The 50 Best Independent Fiction and Poetry Books of 2014


2014 will go down as a landmark year in independent literature, chiefly because a few longstanding “trends” or “developments” are hardening into verifiable traits of fiction and poetry beyond Big Publishing. To begin with, independent poetry, noted especially here in the works of Claudia Rankine and Andrew Durbin, is becoming more sophisticated in the way it encroaches upon other forms of visual and literary art. Elsewhere, in fiction, a greater tendency toward autofictional novels of emotional maturation — typically in a cruel world — is colliding with the arriving generation’s faith in the bending of genres. The increasing confidence these writers have in their forms is beginning to show in the way they assert themselves against an older generation, sure, but it’s also showing up in the quality of the books. Plainly put: line for line, stanza for stanza, independent writing, and therefore independent publishing, is better than it was just a few years ago.

I’ll add a single note: I’ve left out “literary non-fiction” because I didn’t want to navigate the huge expanse of books that could possibly fit within that category.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)

I’ll come out and say it: Rankine got robbed at the National Book Awards. (But I’ve already made that case.) No matter, this formally stunning lyric will stand the test of time. In a century, most of the books on any list will be forgotten, but Rankine’s Citizen will rest in our hands, like an astrolabe, measuring the distance between privileged and disenfranchised bodies, pushing us both forward and backward in time.

The Author and Me, Eric Chevillard, trans. Jordan Stump (Dalkey)

Perhaps the funniest literary writer in the world, Eric Chevillard outdid himself this year with The Author and Me, which takes the prevailing metafictional trend to new comedic (and literary) heights.

The Albertine Workout, Anne Carson (New Directions)

If I tell you that this is a 59-paragraph essay-poem on Albertine from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, you may balk. If you’ve read Proust at least once, you’ll probably buy this excellent pamphlet right now. If you’re unsure, maybe just side with the latter option.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink (Dorothy)

I’ve already argued that this is the debut of the year, a claim later challenged (but not overturned) by Atticus Lish’s Preparations for the Next Life. Like Lish’s book, The Wallcreeper is raw. But there is an acerbic exuberance, barely contained, in Zink’s writing that countless writers aim for but fail to harness. And after watching Zink read in person, I’m convinced she’s endowed with the psychodramatic volatility of someone who cares more than most everyone else.

Leavetaking, Peter Weiss (Melville House Books)

This is the most under-covered, undervalued release of 2014. Weiss is one of the four or five greatest post-war European authors, and this autofictional masterpiece more or less superannuates all of the autofiction that follows. A brutally honest account of bourgeois decay, artistic development — Weiss was a polymath who painted, filmed, and wrote in virtually every form — and sexual maturation, Leavetaking forms one have of a larger novel called Exiles. I hope Melville House publishes the second half soon.

Made to Break, D. Foy (Two Dollar Radio)

The title of this book describes its form. It’s as if Foy first wrote the book as a treatment before breaking it up into something more transparently literary and intellectual. This is an assured first work — already compared to the early novels of Denis Johnson and others — from an author who may still find a deeper form

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante (Europa)

The independent translation “event of the year” may belong to Europa’s Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan recluse and author of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in the Neapolitan Novels trilogy. Ferrante is a ferocious writer, and this series of books is giving notice to the world that she is one of the best writers that we have — even if we have no idea who she is.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride (Coffee House)

I’m still sitting with this devastating debut — it calls for several consecutive re-readings — but I can say that it deserves its comparisons to Faulkner and, more probably, Joyce. This is to say that, like Portrait of the Artist, McBride’s narrative language develops as its protagonist, a half-formed child, matures. One of the bravest books of the year, it may come to be seen as the best.

If the Tabloids are True What Are You?, Matthea Harvey (Graywolf)

More and more, the best poetry books meld visual art and poetry, often in prose stanzas. Matthea Harvey’s new collection is no exception. This urgent book, one that contains semi-magical concoctions like “The Backyard Mermaid,” is truer to our lives than any Buddha shoveling snow.

