For the October installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Diana Hamilton and Shiv Kotecha to have a conversation about their favorite books. Diana is the author of God Was Right and The Awful Truth, and Shiv is the author of The Switch. Below are their favorite books.
Diana Hamilton: So, we're going to talk about our favorite books. They are in piles in front of us on the table.
Shiv Kotecha: Between us is: The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons, Rhinestone Sharecropping by Bill Gunn, Coldness and Cruelty by Gilles Deleuze, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, Silas Marner by George Eliot—a perfect novel—Sigmund Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci: a Memory of His Childhood, Renee Gladman’s Houses of Ravicka, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. Those are the ones I can see.
DH: And I can see Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Momtaza Mehri’s Doing the Most with the Least, Samuel Delany’s Hogg. Jackie Ess’ Darryl is here, on my list of anticipatory favorites, once I’ve read it enough times to claim that. There’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, Brandon Brown’s The Good Life, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
SK: Our favorites are all mixed up.
DH: Hiding under Adam Phillips’ Unforbidden Pleasures is a copy of my actual favorite book, Lydia Davis’ The Cows.
SK: Very few poetry books make the cut.
DH: I was going to suggest we begin with the dearth of poetry: you only chose three poets’ books as your favorite, while I chose one.
SK: I love poems, but my “favorite” genre, if favorite means what typically compels me to love it, is the novel. Perhaps this is a reason I love Tan Lin’s writing as much as I do. His poetry builds toward the novel, without the genre’s rigidity; it frequents and includes recipes and fanfic, for instance, which is to say it’s about pleasure reading. And I love Lin’s sharpness on the effects of reading, specifically how we learn to read by way of our parents’ habits. We surround ourselves with books as if they were plants, or as if plants were something to be read. Lin writes: “Every corporation should have a novel as your logo and every logo should contain the death of your family inside it” (Ambience is a Novel With A Logo).
Though Momtaza Mehri’s writing is relatively new to me, I want to read it all. Her Substack is brilliant. I think you get it—you bought ten copies of her Goldsmiths Short pamphlet Doing the Most with the Least to give to friends!
DH: I did.
SK: I took a few of your copies and gave them to my friends. Mehri is an essayist and a poet whose writing I admire for many reasons. One reason is that, like Lin, Mehri has a very thoughtful and complicated (and ambivalent!) idea of what being a poet is, or what being a poet could be, and that question is never not in the writing. “Tonight I’m looking for an audience / another way of saying I’m looking for a weapon.”
I like thinking about these two poets together. Their writing fucks over capital-P poetry in its direct address of literacy, questions of access, and in the specific details from life they write about to reflect the experience of (1) reading; and (2) of existing in the world, without universalizing the sensory, intellectual, or social effects of either.
DH: Thinking about my own lack of poetry here: of course, many of my favorite books, in one sense, are by Bernadette Mayer, but I did not put them on this list.
SK: Yeah, I’m not including Jack Spicer’s collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, though it is among my Most Read titles. I’m pretty exhausted, at this point, with flexing my sense of taste, or my interest in writers whose vituperative bite and/or penchant for irreverence—two qualities I think I like in books!—is, without need for argument, most acutely legible in their address of race or gender. Sad that Spicer’s among the gays and Karens in that pile.
However, I don’t want to dismiss the fact that, if this list were longer, it’d be there. I read as many racist books as I run into them IRL, lol—actually, never mind, far less! Books I read, and reread with interest, include elements that are explicitly racist. Or, they are written by white people whose relationship to race is out of touch with either my experience or the rhetoric of the contemporary moment, or both. And some of the genres I like, such as detective fiction, are often misogynist and revel in the actuarial means by which human bodies become evidence, get disposed of, or are turned into literary devices to represent mis-regulated white guilt. Poe, Stein, Spicer—favorite writers of mine. =(
Also Bowles! Did you pick the Bowles or did I?
DH: Two Serious Ladies is one of my favorites, if we are defining “favorite” to mean:
One that I’ve read a lot of times
One that changes my sense of what books are, or broadens the category
One that is comforting to read, in some way.
One that, if I find out a friend hasn't read, I really want them to read it. I may even feel, on some level, like they would understand me better if they had read it.
SK: That last criterion is helpful. A favorite can be something that reemerges socially.
DH: Bowles is my favorite stylist, and I appreciate a cast of characters who are all quite funny without ever risking becoming likeable. I also think it’s a great book about sexual difference, where husbands look on in confusion while women eat lobster and beer for breakfast, or bathe with the younger woman they are fucking, or prefer terrible hotels to the options reserved for the middle class. I agree with Negar Azimi that Bowles is a “neglected genius.” But Two Serious Ladies is also . . .
