How I choose fiction

An MR reader emails me:

Reading: what is your decision model for choosing fiction?

Here is a description, these are not necessarily recommendations for you:

1. If a woman as smart (or smarter) as I am tells me to read a particular work of fiction, it is likely I do so.  If a smarter man tells me to read a particular work of fiction, odds are I will ignore it.

2. I am least likely to read American fiction.  The 1850s, Faulkner, and Pynchon aside, American fiction seems more superficial to me than say European or Latin American fiction.  American fiction is also very popular in…America, which leads to an excessively loose selection mechanism for those residing in this country and reading its media.  Whereas if a novel from El Salvador (Castellanos Moya) makes its way in front of your eyes, it may be quite good.

3. In genre fiction, I am most likely to read American fiction.  Superficiality is less of a problem, and vitality is more likely to be relevant.

4. I track fiction reviews in the NYT, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Financial Times, the WSJ and WaPo, BookForum, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and on-line, and I buy what seems interesting to me.  I read the blog Literary Saloon which covers fiction in translation.  I will randomly sample other sources as well, sometimes the Guardian too or the London Times.  I will click on “best of” lists relating to fiction.

5. If I am in a German- or Spanish-speaking country, I’ll buy a few titles from the front tables and also ask an intelligent-seeming clerk what I ought to be reading.  I don’t always get around to actually reading those, noting that the final equilibrium has not yet arrived.

6. I used to scan the “New Arrivals” section of the local public libraries for fiction titles, but in recent years I have cut back on my fiction consumption and this practice has fallen by the wayside.  It was not leading to a high hit rate in any case (too many second- or third-tier books by writers I already like but who are past their peak years).

7. I will periodically reread old classics, on a more or less random basis, mostly correlated with how long ago I last read them.

Comments

Could you elaborate on #1? Do you find that “smart men” tend to recommend fiction more as a way to signal status than to recommend genuinely enjoyable books? What role is gender playing?

I also found that point to be too cryptic. Why would gender have so much of an impact?

'Why would gender have so much of an impact?'

None of that creeping egalitarianism here - of course men and women cannot be seen as people, but as two distinct groups. Just like the word parent denies the fundamental essence of motherhood and fatherhood when a parent deals with an 8 year old.

Don't worry, one can be sure that there will be commenters ready to explain how critical the distinction is.

"If a woman as smart (or smarter) as I am tells me to read a particular work of fiction, it is likely I do so."

Straussian take: This has never happened. If it were ever to happen, he thinks he likely would do it based on the novelty of the situation.

I agree with Tyler here. Could it be that the primary function of literature is empathy with the human condition and that women are more empathetic and so pickup on this better in literature? On the other hand men tend to recommend clever or smart fiction that often lacks this empathetic depth and sensitivity.

He was not talking about men and women in general, he was talking about the men and women he knows.

I am fortunate in life, the men I know and the women I know are equally incompetent at recommending good fiction for me to read, I carry on regardless ....

Once, in 1977, a friend of mine

(not sure if it was a male or female - 1977 might not seem that long ago to you but for me it might as well have been a year that came and went before the dawn of the Roman Empire or the vintage and halcyon days of the young King Solomon ---- and I was one of those people, back then, who had that gene for friendship which, later in life, I learned, to my sorrow, that so many people lack - hence I did not understand, back then, the intense focus on other things than friendship that so many losers in life have )

(I remember that heartbreaking look on the face of poor old Joan Crawford - a friend of a friend, by the way - when she talked about how pretty she had been just 20 years previously, and while the old lecher Groucho was still funny in his senior citizen years, he was not all that funny)

(In 1977 I did not understand that over-intense focus the losers in life have on whether someone is a man or a woman, because if you are a woman there is much more profit in pleasing a man, and if you are a man there is much more profit in pleasing a woman ---- well in 1977 I was too confident to be one of those selfish people who have little time for friendship and just focus on successful modern relationships, because they are afraid they will not otherwise profit in life --- that being said, of course it is important, if you are a man, to know and value why women are different than you, and vice versa if you are a woman, but so many people take it to the extreme .... )

Once, in 1977, a friend of mine said hey, those Wodehouse books are really well written, and you should give them a try!!!

Well, nobody ever actually said to me "you should give it a try" ----- except a couple high school teachers, talking about things they got paid to talk about (they are all long retired now, and for the record, most of them are dead and I pray every day for the ones who are still alive, that they might have a good day, even though there is not a single chance in a million any of them thinks of me, or any of my friends, more than once a decade .....)