Blood Splatters Quickly, Edward Wood Jr. (OR Books)

I will never stop praising this book. You may know of Ed Wood Jr. as the worst filmmaker in Hollywood history, but you probably didn’t know that he spent his later life writing pulp for proto-porno mags that pushed the boundaries of sexual politics. This collection brings together the best of Wood’s writing, and every moment of it tantalizes.

Tristano, Nanni Balestrini, trans. Mike Harakis (Verso)

There are 109,027,350,432,000 variations of this novel, which uses an algorithm to reposition its paragraphs. The effect of the feat is magnified by the fact that, while reading it, it’s difficult to tell that it’s generated. This also means that unless it sells 200 trillion copies, no one will ever buy the same version as you. It’s also just a good book.

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (Tyrant)

If Céline was a nice person instead of a fascistic asshole, he may have written a version of Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. Dwight Garner has already called it “perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.”

You Have to Fucking Eat, Adam Mansbach (Akashic)

The cover of this book more or less explains itself. It’s a children’s book for adults, by which I mean, you can give this to your friend who is also a parent, and he will entertain himself with, not distracting you, for at least thirty minutes.

Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye, trans. Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

One of France’s most startling new voices, NDiaye’s introduction to American audiences is a bravura collection of stories that may or may not double as autofictional memoirs: I simply can’t tell. This hypnotic book estranges life, marriage, motherhood, and memory like no other book in recent memory.

Wittgenstein Jr., Lars Iyer (Melville House Books)

One of the funniest books of the year, this philosophical bildung shows that intellectuality can be poignant, especially when its couched within a campus novel.

The Brunist Day of Wrath, Robert Coover (Dzanc)

A sequel to Coover’s first novel, Origin of the Brunists, this 1,100-page novel from an American treasure will unfortunately scare most readers away. That’s too bad, because it is without question of the best works of 2014. Just read the description:

West Condon, small-town USA, five years later: the Brunists are back, loonies and “cretins” aplenty in tow, wanting it all—sainthood and salvation, vanity and vacuity, God’s fury and a good laugh—for the end is at hand.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, David Connerley Nahm (Two Dollar Radio)

In 2014, Two Dollar Radio emerged as one of the one of the small presses to beat, and one of their flagship books was David Connerley Nahm’s Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky. Nahm’s is one of the more impressive writers out of a growing group who are reclaiming the region as a literary hotbed. Measured, poetic, and propelled forward by its own logic, this novel should have a long life.

Thousand Times Broken: Three Books, Henri Michaux, trans. Gillian Conoley (City Lights)

The Belgian Michaux was a paragon of esotericism in the 20th century. A wildly traveled cultural polymath, Michaux wrote in a wide range of modes. These three books, collected by the legendary City Lights, bring together some of the artist’s best mergers of art and poetry.

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, C.D. Rose and Andrew Gallix (Melville House Books)

This selection may appear to break the rules, but this hilarious “dictionary” of literary may not be as non-fictional as you think. It helped inspire my new favorite life-negating maxim: fail worse and go out on bottom.

A Little Lumpen Novelita, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Natasha Wimmer (New Directions)

Now that the predictable series of needless Bolaño backlashes is over, we can quietly celebrate the arrival of this excellent little book, which, yes, has the best title of the year.

Diary of the Fall, Michel Laub, trans. Margaret Jull Costa (Other Press)

Many of the best contemporary novels — especially those overtly influenced by literary modernism — are postlapsarian: they hint to a world after the Fall, a time or historical moment beyond the pale. Laub’s Diary of the Fall is one of the finest expressions of this literary mode in 2014.

GB84: A Novel, David Peace (Melville House Books)

Peace is known more for his Red Riding Quartet, but, to my mind, this retronymic dystopia is his best book. Originally released in 2004 — twenty years, obviously, after 1984 — and set in Thatcherite England, the novel is an epic political hothouse and construction of genius that is, if anything, grossly underrated.

