Roundup: To Build a Fire

Kevin J. Hayes is back with another question. Last time he was looking for tips on travel writers (glad I could be somewhat useful); this time he’s hunting for authors who’ve mastered multiple genres: “Take Henry James for instance,” he writes. “Best known as a novelist, James was also a fine travel writer and memoirist. I can justify discussing James in two or three different places, but I do not have room to discuss every genre of every author. So, here are my questions. Which American authors excelled in more than one literary genre? Where should I discuss them? Are they important enough to deserve discussion in more than one chapter? Boy, that’s a loaded question. Here’s a more fundamental one: what constitutes literary importance?”

Hell if I’m going to address that last question before breakfast. But a few names that immediately spring to mind: John Updike (see John Gross‘ excellent piece in the new NYRB on his most recent nonfiction collection); Mark Twain; Paul Theroux; Maxine Hong Kingston; Paul Auster (stretching here, but I do admire his memoir, Hand to Mouth). There has to be more. Maybe Walter Mosley gets credit for at least attempting his recent literary-erotic works?

How about Jack London, allegedly the most-read author in the world? Today marks the first day of the Geneva’s international book fair, and among the displays is Francis Lacassin’s 52-volume set of London’s works, translated into French.

An AP story explains just how lucrative the life of the much-hyped short story writer can be: According to the piece, Donald Ray Pollock‘s new collection, Knockemstiff, has sold all of 3,000 copies. It’s early yet, but that’s still short of the 27,000 hardbacks that were run off. So how do you avoid the remainder bin?

Wood vs. Franzen

The Harvard Crimson does a nice job covering last night’s public discussion between James Wood and Jonathan Franzen. The two needn’t have hung out in the same room if they didn’t want to: Wood took some whacks at The Corrections (and the widescreen social novel in general) back in 2001, and Franzen dismissed criticism these days for not “responding intelligently to the text. So few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum, it’s so black and white.” Even the people who’ve been nice to his work earn his scorn: He dubbed Michiko Kakutani, who liked The Corrections, “the stupidest person in New York City.” Noting that he’s had a rough time writing fiction since 9/11, Franzen wondered out loud what role the novelist plays today:

“When you have the opportunity to do a documentary—to do Frontline, to do The Wire—and reach a much larger audience much quicker and you actually gain, it’s more vivid, you can go right to the body on the street in Baghdad and can have that up on the screen,” Franzen said. “I’m engaged in a lifelong struggle to produce texts that have that kind of interior depth that is not immediately apparent, that repay some kind of careful analysis without losing people who just want to follow along on the surface.”


I’m one of those needy souls who investigates books to see if my review has been excerpted in them. (I may never enjoy better exposure as a critic than having a blurb occupy the whole back cover of the hardcover edition of Lionel Shriver‘s The Post-Birthday World, though alas Kirkus doesn’t go for bylines.) So I was amused by an article in the Salt Lake Tribune about the fine art of book blurbing. Among those quoted is novelist and short-story writer Ron Carlson, who confesses that his stock went up with his students when his 2003 collection, A Kind of Flying, was blurbed by Stephen King. He wrote, “These stories glow with a radioactive cleverness.”

There’s a reason you’re seeing more awful metaphors like that on book jackets. Says Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson:

“Book marketing is much more complicated and difficult than it was 30 years ago, partly because we publish so many books [and] partly because publicity opportunities are fewer,” says Publishers Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson, lamenting the demise of many newspapers’ book sections. “So yes, I think blurbs are thought to be a way of getting a reader’s interest. There’s no exact study or way to determine how much blurbs influence sales, but it certainly is a topic of discussion in the publishing business.”

Editors: Important

“At one point Mailer changes his mistress’s prose from ‘stick that up your English tushy’ to ‘stick that up your Hungarian bottom’. He also recommends that Mallory delete a reference to ‘nibbling his bullets.'” —From a London Times article providing more details about the relationship between Norman Mailer and Carole Mallory, who recently sold her personal papers to Harvard University. Among those papers is a memoir of her affair with Mailer, with Mailer’s handwritten edits.

Roundup: Drives Like a Dream

You may have heard this week that luxury-car-maker Lexus has gotten into the business of publishing fiction—branded fiction about one of their new models, written by nine different authors. Jane Smiley and Curtis Sittenfeld are among the best-known novelists participating; I spoke with Richard McCann, the author of the second chapter of the novel, about his work on the project for Washington City Paper‘s blog, City Desk.

I’m with Keith Gessen, speaking about his own novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, with the Oregonian: “Honestly? It’s a very flawed book in a lot of ways. It’s like half a novel. The impulse at the beginning was short stories, and the last half is more like a novel. As a novel, it has serious flaws, structural deformities that result from it taking so long to finish.”

