Books I Read in 2017 (and 2016, and 2015)

It’s been … (checks calendar, hangs head) … three years since I last did one of these? I am slack. As ever, I enjoy hearing about what other people are reading, so I figure that the least I can do is share alike. Here’s the fiction (only) that’s kept me busy since the start of 2015. Other posts in this series go back to 2009. FYI, links are to Amazon, but aren’t affiliates.

  • Beatty, Paul. The Sellout (2015). Enjoyed this a lot, though I don’t think I could teach it.
  • Blixen, Karen. Out of Africa (1937). Not sure why I decided to close this particular gap this year.
  • Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch (1959). Tested my patience.
  • Cole, Teju. Open City (2011). Wonder if I might pair this with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (short, experimental, New York) the next time I do the contemporary U.S. fiction class.
  • Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend (2011). Wasn’t moved the way that others seem to have been.
  • Fruhlinger, Josh. The Enthusiast (2015). A friend’s first novel. Genuinely good.
  • Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train (2015). Wasn’t gripped by it.
  • Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? (2010). Serious question: when did “art monster” become a thing?
  • James, Marlon. A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014). Very good, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
  • July, Miranda. The First Bad Man (2015). Really liked this.
  • King, Lily. Euphoria (2014). I remember liking this, though not much else about it.
  • Klay, Phil. Redeployment (2014). Ditto.
  • Lethem, Jonathan. Amnesia Moon (1995). A lot of dystopias these last few years. Not crazy about that, though I am apparently a slow learner of my own tastes.
  • Mandel, Emily St John. Station Eleven (2014). See Lethem.
  • Mantel, Hilary. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014). One of two story collections (with Klay). I usually prefer novels. But, man, is Mantel good.
  • Marr, Andrew. Head of State (2014). Enjoyably trashy.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. The Road (2006). See Lethem.
  • McCarthy, Tom. Satin Island (2015). I preferred Remainder, but perfectly serviceable.
  • Murray, Paul. The Mark and the Void (2015). The metafiction eventually wore thin for me.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer (2015). About as good as everyone says.
  • Ortberg, Mallory. Texts from Jane Eyre (2014). God, I miss The Toast.
  • Price, Richard. Clockers (1992). Couple of decades late to this party. Sorry to have missed it for so long.
  • Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women (1952). Damn you, Mallory Ortberg. I will read literally anything you tell me to.
  • Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead (2004). The best thing I’ve read in … years? How many years? A decade, at least, I think.
  • Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping (1980). Not as good as Gilead, but still awfully good.
  • Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). Technically interesting, left me a little flat. Surprising, given how much I enjoy his short fiction.
  • Stout, Rex. Fer-de-Lance (1934). See figure 5.
  • VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation (2014). Looking forward to his visit to Notre Dame this year.
  • Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad (2016). Other than Zone One, the best thing of his since The Intuitionist.
  • Yamashita, Karen Tei. I Hotel (2010). Left me cold.

I tried Kindle samples of another couple of dozen novels. Some that I’d like to come back to eventually. FWIW, I do almost all my reading on a screen of one sort or another. No frickin’ deckle edge.

Numbers? 30 books in three years. Not going to win any awards. 13 by women, 17 by men. Mostly Americans, for professional reasons, though it’s a mug’s game to divvy them up in detail. None that I hated, maybe two or three that I read more from obligation than desire, and handful that were full-on great. The Robinson was the real standout.

First up in 2018 is Julian Gracq’s A Balcony in the Forest or Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Or something else. You never know.

Postdoc in Computational Textual Geography


Update: The position has been filled. I’m very pleased that Dan Sinykin will be joining our group next year as a postdoctoral fellow.

I’m seeking a postdoctoral fellow for a two-year appointment to work on aspects of the Textual Geographies project and to collaborate on research of mutual interest in my lab in the Department of English at Notre Dame.

