The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet. 

Hugh E. Keogh 

There’s too much to read, right? Especially contemporary fiction. Too many choices. You have to develop a strategy of selection, a method of triage. I will always read more old books than new ones, as I think everyone should. But I don’t neglect what my contemporaries are doing. This summer, for instance, I plan to read Jon Fosse’s Septology and Zito Madu’s memoir The Minotaur at Calle Lanza. (Memoir is not fiction, of course, but it uses some of the same techniques and, for me, scratches some of the same itches.) 

My own strategy for deciding what to read arises from these facts: Literary fiction in America has become a monoculture in which the writers and the editors are overwhelmingly products of the same few top-ranked universities and the same few top-ranked MFA programs — we’re still in The Program Era — and work in a moment that prizes above all else ideological uniformity. Such people tend also to live in the same tiny handful of places. And it is virtually impossible for anything really interesting, surprising, or provocative to emerge from an intellectual monoculture. 

With these facts in mind I have developed a three-strike system to help me decide whether to read contemporary fiction, with the following features: 

  • The book is set in Brooklyn: Three strikes, you’re out
  • The author lives in Brooklyn: Three strikes, you’re out
  • The book is set anywhere else in New York City: Two strikes
  • The book is set in San Francisco: Two strikes
  • The book’s protagonist is a writer or artist or would-be writer or would-be artist: Two strikes
  • The author attended an Ivy League or Ivy-adjacent university or college: Two strikes
  • The book is set in Los Angeles: One strike
  • The author lives in San Francisco: One strike. 
  • The author has an MFA: One strike
  • The book is set in the present day: One strike

I am not saying that any book that racks up three strikes cannot be good. I am saying that the odds against said book being good are enormous. It is vanishingly unlikely that a book that gets three strikes in my system will be worth reading, because any such book is overwhelmingly likely to reaffirm the views of its monoculture — to be a kind of comfort food for its readers. Even books as horrific as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life — a novel I wish I had never read, and one of the key books that made me settle on this system — is comforting in the sense that we always know precisely whom we are to sympathize with and whom to hate. Daniel Mendelsohn is correct: “Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel than like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.” I would delete “sometimes.” 

(Author graduated from Smith College, lives somewhere in New York City, book is set in New York City in more-or-less the present day: at least five strikes. I shoulda known.) 

My system does not cover every eventuality. Among other things, it only applies to American writers, though the monoculture I have described extends overseas: for instance, Sally Rooney doesn’t live in Brooklyn, but she might as well; and her books aren’t set in Brooklyn, though they might as well be. I need to extend my system to account for this kind of thing. But I can continue to work on that. 

I have a similar system for deciding whether to watch a movie; maybe I’ll write about that in another post.