well.
But where does that leave you as a reader? You can rely on informal institutions–blogs and word of mouth–to teach you about what’s good, but those institutions often have a populist bias. They select for a certain kind of book. People don’t tend to get on Twitter and excitedly talk about The Charterhouse of Parma. They tend to talk about more accessible books: ones that will allow you to stir up conversation and build a community. And it’s a tough thing to do the sifting yourself, because it means that you have to read a lot of bad books.
Luckily, there are academics who are busily promoting books into the canon. Two of my favorites–Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf–would probably be forgotten to day if it wasn’t for academics who were interested in finding queer and female narratives in eras that’d heretofore been given over to male voices.
But now I’m rambling.