The ideal candidate will have demonstrated expertise in literary or cultural studies, machine learning or natural language processing, and geographic or spatial analysis, as well as a willingness to work in new areas. The fellow will contribute to the ongoing work of the Textual Geographies project, an NEH-funded collaboration between literary scholars, historians, geographers, and computer scientists to map and analyze geographic references in more than ten million digitized volumes held by the HathiTrust Digital Library. Areas of current investigation include machine learning for toponym disambiguation, named entity recognition in book-length texts, visualization of uncertainty in geospatial data sets, and cultural and economic analysis of large-scale, multinational literary geography. We welcome applications from candidates whose research interests might expand the range of our existing projects, as well as from those whose expertise builds on our present strengths.

Interdisciplinary collaboration with other groups at Notre Dame is possible. The fellow will also have access to the Text Mining the Novel project, which has helped to underwrite the position.


Details and application via Interfolio (free). Letters not required for initial stage. Review begins immediately and continues until position is filled. Salary $50,000/year plus research stipend. Initial appointment for one year, renewable for a second year subject to satisfactory progress. Teaching possible but not required.



My book, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction, is out with Johns Hopkins University Press. OK, it’s been out since October, but still. I’m really excited about it.

Below is the description from JHUP’s site, and I have a related post, “5 Things You Might Not Know About Fifties Fiction,” on their blog as well. In brief, the book is about how one set of literary and cultural forms displaces another, especially as that process played out in the United States after World War II. Want to know why fifties fiction is full of rambling allegories and why no one writes like Jack Kerouac? Or what those facts have to do with the French Revolution or the invention of quantum mechanics? You’ve come to the right place.

There’s a preview of the book available via Google. Should you be so inclined, you can buy the thing directly from the press, via Amazon, or wherever fine literary-critical monographs are sold. Want to review it? The press has your hook-up.

Here’s a fuller description of project:

Socially, politically, and artistically, the 1950s make up an odd interlude between the first half of the twentieth century — still tied to the problems and orders of the Victorian era and Gilded Age — and the pervasive transformations of the later sixties. In Revolution, Matthew Wilkens argues that postwar fiction functions as a fascinating model of revolutionary change. Uniting literary criticism, cultural analysis, political theory, and science studies, Revolution reimagines the years after World War II as at once distinct from the decades surrounding them and part of a larger-scale series of rare, revolutionary moments stretching across centuries.

Focusing on the odd mix of allegory, encyclopedism, and failure that characterizes fifties fiction, Wilkens examines a range of literature written during similar times of crisis, in the process engaging theoretical perspectives from Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson to Bruno Latour and Alain Badiou alongside readings of major novels by Ralph Ellison, William Gaddis, Doris Lessing, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, and others.

Revolution links the forces that shaped postwar fiction to the dynamics of revolutionary events in other eras and social domains. Like physicists at the turn of the twentieth century or the French peasantry of 1789, midcentury writers confronted a world that did not fit their existing models. Pressed to adapt but lacking any obvious alternative, their work became sprawling and figurative, accumulating unrelated details and reusing older forms to ambiguous new ends. While the imperatives of the postmodern eventually gave order to this chaos, Wilkens explains that the same forces are again at work in today’s fracturing literary market.

As I say, I’m super happy to have the book out in the world. I owe thanks to many, many people for their help along the way. Now, on to the next one!

Computational Approaches to Genre in CA

fig5New year, catch-up news. I have an article in CA, the journal of cultural analytics, on computational approaches to genre detection in twentieth-century fiction. The piece came out back in November, but, well, it’s been a busy year.

The big finding — beyond what I happen to think is a nifty way of considering genre — is that certain highly canonical, male-authored novels of the mid-late twentieth century (by the likes of Updike, Bellow, Vonnegut, DeLillo, etc.) resemble one another about as closely as do mid-century hard-boiled detective stories. That is, very closely indeed. There are a couple of conclusions one might draw from this; my preferred interpretation is that the functional definition of literary fiction in the postwar period (and probably everywhere else) remains much too narrow. But there are other possibilities as well …

CA, by the way, has had some really great work of late. Andrew Piper’s article on “fictionality” is especially worth a read; Piper shows that it’s not just possible but really pretty easy to separate fiction from nonfiction using a basic set of lexical features.

PSA: e-Book Publishing Stats

I just read Dan Cohen’s thoughts on the future of e-books. Dan thinks the current “plateau” in e-book sales is either a temporary pause or an artifact of bad sales data, and speculates that digital books will be the (heavily) dominant medium of literary consumption sooner rather than later. I’m strongly inclined to agree, and Dan’s piece is (as always) well worth a read if you’re interested in smart speculation about media, publishing, libraries, and readership.

