Respectability politics
July 30, 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin_1974_The Dispossessed


Two covers for Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. The first was designed by Tony Roberts for the Panther Books paperback in 1975. The second was designed by Fred Winkowski for the Harper & Row first edition hardcover in 1974.

Science fiction’s literary reputation has improved dramatically over the past several decades. The idea that science fiction can be great literature is totally noncontroversial these days, and that’s a good thing. But as SF’s prestige has grown, its cover art has gotten dreadfully boring.

Take a look at the two covers above for one of my favorite novels of all time: Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. They’re weird, alluring, kitschy–just the kind of covers that jump out at you while you’re browsing the SF shelf at your local bookstore, sifting through the piles of Asimov and Heinlein, looking for something new.

Contrast those covers with this–the cover of the most recent HarperPerennial edition.


It’s spare, static, even tranquil. I know how much hard work goes into cover design, but it’s a bizarre choice for a novel about alien worlds. Of course, it does telegraph a certain level of literary respectability, and that’s the point. But the idea that making science fiction look boring will help it reach a bigger audience is a strange bit of publishing logic.

It’s wonderful that science fiction is getting the respect it deserves. Reaching a non-genre audience means more readers, and authors getting paid more. I just wish they’d keep the covers.

    The Bohemians
    March 24, 2014

    The BohemiansMy new book is out!

    You can watch the trailer, read an excerpt, or buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, or iTunes.

    You can also read my piece about Twain’s humor for Lapham’s Quarterly, get my take on Twain’s stand-up comedy career for Salon, explore the sordid history of anti-Chinese racism in California over at Politico, marinate in my musings for The Daily Beast on Twain as a role model for writers, or peruse my Reddit AMA.

    I’ll be doing events in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Reno, Washington DC, and Boston. Take a look at the speaking calendar below for the dates.

    Here’s what people have said about the book so far:

    San Francisco Chronicle:

    “Tarnoff breathes fresh life into his narrative with vivid details from the archives… giving us a rich portrait of a lost world overflowing with new wealth and new talent… [A] stylish and fast-paced literary history.”

    The Oregonian:

    “Deftly written, wholly absorbing.”

    Chicago Tribune:

    “Engrossing… By skillfully tracking the friendships and fortunes of this unusual quartet, Tarnoff narrates the awakening of a powerful new sensibility in American literature… Tarnoff powerfully evokes the western landscapes, local cultures and youthful friendships that helped shape Twain. He has a talent for selecting details that animate the past.”

    Wall Street Journal:

    “Rich hauls of historical research, deeply excavated but lightly borne… Mr. Tarnoff’s ultimate thesis is a strong one, strongly expressed: that together these writers ‘helped pry American literature away from its provincial origins in New England and push it into a broader current.'”

    Boston Globe:

    “Delightful… Adeptly wrapping a wonderful story around these young writers, Tarnoff glides smoothly along, never dwelling too long and never claiming too much. He stacks fifty pages of endnotes at the back of the book but such archival sweat doesn’t show in the prose.”

    Washington Post:

    “Tarnoff is a good storyteller and character-portraitist, with a deep knowledge of the West Coast.”

    The New Yorker:

    “Tarnoff’s book sings with the humor and expansiveness of his subjects’ prose, capturing the intoxicating atmosphere of possibility that defined, for a time, America’s frontier.”

    Minneapolis Star Tribune:

    “Meticulously researched and exhilarating… Twain may be the main draw of Tarnoff’s book, but Tarnoff’s writing about a few of Twain’s contemporaries — Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith — is just as engaging. ”

    Kansas City Star:

    “Tarnoff successfully contributes to the compendium [of Twain scholarship] with a fresh take on Twain’s San Francisco circle, which was akin to the Algonquin Roundtable in Manhattan or ‘Lost Generation’ of writers in Paris.”

    The Daily Beast:

    “Lively… Tarnoff draws a vivid contrast between sardonic, sophisticated, and sartorially dapper [Bret] Harte, San Francisco’s literary star, and the unkempt, uncouth Mark Twain who rolled into town in 1863, a scuffling newspaperman looking to move on and up from provincial Virginia City, Nevada.”