Except for the Wodehouse recommendation I can't think of a single other time when someone told me about a book I should read.

And it is possible I am just imagining that someone told me about Wodehouse, maybe I just started reading one of his books on golf because I like to golf

It was a woman who first recommended that I read Wodehouse, some 42 years ago, and I still thank her and cherish her memory.

She was an English girl, and as I was leaving her flat in Brooklyn to return to my place in Manhattan, I regretted that I had nothing to read on the long subway ride home. She urged a book of Bertie Wooster stories on me, and since I was desperate (and there was an encomium from Evelyn Waugh on the back cover), I took it.

I started reading on the Clinton-Washington platform, and thought, "These stories are really stupid. The narrator is a nincompoop, and this Jeeves character is only 'brilliant' inasmuch as everyone around him is a complete idiot."

By Jay Street, I started to notice what I can now only describe as the keen discipline of the prose, and kind of started to get it: that the general air of idiocy was part of the fun.

By Canal Street, I'd loosened up enough to chuckle, and by 34th Street, to laugh aloud.

By August 2018, I believe I've read about 2/3 of Wodehouse's 100+ title oeuvre, and consider the hours spent thus an utter waste, yet somehow completely satisfactory.

we gonna get on the library waiting list for that new Richard Russo book.
predict it will be more than worth the wait!

I read a lot of fiction. I read it for enjoyment and not to impress anyone or to make believe I have empathy or that I am feminine. I truly doubt that any book a woman might recommend would be interesting to me. I am open to changing my mind; any women out there who would recommend The Bourne Identity or Clear and Present Danger"?

this isn't that tinder app
this is the revolution!

A female high school teacher did recommend I give Raymond Chandler a try

Chandler is good.

The best books about Chandler are better.

He found that smart women give better recs than smart men do. Why does he need to explain himself? It is his experience.

Because it's sexist hate speech.

It's 2019.

@Armin, were you also weirded out by this? What an odd thing for Tyler to say!

The whole process is describing personal foibles and biases, not giving a neutral account of how he really selects good stuff....

He doesn't need to but it would be interesting to know. Tyler has well-thought-out strategies: for example, for finding good restaurants in new places.

Question: is Tyler telling us to ignore his recs?

He may indeed be saying to ignore his recommendations of fiction books.

A) He doesn't say that
B) It's superficially inane, so is there any depth or is this an inane suggestion?

I read about one piece of contemporary fiction a year. I do read literature. I find contemporary authors don't have much to say that hasn't already been said. And I don't like reading on the 5th grade reading level. Although, I am currently reading The Parisian by Isabella Hammad.

One of the more oppressively elitist blog posts I've read in quite some time.

Agreed, having refined taste in literature is awful.

What's considered refined today will be tomorrow's trash. What's considered a classic today often was considered unmitigated garbage in the past. "Refined" is akin to "civilized" when the term was coined: it merely means "that which a specific group does". That group's tastes may or may not stand the test of time.

?????? Was it the comment about recs from only female friends? The comment that devalued American fiction? I'm struggling to find what's elitist here.

welcome to the not so brave world of postmodern marxism/identity politics where having an opinion or actual thought can automatically be dismissed as elitist, signaling, hate, etc

Cryptonomicon, (just a little prescient); The Baroque Cycle, (1 part picaresque, 1 part historical fiction, and 1 part scientific and economic history. Extremely impressive.) Next on my list is Anathem.

Notice that this discussion is about an academic economist choosing his fiction to-read list. 1) Economics, as has been made evident in many recent media accounts, is a male dominated profession. 2) The smart men that Prof. Cowen encounters are mostly fellow economists. 3) The smart women that Prof. Cowen encounters are mostly non-economists. 4) Economists don't really have the time or the inclination to read high-quality fiction. (Prof. Cowen is an honourable exception.) 5. Conclusion: Prof. Cowen has to take his fiction recommendations from smart women. (Just 'splainin stuff that needs 'splanation!)

So, when he reads reviews, does he actually note whether the reviewer is male or female?

Either he does, meaning he then would read less male authored reviews than female, one would assume, even if it was not noteworthy to write.

Or he doesn't, in which case any attempt to explain Prof. Cowen's personal foible based on any inherent or intrinsic male/female distinction is clearly wrong.