I’m writing this up for the blog, rather than (just) tweeting it, because Dan’s piece led me to an informative and intriguing report by Author Earnings. I haven’t examined their methods in detail, but they claim, among other things, that 30% of purchased e-books in the US don’t have ISBN numbers, meaning they aren’t included in Bowker’s publishing reports (about which I’ve previously written, trying to figure out how many new novels are published in the US every year). Anyway, the AE report is worth a look if you’re at least abstractly interested in the economics of the changing publishing industry.

A Bit of Position-Taking on Surface Reading

There’s a new piece by Jeffrey Williams in the Chronicle on surface reading and “the new modesty” in literary studies. Came to my attention via Ted Underwood, who had a kind of ambivalent response to it on Twitter.

I was going to reply there, but 140 characters weren’t quite enough, and I’m asked about this pretty often, so thought I’d set down my short thoughts in a more permanent way.

I like and respect Marcus and Best’s work, which I find subtle and illuminating, though most of it falls somewhat outside my own field. And I guess I understand why some people are fed up with ideologically committed, theoretically oriented, hermeneutically inflected literary scholarship. When that stuff is bad, it’s pretty bad. Then again, just about anything can be (and often is) bad. I don’t see any special monopoly on badness there.

I also understand how it’s possible to look at (some) digital humanities research and think that it shares some sort of imagined turn away from depth and detail in favor of “direct” observation of “obvious” features. People who have no experience with the sciences tend to imagine that such things exist and that they’re different from what literary people work with. They aren’t, though that’s an argument for another time. (I have a little on it in passing in my forthcoming Comparative Literature review, FWIW.) In any case, it’s true that you sometimes hear people talking about a desire for “empirical” or “descriptive” research in DH, though they’re in the minority and I’m not one of them.

It’s hopeless, of course, to try to tell other people how to frame their work or ultimately to control how people receive your own. But I’ll say that my own reasons for pursuing computational literary research have nothing to do with (naïve, illusory) empiricism or a desire for critical modesty or a disenchantment with symptomatic, culturally committed criticism. Quite the opposite. Computers help me marshall evidence for large-scale cultural claims. That’s why I’m interested in them: they help me do better the kind of big, not especially modest, fundamentally symptomatic and suspicious critical work that brought me to the field in the first place.

But then, I would say that. I was Fred Jameson’s student and I was his student for a reason.

Books I Read in 2014

Here’s the new (to me) fiction I read this year. As always, I like seeing other people’s lists, so I figure I ought to contribute my own. Archived lists back to 2009 are also available.

  • Aw, Tash. Five Star Billionaire (2013). Did less for me than I’d hoped, but I think I just faulted it for failing to be the sweeping social drama I wanted it to be.
  • Braak, Chris. The Translated Man (2007). Pretty fun steampunk piece. Can’t remember how I found it – a blog somewhere, I think.
  • Catton, Eleanor. The Luminaries (2013). Really well done, but (just?) an entertainment.
  • Hustvedt, Siri. The Blazing World (2014). For stories of women and art, I preferred Messud.
  • Lepucki, Edan. California (2014). Read this right after The Bone Clocks for maximum depression value. Should have been 30 pages shorter or 100 pages longer — the ending doesn’t quite work.
  • Marcus, Ben. The Age of Wire and String (1995). The lone full-on experimental text on the list. Didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to, because I’m a hypocrite.
  • Martin, Valerie. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2014).
  • Mengestu, Dinaw. All Our Names (2014). Disappointing. Guess I wanted more and tighter politics, less domestic drama.
  • Messud, Claire. The Woman Upstairs (2013). Enjoyed this a lot, probably more than anything else on the year.
  • Mitchell, David. The Bone Clocks (2014). I love Mitchell, who’s almost good enough to pull off the book’s bizarre mashup of Black Swan Green, the innermost novella of Cloud Atlas, and interdimensional Manichaean sci-fi. Almost.
  • Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84 (2011). I also like Murakami, but 1,000 pages of close to literally nothing happening is a lot to ask.
  • Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation (2014). Good, narratively interesting, but ultimately underdrawn in substance.
  • Osborne, John. Look Back in Anger (1956). A quick glance at Osborne, whom I’d never read.
  • Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch (2013). More disaster/suffering porn. Didn’t like it.
  • Waldman, Adelle. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013).
  • Weir, Andy. The Martian (2011). Picked up in an airport book rack for a flight with a dead Kindle. Fun to read, sociologically and symptomatically interesting.
  • Wolitzer, Meg. The Interestings (2013). Not really. (Ooh, sick burn!)