    Publishers Weekly:

    “Tarnoff’s glimmering prose lends grandeur to this account of four writers (Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith) who built ‘an extraordinary literary scene’ in the frontier boom town of 1860s San Francisco….The lively historical detail and loving tone of the interwoven biographies make a highly readable story of this formative time in American letters, starring San Francisco as the city that lifted ‘Twain to literary greatness.’”


    “Tarnoff energetically portrays this irresistible quartet within a vital historical setting, tracking the controversies they sparked and the struggles they endured, bringing forward an underappreciated facet of American literature. We see Twain in a revealing new light, but most affecting are Tarnoff’s insights into Harte’s ‘downward spiral,’ Stoddard’s faltering, and persevering Coolbrith’s triumph as California’s first poet laureate.”

    Speaking Calendar

    April 1, 7pm. City Lights Books. 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, California.
    April 2, 6pm. Commonwealth Club of California. 595 Market Street, Second Floor, San Francisco, California. Note: this is a ticketed event.
    April 3, 7pm. Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera, California.
    April 8, 7pm. Books Inc. 1760 4th Street, Berkeley, California.
    April 10, 7pm. Politics & Prose. 5015 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, DC.
    April 16, 7pm. Harvard Bookstore. 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    April 23, 7pm. Time Tested Books. 1114 21st Street, Sacramento, California.
    April 24, 6:30pm. Sundance Books. 121 California Ave, Reno, Nevada.
    May 6, noon. Boston Athenaeum. 10 1/2 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts.

      A Coldblooded Verbal Killer
      February 15, 2014


      At first glance, Ambrose Bierce didn’t look like a coldblooded verbal killer. He was tall and handsome and scrupulously groomed. He had babyishly smooth cheeks, and a cherubic mop of golden hair. He excelled as a conversationalist, drinking buddy, and womanizer. Beneath this charismatic façade, however, was nineteenth-century America’s greatest insult artist, a writer who produced some of the most vicious prose in the history of the English language.

      Read the rest at Lapham Quarterly’s Roundtable blog.

        Once Upon a Time in the West
        January 7, 2014


        The latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is on Comedy, and it includes an essay I wrote about the short story that made Mark Twain famous: a bizarre yarn about a jumping frog.

        On November 18, 1865, the New York Saturday Press published a short sketch called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” about a frog-jumping contest in rural California. It “set all New York in a roar,” reported one journalist, and soon went viral, reprinted in papers from San Francisco to Memphis. The story’s author was Mark Twain, the pseudonym of a twenty-nine-year-old writer born Samuel Clemens. At the time, Twain was living in California, enjoying provincial renown as a Western humorist. The success of “Jim Smiley” made him nationally famous. “No reputation was ever more rapidly won,” observed the New York Tribune.

        Twain’s stature quickly grew. Within a decade, he would publish his bestselling book The Innocents Abroad, perform to sold-out audiences at home and overseas, and build a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, staffed with servants and outfitted with indulgences like a telephone, a billiard table, and a battery-powered burglar alarm. By the time of his death in 1910, he had become a legend—“the Lincoln of our literature,” in the words of Twain’s friend the author and critic William Dean Howells—and in the century since, he has been hailed by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer as the father of modern American fiction.

        Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly.

          Mark Twain’s Eternal Chatter
          November 14, 2013

           I wrote a piece for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog about the new volume of Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

          When Mark Twain opened his mouth, strange things came tumbling out. Things like hoaxes, jokes, yarns, obscenities, and non sequiturs. He had a drawl—his “slow talk,” his mother called it—that made his sentences long and sinuous. One reporter described it as a “little buzz-saw slowly grinding inside a corpse.” Others thought that he sounded drunk.

          He loved to talk: to friends, to reporters, to the crowds of adoring fans who filled lecture halls to hear him. He gave famous after-dinner toasts and tossed off witty one-liners that made great copy for the next day’s papers. He could talk all night, preferably with a plentiful supply of cigars and Scotch on hand. He was always bursting with opinions on topics large and small and humming with ideas for new books and new business ventures. He often had trouble sleeping, and drank to numb his nerves. But he never had trouble talking.