Fiction, what is it good for? Read this eye-opening essay by a professor at Michigan about the difference (?) between fact (truth) and fiction (lies): https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/07/30/i-teach-my-college-students-lie-honestly-whoppers-its-good-them/ [Clarification: my question (Fiction, what is it good for?) is a play on the protest song, War, what is it good for? I am not questioning the value of fiction. Even if it is fact.]

I read online manifestos from white nationalists who commit horrific mass murders.

I wish I enjoyed more literature. Sadly, when I look at my own reading preferences (and I read literature rarely, the internet consuming much of my reading time), they tend to be rather limited - a marked preference for British-Asian diasporic writers in the late 20th century, intelligent male authors who quite obviously read a lot of genre in youth and who yet have literate aspirations, Japanese authors in translation.

If the strengths of literature are in portraying moral, spiritual and social reality and beauty, I suspect my trust in a wider circle authors to do so with any sense of truth and profundity, free of didactic ulterior motive, is low.

Or I suppose I also don't really read many folk who do read literature and recommend it. I would not have got the impression from this blog, really, that Tyler Cowen read almost any literature at all. The non-fiction recommendations are enormously prolific, but are there any references to literature or fiction recommendations?

For your last question, of course Tyler refers a lot to fiction. See for instance his fiction best book lists every year, his many discussions of Houellebecq, his recommendations of classics and of their new translations (The Odyssey recently), etc. I enjoy these posts about literature more than the ones about non-fiction.

"If a smarter man tells me to read a particular work of fiction, odds are I will ignore it" means "I'm getting tired of Robin insisting I read the latest cyberpunk novel that he just read."

Thread winner.

Are most American films 1) more superficial or 2) less superficial than most American films? (For the moment let's exclude superficial American films based superficially upon superficial American fiction.)

Can't even remember the last American movie I saw, but I seem to recall misgivings that the screenplay provided such a poor narrative framework for all the production values I was being treated to. (The film score was so overwhelming and the theatre's speaker system so robust, I can't even recall whether the film featured any hugely overpaid actors and actresses.)

A simple post-posting "Edit" function would be welcome (sigh alas alack) . . .

Are most American films 1) more superficial or 2) less superficial than most American fiction?

Also, I omitted: "( . . . any hugely overpaid celebrity actors and actresses.)"

Any aware of any aggregators that might consolidate the efforts to track international fiction reviews of the sources Tyler lists?

The only subset of American fiction worth perusal is the quickly dying Southern Gothic genre, some Melville, Calder Willingham Jr., Erskine Caldwell, MacKinlay Kantor, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Harry Crews and others. If you haven't ingested most of the work of these people there's no point in going after anything more contemporary.

I, too, give more weight to the books that are recommended to me by smart foxy chicks. More conversation with sweaty nerds about scifi I can do without, but intelligent seeming Frauleins and Latinas is exactly the demographic who I want to be able to relate to better.

Tyler is clearly a refined gentleman like myself.

I would have surmised that even a half-refined gentleman knows that you should write Fräulein (with an Umlaut and without an s) both in the singular and the plural.

And yet despite my shallow knowledge on German grammar, on reflection I find my interest in 𝓕𝓻ä𝓾𝓵𝓮𝓲𝓷 undiminished. Perhaps my initial interest was based less on the beauty of the German language and on something cruder....

Tyler,

I know you provide book lists and reading recommendations on a regular basis. It would be great if you compiled, and periodically revised, several lists of favorite novels. What are your favorite, or most recommended, classic novels? Modern European novels? Modern Latin American novels? Sci-fi novels? And so on.

For my part, I prefer Peikoff's methods. Say what you will about the man or his philosophy; at least when he was asked how he picks fiction, his answer involved the book itself. See if the cover grabs your attention; if it does, read the blurb for a plot summary; if that still has your attention, read a page or two and see if the style makes you want to rip your eyeballs out of their sockets. If not, buy the book and give it a try. Peikoff specifically states that he does not address the philosophy of the book in selecting one, by the way--if the philosophy is the point (say, Starship Troopers) he obviously will, but if it's something like a typical fantasy romp the philosophy expressed by the book is a very, very, very minor concern.

The advice in this blog post is more about who else likes the book than about the book itself. Maybe that correlates with quality, but in my experience it tends not to (particularly with Best Seller lists).

What about non-fiction?

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