SK: I would say that it is, at times, yes, a racist book. But in what way?
DH: Its very premise: Mrs. Copperfield finds herself by hanging out with poor women of color who are sex workers in Panama; Miss Goering believes that “it is necessary for [her] to live in some more tawdry place” to achieve “salvation.” There is some overlap between these fictional bourgeois women and the literary tourism of white modernism.
I am thinking of the recent Sally Rooney reviews, and the meta critique where critics accuse everyone of mistaking Rooney’s characters for herself. You couldn't really mistake the characters in Two Serious Ladies for Jane Bowles—they don't resemble her, even if she also followed a husband to foreign cities to fall in love with women herself. In part because they don't resemble people, or at least, I feel that she's not that interested in a realist depiction of psychic interiority. But also, they're kind of stodgy, middle class types, rather than artists or writers.
SK: True. Though, the use of evocative language is so crisp in Bowles. Maybe you disagree, but the “queerness” in Two Serious Ladies is a sentence-level thing for me. The activities that the characters are engaging in, or just have engaged in, are told in ways that could easily also describe sexual pleasure. The style flirts.
DH: It’s hard to separate the offensive parts of the book—the descriptions of women on the streets in Panama, for example—from the “good parts.” This isn’t true with other books by problematic white bisexuals—when I think about the racist or fatphobic asides in a Muriel Spark or a Patricia Highsmith novel, for example (also two writers whose work has been important to me), they could often be cut entirely while leaving a much better book behind. In Two Serious Ladies, though, they feel like part of a system: if you cut those parts, you’d be deleting a large context of the fantasy of queerness. We get these othering descriptions to understand Mrs. Copperfield’s desire.
SK: This reminds me of one of my favorite short stories, Djuna Barnes’s “Come into the Roof Garden, Maud” (1912). It’s written as a hypothetical—I guess in this way it reads “poetically” (It begins, for instance: “First of all, set the atmosphere.”). The narrator makes a series of appeals to her reader (Maud) to come join a rooftop party. However, every element is queer coded—the things people are wearing, the words characters isolate and respond to in the speech of others; the nearness of God to the champagne, etc.—it’s clear that a rooftop party means a queer party. The dudes are fixated on the structure, and the firmness of fabrics that people on the roof are wearing and the non-dudes are fixated on the soft and beautiful bodies beneath the armor-like clothes.
There is a fairly explicit form of racialization here too—but it does seem like the author wants the readerto recognize how everyone on the roof is having a good time. That it’s a document of how racism appeared in the mist of queer sociality in the 1910s is an experience I relate to. Things have not changed all that much. There’s just more ways to do it. Like Delany says in “Racism and Science Fiction.”
DH: Where he’s talking about how he feels guilty that Octavia Butler keeps having to be on panels with him?
SK: “Racism,” Delany writes, “is as much about accustoming people to becoming used to certain racial configurations so that they are specifically not used to others, as it is about anything else.” He’s talking about the new forms of racism that come out of attempts at inclusion.
DH: What is it about the white queer ladies of modernism—I'm thinking of H.D., Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein—that makes them position themselves as the right people to look around and classify others? And honestly, one reason I love Two Serious Ladies is that, in the midst of all these modernist projects that seem to presuppose a single perspective can account for a whole world and its ruins, by way of a fascistic categorization—
SK: Poe does that too...his narrators are obsessed with categorizing who they see.
DH: —Bowles doesn’t sort people into types. Her characters are examples of some type, sure: white women with money, who are one way or another trying to eschew heterosexuality and normalcy, failing at it, but mostly just interested in a good time. But I don’t see an attempt to raise this to the level of category.
SK: Why is The Master and Margarita your favorite?
DH: This was one of the first books I read in high school that really made me feel like I was learning about “literature,” which is maybe something that unites all the things that we're listing: a book that, when I first read it, resulted in the category of “writing” expanding for me. At the time, I was trying to find a bridge between my childhood obsession with fantasy novels, where I just read people like Terry Pratchett, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, etc., and my desire to be a more serious writer or reader. I was preparing to move from Indiana to NYC and study “comparative literature,” so I thought I should know more books. I searched on whatever engine we used then—Yahoo?—for something like “best fantasy books of world literature.” And from that search, I went to the library and got some Nabokov (Ada), some Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, etc.
SK: That is so funny. You were hoping to escape one canon, in some way, and you modified search terms to get the UN sanctioned literary canon instead.