          Read the rest of the article at The New Yorker.

            The Mark Twain Collection
            July 20, 2013

            twaincoverI wrote the introduction to The Mark Twain Collection, a new ebook from Atlantic Books that collects Twain’s various pieces for the Atlantic Monthly. He did a lot of great work for the magazine, including “Old Times on the Mississippi,” the serialized memoir that later became Life on the Mississippi. Check it out.

              San Francisco Place Names Map
              May 16, 2013


              Noah Veltman has made this fascinating map of San Francisco street names. Click on any street in the city, and it gives you the story behind it. Judah? Theodore Judah, the chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad. Guerrero? Francisco Guerrero, one of the mayors from the Mexican era. Steiner? A water deliveryman. 

                Lincoln in Space
                April 2, 2013


                  Mark Twain in the Metropolis
                  March 23, 2012

                  “The terrible rush of metropolitan life: those busy New-Yorkers,” (1915). Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

                  In December 1866, Mark Twain left San Francisco for New York. Like generations of transplanted Westerners then and since, he found life in the big city a little disorienting. He described his feelings in a letter to the San Francisco-based Alta California.

                  There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever – a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing. He is a boy in a candy-shop – could choose quickly if there were but one kind of candy, but is hopelessly undetermined in the midst of a hundred kinds. A stranger feels unsatisfied, here, a good part of the time. He starts to a library; changes, and moves toward a theatre; changes again and thinks he will visit a friend; goes within a biscuit-toss of a picture-gallery, a billiard-room, a beer cellar and a circus, in succession, and finally drifts home and to bed, without having really done anything or gone anywhere. He don’t go anywhere because he can’t go everywhere, I suppose. This fidgety, feverish restlessness will drive a man crazy, after a while, or kill him. It kills a good many dozens now – by suicide. I have got to get out of it.

                    A Counterfeiter’s Paradise
                    March 6, 2012

                    The paperback of my book, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers, comes out today. You can buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or your local bookstore.

                    Here’s an excerpt:

                    On a November night in 1876, two men passed in silence under the granite obelisk that rose a hundred feet above the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Below the obelisk stood a statue of the slain president, the bronze silhouette glistening in the moonlight as the men moved swiftly by. Trying to make as little noise as possible, they entered Lincoln’s burial chamber and approached the marble sarcophagus. The men drew their crowbars and, straining against the handles, managed to push the large tablet that covered the coffin over the side. Inside was the cedar casket that held Lincoln’s corpse. Reaching into the sarcophagus, they began lifting the wooden box.

                    Suddenly a gunshot sounded outside. The men froze: the first shot was followed by another, then another, until the volley seemed to come from every direction. They dropped the casket and darted out of the tomb, fleeing the cemetery as bullets whistled past Lincoln’s final resting place.

                    The men were caught several days later. They confessed to trying to kidnap Lincoln’s body, which they planned to exchange for the freedom of their gang leader, a counterfeiter named Ben Boyd. The Secret Service, which had nabbed Boyd a year earlier, learned of the plan, and sent agents to lie in wait for the grave robbers. The officers sat watching the tomb for hours before the two men arrived. But before they could arrest the criminals, one of their pistols went off by accident. The others, thinking they were under attack, started firing wildly and the robbers escaped in a hail of bullets.

                    The irony of the scene was surely lost on the raiders of Lincoln’s tomb. The robbers hoped to exchange a counterfeiter’s freedom for the remains of a man who had done more than any other president in history to eliminate counterfeiting. Maybe they didn’t know enough history to make the connection; the Secret Service agents lying in the bushes nearby certainly did. Before the war, state-chartered banks across the country printed notes of various designs and denominations, which made counterfeiting fairly easy. Under Lincoln, the government began phasing out these banks and creating a uniform national currency. A few months after Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Secret Service was created to crack down on counterfeiters. Over the next several decades, the agency aggressively pursued its task, and by the end of the century, counterfeit cash amounted to just a slim fraction of the currency in circulation. The counterfeiters who flourished in the nation’s infancy and adolescence would almost entirely disappear, victims of an unprecedented centralization of federal authority. The golden age of counterfeiting was over.