Also picked up and put down … let’s see … Hotel World by Ali Smith, Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and a couple of others.

Sixteen books and one play in sum, a little better than usual. Helps to be on leave. But not a year full of great reads. Was briefly enamored of Offill’s book, but its genuinely cool schtick got a little flat over just 100 pages. The Woman Upstairs was probably my favorite, and even that one wasn’t something I fell in love with. Nothing on the list that I’d especially want to teach or that struck me as something I should spend more time thinking about.

On the whole, it seemed as though I’d read a lot of these things before; well-executed, straight-ahead fiction. Which I suppose is mostly a defect in me, picking things from the pages of the New Yorker and the LRB and the Times and such. I know their deal; it’s not like those outlets went unexpectedly conservative this year. I read a lot of things out of vague professional obligation. The books I had the most fun with — Dept. of Speculation, The Translated Man, The Martian — were either experimental or genre fiction. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Maybe I should learn it.

So, here’s to a better 2015. Leading off (in the absence of the aforementioned lesson) with maybe Lily King’s Euphoria or Hilary Mantel’s Assassination of Margaret Thatcher or Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings or Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, if I want to continue the apocalyptic theme from Mitchell and Lepucki …

NovelTM Grant and Project

Finally for the day, another announcement that’s been slightly delayed: I’m really pleased to be part of the SSHRC-funded, McGill-led NovelTM: Text Mining the Novel project. It’s a long-term effort “to produce the first large-scale cross-cultural study of the novel according to quantitative methods” (quoth the About page). A super-impressive group of people are attached – just have a look at the list of team members!

Our first all-hands project meeting is coming up this week. Looking forward to getting started on things that will keep me busy for years to come. Updates and preliminary results here in the months ahead.

Digital Americanists at ALA 2014

From the Digital Americanists site, which has full details:

Visualizing Non-Linearity: Faulkner and the Challenges of Narrative Mapping
Session 1-A. Thursday, May 22, 2014, 9:00 – 10:20 am

  1. Julie Napolin, The New School
  2. Worthy Martin, University of Virginia
  3. Johannes Burgers, Queensborough Community College

Digital Flânerie and Americans in Paris
Session 2-A. Thursday, May 22, 2014, 10:30-11:50 am

  1. “Mapping Movement, or, Walking with Hemingway,” Laura McGrath, Michigan State University
  2. “Parisian Remainder,” Steven Ambrose, Michigan State University
  3. “Sedentary City,” Anna Green, Michigan State University
  4. “Locating The Imaginary: Literary Mapping and Propositional Space,” Sarah Panuska, Michigan State University

Talk at Chicago, March 7, 2014

I’m giving a talk at the University of Chicago Digital Humanities Forum in a couple of weeks. Details at that link and reproduced here. Looking forward to the event and hope to see some of the many cool DH folks in Chicago there.

Date: March 7, 2014
Location: Regenstein Library 122
Time: 12:00-2:00 pm

Abstract: Scholars have long understood that there is a close relationship between literary production and the large-scale cultural contexts in which books are written. But it’s difficult to pin down the many ways in which this relationship might work, especially once we expand our interest from individual texts to systems of production and reception. In this talk, Wilkens offers a computationally assisted analysis of changes in geographic usage within more than a thousand works of nineteenth-century American fiction, arguing that literary-spatial attention around the Civil War was at once more diverse and more stable than has been previously shown. He examines correlations between literary attention and changes in demographic factors that offer preliminary insights into the driving forces behind a range of shifts in literary output. Wilkens also discusses the future of the project, which will soon expand to include millions of books from the early modern period to the present day.