Usually, you can’t judge an article by its headline.
The practice of trying to entice people to take the five, 10 or 20 minutes to read an essay, arts review, column or news story is now standard—has been for more than a decade—a disquieting reality for pre-internet consumers that, nonetheless, isn’t worth the time complaining about. Usually the juicy, salacious or humorous headline is meant to generate “clicks,” which means nothing to the audience, but everything—advertising, mostly—for the most-trafficked websites, but even at my Splice Today (the phrase “a ripple in the Atlantic Ocean” would be an exaggeration in describing its size or popularity), at least half the headlines are teasers. Maybe they’re clever, maybe not, but there’s no beating back this probably-permanent diminution of media today.
In late-December, I was lured into reading an article in The New York Times, even though its headline, “Let’s Rescue Book Lovers From This Online Hellscape," contained the “h-word,” hellscape, one that online goofballs use without thinking (generous), or its alternatives such as “hellsite” or “fresh hell.” (I still find it vaguely amusing when someone blasts Twitter (X) in such a manner, but still announces to those who follow such matters, on Lex Luthor Musk’s platform.)
Anyway, the article in question, by agenda-driven Maris Kreizman, wasn’t as bad as the headline, but although I learned that Goodreads, a website about books, publishing and authors, is controversial because of “review-bombs” and the like, I didn’t give a shit since I never, ever look at it. (Although I did, in fairness, do so on Monday morning, solely for the purpose of conducting a modicum of research; and, as someone who reads, found the “discussions” and reviews just a lot of blabbermouths blabbing, pro or con, about this or that title.) Kreizman’s correct that the number of sources for book reviews, and publishing news, is now scant, but again, that’s of little consequence today.
Launched in early-2007, Goodreads (unbeknownst to me) was popular with a group of people who liked talking about books, rating them, learning of upcoming releases from bookstores and publishers, but then The Man, in this case, Amazon, purchased the site in 2013. Kreizman writes: “While Amazon had won few fans in the book community thanks to its predatory business practices, it is also the foremost online marketplace for books, and so a companion site dedicated to discussing book seemed like an obvious and potentially beneficial complement.” But, says Kreizman, it became an “uninviting salon.”
Although I read a lot of novels each year, some new, some that escaped my attention decades ago, I’m not part of the “book community” and don’t agree that Amazon has “predatory business practices,” at least when it comes to buying books that are cheaper than other venues, and shipped to your home in a short period of time. I’ve read that Jeff Bezos’ company mistreats workers, pays peanuts and has an unpleasant atmosphere. If true, that’s not uncommon, and anyway, not my problem.
I discover what new books are coming out from the Times, Wall Street Journal, Irish Literary Times (on Twitter; an excellent source if you can ignore their abhorrent politics, which I do) or Real Clear Books. On occasion I’ll glance at The New Yorker’s recommendations, but they’re usually aimed at the weekly’s left-wing audience and not for me.
All that aside, my three favorite books of 2023 were Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting, Richard Russo’s Somebody’s Fool and Alice Winn’s In Memoriam. I looked forward to Alice McDermott’s Absolution, but the novel was a whiff (a shadow of her After This and That Night), as was Nathan Hill’s Wellness, the title of which should’ve tipped me off (I liked his 2017 debut The Fix), since it concerned a modern eco-friendly, all-inclusive couple that falls victim to new technology; had it come out in 2018, it wouldn’t feel so dated.
Murray’s Bee Sting, a deserved favorite of critics—although they invariably emphasized the climate change subplot—is a brilliant and very long novel that ought to catapult him to the ranks of the best living authors. It centers on the Barnes family, who live outside of Dublin, and doesn’t leave a single emotion on the table: true romance, betrayal, unspoken secrets and indiscretions from the past, adultery, greed, alcoholism, two-faced friends, conspicuous consumption, recession, distraction and business failure. The last 50 pages, characters running in a violent thunderstorm, keeps you pumping, and if the sudden staccato prose is reminiscent of James Joyce, well, Murray’s an Irish writer.
Richard Russo, whose Somebody’s Fool completes a trilogy (set again in upstate New York) is perhaps America’s top writer: he’s prolific, punctilious in his word choice, and though it’s a “quiet read,” compared to the violent and hilarious prose of Murray, it leaves you wanting a another sequel… right now. Russo can, and probably is, compared to John Updike from decades ago, but he’s not annoying and impressed with himself (that’s just my take: I always enjoyed Updike’s essays in The New Yorker far more than his novels).
Winn’s In Memoriam, a debut historical novel is set during World War I, where two wealthy students, Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood, furtive, passionate and violent lovers, are rah-rah-rah for England’s part in the war, full of bravado and winning one for King and Country. It’s billed as an early-20th century gay story, but while that’s a large theme, what struck me far more was poet Sidney’s disillusionment not only with his posh status but the country’s leaders. Winn writes: “On his worst days, Ellwood hated England… He hated the old men in the pub who looked down on the French, on the Germans, who felt that the colonies must be grateful for the chance to give something back to Britain for a change… [That friends] should all have to die so that England could continue in its small-mindedness seemed worse than a tragedy, for it was not beautiful. It was only stupid, and Ellwood hated the muddy fields and the dreary sheep and the clumsy, prehistoric rock formations that they had all been asked to die for.”
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023