Sunday Miscellany

Richard Krawiec responds to the foofaraw regarding Gordon Lish‘s editing of Raymond Carver, making the case for a strong-willed editor.

Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, like every popular novel that’s about adolescents and speaks to adolescents about the things that concern adolescents, is deemed unfit for adolescents.

The Millions compiles a list of favorite short-story collections. Good stuff, but: No Faulkner? No Hammett? This guy deserves a slot on the list too.

My brief review of Samantha Hunt‘s historical novel about the last days of Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, is online at the Chicago Sun-Times site. I had high hopes for the book, but

Dept. of Self Promotion

My interview at Tales From the Reading Room made a modest noise this week, getting some attention from Scott McLemee‘s Quick Study, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and my home at the Washington City Paper, where the standing rule is that you cannot publicly say nice things about your colleagues without digging up bad five-year-old photos of them. Thanks to Victoria Best for the invite and the great questions, and to all the new folks who arrived here from her site.

Also, I have brief reviews of books on Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen in Sunday’s Washington Post Book World.

Making Up Is Hard to Do

Steve Weinberg wants to know where all the great journalism novels are:

Far too often…here is what I take away from journalism novels: As a group we experience a lot of sexual intercourse on the job, lack scruples when gathering information, and solve murders frequently enough to eliminate the need for homicide detectives in certain metropolitan areas. Good fun, I suppose, but disheartening because journalism should come across as something more noble.

Weinberg briefly notes Mike Sager‘s forthcoming novel about D.C.’s crack years, Deviant Behavior, a seriocomic, George Pelecanos-meets-Christopher Buckley tale that focuses on a reporter at a stand-in for the Post, the Washington Herald. I’m halfway through and it’s entertaining so far, but I suspect it won’t be the newsroom Moby-Dick Weinberg wants. I’m at a loss to think of any great books about reporters anyway. As the Mekons put it, “Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing.”

I still want Park Row released on DVD, though.

Glass Half-Full

The New York TimesTimothy Egan isn’t listening to the doomsayers about the death of reading. Using Steve Jobs‘ dismissal of the Kindle as a launchpad, Egan points out that there are plenty of avid readers out there:

The more compelling statistic [in a 2007 Associated Press survey] was rarely mentioned in news accounts of the A.P. story: the survey found that another 27 percent of Americans had read 15 or more books a year. That report documents a national celebration.

Most companies would kill for a market like that – more than one-fourth of the world’s biggest consumer market buying 15 or more of its items a year. And half the population bought nearly 6 books a year. If only Apple were so lucky. The latest Harry Potter book sold 9 million copies in its first 24 hours – in English. “The DaVinci Code,” a story of ideas even with its wooden characters and absurd plotting, has sold more than 60 million copies.

Egan dismisses the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 literacy survey–which tracked an across-the-board decline in literary reading from 1982 to 2002–as “possibly erroneous,” though he doesn’t explain how. (A 2007 follow-up report found similar declines in all reading.) More problematically, he’s conflating literacy rates with market share–if it’s good news that there’s a solid proportion of Americans who read a lot, that doesn’t make an overall decline in reading any more appealing. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos may indeed have a new world to conquer, but that’s not to say the country doesn’t have a reading problem.


USA Today (“tomorrow the world!” as my favorite piece of newsrack graffiti added) notes that Upton Sinclair‘s 1927 novel, Oil!, is enjoying a nice sales boost as a tie-in to the film There Will Be Blood:

There Will Be Blood is a multiple Oscar nominee, and the movie’s success has rubbed off on the 1927 novel that inspired it, Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Since December, Penguin has gone back to press five times for the movie tie-in paperback with 136,000 copies in print. Anthony Arthur, author of the 2006 Sinclair biography Radical Innocent, has mixed feelings about the movie. “The first 60 minutes were pretty good,” he says, “particularly with the way it shows the technology of bringing in the well.” But then the movie diverges from the novel into “a wild revenge drama.” A socialist, Sinclair wanted his fiction, which included The Jungle, his 1906 novel about Chicago’s slaughterhouses, to influence readers politically. “People who read the book are going to be surprised,” Arthur says.

Project Gutenberg has a large stash of Sinclair’s novels available for free–including his most famous book, The Jungle–but Oil! is not among them.

“Divided We Dream”

Charles Taylor has a beautifully turned review in the Nation of Steve Erickson‘s new novel, Zeroville:

But the feeling of being adrift in vast physical spaces touches something familiar in the back of our minds, and I think it’s what makes Erickson a quintessentially American novelist. The scale of his dreamscapes–water and sand swallowing entire cities; a train journey covering an area so immense that there are literally days between stations–are fantastical versions of American vastness. As with the vistas Edward Hopper painted, Erickson creates spaces that are both empty and haunted, spaces that threaten to swallow their inhabitants. For Erickson’s characters, trying to live in these spaces is a way of both declaring their presence and accepting anonymity. And so they’re constantly prey to an anxious spiritual homelessness, caught by the inchoate mix of both promise and doom in America’s wide open spaces.

Well, Teeth, Anyway

Sam Anderson, the excellent book critic at New York magazine, likes Sharp Teeth, a verse novel about werewolves by adman and George Plimpton enthusiast Toby Barlow. At least I think Anderson likes the book. True, he closes his review with a line that’s destined for the cover of the paperback edition: “the book is a howling, hole-digging, bone-snapping, blood-lapping, intestine-gobbling success,” he writes. But his critique also points out a handful of not-minor flaws with the novel, echoing some of the problems I had with it. The verse form doesn’t seem to be doing much useful work besides giving the story a little gravitas without getting into messy matters of characterization, and its propulsive noise comes at the expense of the plot. (I’m a careful reader, I think, but I confess I lost track of who’s doing what for which pack–it’s all a big puppy pile.) And the ending, as Anderson writes, is, er, a howler:

the plots and counterplots converge in a climactic battle for the soul of Los Angeles, and (although I hesitate to call anything in a werewolf novel “implausible”) the book soars to great heights of bonkers nuttiness. By the time the S-70 Blackhawk helicopter touches down in the middle of a “shrieking, killing symphony of noise,” the book feels like it has morphed prematurely into its own screenplay.

On Raymond Smith

Mark Sarvas reports the death of Raymond Smith, husband of Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’ wrote about their relationship often in her diary: here’s the entry for November 24, 1979, taken from her collected diary entries published last year:

Yesterday, the nineteenth anniversary of our engagement. Since we had been seeing each other every day for a month, having meals together, studying together in Ray’s apartment, we came to the conclusion that we might as well get married: which necessitated becoming engaged. It all happened rather quickly, yet not dizzyingly, I had anticipated from the first that we would be married–though perhaps not so quickly–we planned originally for June, when my semester was over and I had my M.A. But it soon came to seem impractical. And so January–January 23–and that was it. (And I went about afterward thinking, and occasionally even saying aloud, how marvelous marriage was–how one couldn’t imagine, beforehand–simply couldn’t imagine. The transition from “I” to “we.” No, one simply can’t imagine…. And I rather doubt that I can imagine the reverse, either.