My Struggle: Book Three, Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. Don Bartlett (Archipelago)

Both better and worse than its proponents and detractors would want to admit, Knausgaard’s third entry in My Struggle handles the “boyhood island” of his childhood. It demonstrates Knausgaard’s propensity for formal paradox by virtue of its boring yet “crack”-like prose.

Running Through Beijing, Xu Zechen, trans. Eric Abrahamsen (Two Lines Press)

The best English translation of a Chinese language work in 2014, the hardboiled, cinematic Running Through Beijing stands out among a wealth of excellent translated literature.

Us Conductors: A Novel, Sean Michaels (Tin House)

Debut novel and winner of the prestigious (and lucrative!) 2014 Giller Prize, Michaels’ novel tells the story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and spy and inventor of the theremin.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

Winner of the Hans Fallada Prize, this newly released novel about the five variegated deaths of an unnamed woman character is a stunner.

The Trace, Forrest Gander (New Directions)

I had Francisco Goldman’s excellent writings about the misunderstood Mexican “cult of death” on my mind while reading Gander’s second novel about a couple who navigates ruinous emotional trauma while on a road trip through Mexico.

Our Lady of the Nile: A Novel, Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. Melanie Mauthner (Archipelago)

This “prelude to the Rwandan genocide” recalls the closed world, preceding Fascism, of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which is all the more impressive considering this is Mukasonga’s novelistic debut.

A Different Bed Every Time, Jac Jemc (Dzanc)

These unsettling stories form one of the best short fiction collections released this year. It’s unsurprising that I’m finding it hard to summarize, for the soul of the book, as Jesse Ball has said, is protean, and this is a precondition for survival in an often terrible world.

Inside Madeline, Paula Bomer (Soho Press)

Bomer’s characters encroach upon the sort of emotional terrain that timid reviewers might call “hopelessly bleak,” but really she’s just unfailingly honest. Her second short-fiction collection, Inside Madeline shows Bomer reaching new heights.

Repast, DA Powell (Graywolf)

Graywolf brings together Powell’s amazing triple-course of poetry books — Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails — in a deserving collection that any serious lover of English poetry cannot deny.

I’ll Be Right There, Kyung-Sook Shin (Other Press)

As the NYT Sunday Review wrote, this book explores the relation between literature and influence. And it’s a welcome literary excursion away from genre stereotypes of Korean literature accidentally propagated by the American translation industry.

Mature Themes, Andrew Durbin (Nightboat Books)

I’d introduce Andrew Durbin, one the best of a crop of young poet-essayists who deserve immediate attention from the broader literary community, but he’s already done that work better than I ever could myself. This is one of the sharpest, most coherent works of form-jumping to come along in a bit.

All Days Are Night, Peter Stamm, trans. Michael Hofmann (Other Press)

This 2013 Man Booker Award finalist merges two great themes: art and not dying, and the art of not dying.

Baboon, Naja Marie Aidt, trans. Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

Without question one of the best — and possibly the best — story collection(s) of the year, Aidt’s book appears for the first time in English after winning a major Nordic prize. Prepare to brave the darkness.

Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press)

This book, in part, landed Luiselli recognition as one of the five best writers under the age of 35. Sui generis, dextrous, and frequently groundbreaking, this is one of the must-read debuts of the year.

Midnight in the Century, Victor Serge, trans. Richard Greeman (NYRB Classics)

One of the great novels by one of the politically honest (and adventurous) souls of the 20th century. Anyone who cares about oppression, power, and the abuses that link the two, should read Midnight in the Century.

