Staff Picks: Getting On, Getting Away, Getting Organized!


This Week’s Reading


“Together We Can Do It!”

The latest issue of n+1 opens with an edifying symposium on labor and magazines, two subjects more historically entwined than you might think. Nikil Saval has an excellent primer on the first strike in publishing, and Gemma Sieff tells the still-contentious story of Harper’s unionization—but what really got me was Daniel Menaker’s recollection of tensions at The New Yorker in the seventies, when employees twice tried to stand up for better pay. William Shawn may have been an extraordinary editor, but a manager he was not. “We should have had a policy that after ten years,” he said in a speech to the staff, “if [employees] didn’t rise to something, then they should leave. They’re eccentric, unusual people, and we keep them on.” It’s a lot of inside baseball—I’m not sure, frankly, if anyone who doesn’t work at a magazine will care—but it will nurse the flame of the populist in your soul. And it provides a bracing counternarrative for the publishing industry, which is too often depicted as a kind of rarefied good-old-boys’ cabal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must agitate for collective bargaining among the staff of a certain literary quarterly. Editors of the world, unite. —Dan Piepenbring

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Girls or Transparent or Togetherness, or reading too much Trollope (see below), but for my money, no comedy on TV can compete with season two of Getting On, a show with old, sick people in it, and with smart, passionate, deluded, lonely protagonists—none of whom is trying to get famous. Such people do exist, and their problems are funny, too. —Lorin Stein

While I was in England a few years ago, someone recommended I arrange to see an Evensong concert. The majesty of the experience doesn’t translate to anything I’ve encountered in the U.S.—the tightly enclosed chapels and their unspeakably beautiful designs, the intensity and reverberation of the voices, the ritual of it all. I was reminded of the experience—one that I repeated as many times as I could—when I came across the Choir of New College Oxford’s version of “Shenandoah.” (Leave it to an Oxonian choir to offer the most hauntingly beautiful version of an American folk song.) —Stephen Hiltner

The New York Times wrote that Kathleen Ossip’s first collection of poems, The Cold War, “conjures delightful and unexpected muses in this socio-poetical exploration of post-World War II America.” Her second collection, The Do-Over, is an equal delight. It uses the same socio-poetically shrewd eye to consider America’s pop-culture milieu, distilling its own understanding of mortality and death. Unassuming and masterly, Ossip’s poetry is sneaky, very often disguising itself as easy, and surprising you the moment you let your guard down; “her poems are fun and deadly serious at once,” as NPR put it. The Do-Over is a kind of elegy to contemporary culture: it critiques modern life while basking in its ever-younger, glitzier rabble. —Jeffery Gleaves

In the preface to Atlas of Remote Islands, the German writer and typographer Judith Schalansky argues that the atlas should be recognized as a literary form. Her book makes an elegant case: in fifty maps of the world’s most isolated islands, accompanied by vignettes, Schalansky examines “the attraction of a beautiful void,” exploring the places as cultural, political, or personal metaphors and detailing their histories. Her prose is vivid and haunted, driven by a formidable amount of research. On these islands, she finds stories of high hopes and crushing losses, of failed utopias and lawless communities. It’s something of a love letter to cartography, but Atlas is not a romantic book—its stories are gritty with disappointment and hardship. —Catherine Carberry

The brothers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, aka Lil Beast and Ca Blaze, make up the impressive French hip-hop sensation known as Les Twins. (Check out their performances at San Diego in 2010 and at the World of Dance in 2014.) The duo taught themselves the fundamental techniques of ballet at a young age, which contributes to the fluidity of their hard-hitting, almost animatronic moves. People have been doing the robot since the late sixties, but Les Twins, having once shared the same zygote, take it further. They use each other’s bodies in homoerotic ways—vogueing, the hands of one moving slowly down the hips of the other—to subvert hip-hop’s heteronormative, hyper-masculine rep. Throw in some glitchy music and Laurent and Larry are suddenly more than just twins—they’re clones, cyborgs, automatons even, stuck in some beautifully malfunctioning videotape. —Caitlin Youngquist

The other week at Housing Works, I stumbled on a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, Trollope’s posthumous An Autobiography. According to the 1923 Oxford Classics introduction, “this queer abrupt text-book of the mechanics and economics of novel-writing was perhaps the most potent of the several causes that led to the collapse of Anthony Trollope as a literary reputation” right after he died, in 1882. You can see why. Trollope’s arrogance, his touchiness, his self-absorption, his competitiveness, his obsession with work and money are shocking even now. His autobiography reads like nothing so much as a Writers at Work interview avant la lettre—and before editing. I couldn’t put it down. Trollope claimed, credibly, to have written more novels than anyone in history, and he clearly wrote them as if by dictation, counting the words (so the publisher wouldn’t cheat him) while the plots and characters simply took care of themselves. As an official in the post office, where he had a brilliant career (and invented the mail box: this gets a parenthesis in the Autobiography), he wrote long reports without first drafts and expected his subordinates to do the same. His chief preoccupations seem to have been mail delivery, fox hunting, and the novel as a form of moral instruction. But I love him. He ranges over his own novels with a brusque critical eye. Of The Claverings, he writes, “There is a wife whose husband is a brute to her, who loses an only child—his heir—and who is rebuked by her lord because the boy dies. Her sorrow is, I think, pathetic … But I doubt now whether any one reads The Claverings.” From this tiny description I remembered the book, because I’ll never forget the scene. I found myself wanting to tell his ghost, I read it, Anthony! I read it! —L. S.

Asymptote, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary, has been home to some of the best writers in contemporary world literature, from Murakami, Coetzee, and Herta Müller, to newer writers such as Toh EnJoe and Tan Twan Eng. The January issue features fiction from the Danish authors Dorthe Nors and Naja Marie Aidt, interviews with David Damrosch and Szilárd Borbély, and three-dimensional (!) poetry from Iran. I plan to spend the weekend with it. —Lynette Lee