Ancient History, Joseph McElroy (Dzanc)

Nearly lost to history, this re-issue of the great Joseph McElroy’s Ancient History: A Paraphrase, is a godsend. I’ll only add that the introduction is by Jonathan Lethem, and this is the novel’s description:

An uninvited guest, entering the empty New York apartment of a man known to intimates as “Dom,” proceeds to write for his absent host a curious confession. Its close accounts of friendship since boyhood with two men surely unknown to Dom and certainly to each other is interleaved with the story of Dom himself.

Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, Tim Earley (Horse Less Press)

This excellent collection straight robs its title from John Clare. That was enough for me to open the book, and I’m glad I did.

Sister Golden Hair: A Novel, Darcey Steinke (Tin House)

This book is one of the best of those that bring together several emerging trends: novella-length chapters, autobiographical and autofictional elements, and the maturation of the still-forming mind.

Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones (Two Dollar Radio)

One of the most intriguing genre collisions of the year, Jones’ book is almost Blakean in its allegorical fusion of a mythopoetic past and future.

Fat Man and Little Boy, Mike Meginnis (Black Balloon)

This genuinely new debut feature won the 2013 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize, which landed Meginnis this publishing deal with Black Balloon. Meginnis’ predilection for genre mashing, as well as his interest in nuclear war in Japan, recalls the film work of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.

Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors, trans. Martin Aitken (Gray Wolf)

Perhaps 2014’s short story collection that best melds the universal or objective with the uncanny and strange, Dorthe Nors Karate Chop, I felt, was even better that Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t.

Praying Drunk, Kyle Minor (Sarabande)

This collection comes from Louisville’s quietly amazing Sarabande books, a small publisher that should be protected by some government mandate. The collection also highlights a major 2014 trend of books that are set, at least in part, in Kentucky. The collection is bleak and imperfect, but I’d argue that it’s among the most urgent of the year.

Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones (Coffee House)

As far as I know, no debut collection of American poetry in 2014 comes close to Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise. I can’t look at the cover without contemplating two opposed but linked things: Whitman’s bathers and the historical weight of the bruises left on black bodies, which is something Jones’ collection shares with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Insel, Mina Loy (Melville House Books)

In a year of rediscoveries, Mina Loy’s Insel stands out. The Surrealist Loy’s only novel, it tells the story of a Bohemian German painter in 1930s Paris.

The Cold Song, Linn Ullmann, trans. Barbara J. Haveland (Other Press)

A Norwegian literary crime novel (sort of) that is actually good.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree: A Novel, Wilma Stockenstrom, trans. J.M. Coetzee (Archipelago)

This novel tells the story of a slave who survives in the hollowed out trunk of a Baobab tree. Even if you’ve never heard of Stockenstrom, the novel is translated by J.M. Coetzee. And anyway, if you read this novel, you’ll keep the name Stockenstrom with you for the rest of your reading life.

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, Nicholas Rombes (Two Dollar Radio)

There are a lot of writers who explore the cinematic, but, frankly, most of them haven’t got a clue about what that means. Rombes, who has written eloquently about film for years, here debuts a novel about the intersection of writing and film, among other things. In a year of uncontrolled genre-jumping, Rombes’ novel stands out for its awareness of the intersection of artistic forms. Here’s a summary:

In the mid-’90s a rare-film librarian at a state university in Pennsylvania mysteriously burned his entire stockpile of film canisters and disappeared. Roberto Acestes Laing was highly regarded by acclaimed directors around the globe for his keen eye, appreciation for eccentricity, and creativity in interpretation. Unsure at first whether Laing is a pseudonym or some sort of Hollywood boogeyman, a journalist manages to track the forgotten man down to a motel on the fringe of the Wisconsin wilds. Laing agrees to speak with the journalist, but only through the lens of the cinema. What ensues is an atmospheric, cryptic extrapolation of movies and how they intertwine with life, and the forgotten films that curse the lost librarian still.

Cat Town, Sakutarō Hagiwara, trans. Hiroaki Sato (NYRB Classics)

This prose-poem novella by a Hagiwara, perhaps the great Japanese modernist, is one of the best translation discoveries of the year.