The Wall Street Journal reviews Michael Zaid‘s The Secret of Fame, a book-length study of literary reputations. Here we learn that—surprise!—Philip Roth might be a shade neurotic about his reputation: ” On the jacket flaps of Philip Roth’s recent books we are told that, apart from winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Roth has won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters—the “Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others.” Mr. Roth wouldn’t have mentioned the award’s previous winners if he hadn’t been anxious about his status, aware that most literary prizes – unlike a businessman’s bank account – possess uncertain value.”

In the NYTBR NYRB Michael Dirda celebrates Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country, a reworking of three of his previous linked Everglades-set novels into one volume:

From this spotty and sometimes contradictory historical record enhanced by contemporary rumors and the recollections of old-timers, Peter Matthiessen has fashioned a novel of Faulknerian power and darkness, one that embraces the American experience from the time of the Civil War to the first years of the Depression. Its themes are those that brand us as Americans to this day: the belief in self-transformation and renewal, the hunger for property and respectability, perfervid patriotism and xenophobia, the legacy of the Civil War, ongoing racial fears and anxieties, rampant greed, the rape of our wild places, psychological and physical violence in the family, the cowboy cult of manliness and swagger. And, not least, of course, our need for self-exculpation. The end justifies the means. It was him or me. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Back to Bock

I recently finished Beautiful Children after having to set it aside for a bit, and…well, Ruth Franklin has the time and space to say it much better than I could:

All the characters in Beautiful Children seek means of escape– if not actually through running away, then through comic books, video games, music, porn. Reading a novel, too, is a form of escapism, and one measure of Bock’s great success is that his book allows the reader metaphorically to enact this escape. More than one scene was so terrible to read that I actually cried out, but the pleasures of immersion in this fictional universe are nonetheless so considerable that–like Lincoln watching his porn videos, or Bing presented with Cheri’s flaming nipples–you cannot turn away. Indeed, the imaginative world of the novel is so vivid and complete that it is a little dismaying to find, at the very end, the only false note: an appended list of resources and advocacy groups for runaways, as if the subject of the novel were just another issue of the day. A work of fiction is not a position paper, and whatever didactic purpose it serves is finally irrelevant.

Actually, I’m not entirely on board with the complaint with the “resources” section—I suspect the book will have a way of gravitating toward the hands of parents of runaways (if not the runaways themselves), and if the novel has anything to say, it’s that every bit helps. I was actually a little more irked by Bock’s working runaway statistics into the story, but even there he’s lashed it to stories (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) about runaways that are suffused with grit, loss, and deeply black humor—a style you might call Bockian.

I certainly wouldn’t call what Bock has done DeLillo-like, as Franklin suggests, if only because DeLillo is the master of the big, widescreen, 35,000-foot view of the world, and though Bock works from multiple perspectives none of them are much higher than a sand dune. But that’s fine—I’m not convinced that DeLillo’s big-picture ironic portraits are worth imitating anymore, and if Beautiful Children is what we get instead, that trade is more than fair.

The Last Thing They Wanted

I suspect that Guardian blogger Louis Wise is being somewhat broad-brush in characterizing Joan Didion as a neglected author in England–if she’s getting a spotlight at the National Theatre, things can’t be that bad. But Wise’s post does make me wonder if Didion is an American author who has an especially hard time getting over with foreign readers—her ’60s and ’70s essays, at least, have a level of specificity and detail about American life that might come off as a little guess-you-had-to-be-there. (Slouching Toward Bethlehem‘s California vibe made more sense to me when I was living in San Francisco, albeit a few decades removed from the stories the book tells.) So I don’t think sexism is at play here, at least in Didion’s case. (And not racism either—what’s with Wise’s claim that Joyce Carol Oates is “sidelined” by it?) It may simply be that Didion speaks more assertively in an American vernacular–one of those U.S. writers who could use a translator in the U.K.

Opinions Are Like…

“After I finished [The Age of Shiva], I showed it to people, and my god. They had these opinions. If I’d had that kind of advice while writing the book, it would have completely derailed me. That’s something for writers to be cautious about: getting well-meaning advice. You’ve got to have seven or eight people, but even that’s way too much. So I’m very suspicious about advice. I used to be in several writing groups. It was very helpful with short stories. But then I started The Death of Vishnu, and I remember someone really ripping into the first chapter, saying, you know, rearrange it, take apart everything, and then explain where you are, why you’re there, and do all this explanation. I didn’t follow any of it, as it turned out.” —Manil Suri, interviewed in Baltimore City Paper

The Secret History

Gawker’s science-fiction blog, io9, has a chart-based study of sci-fi trends in mainstream literary novels. Charlie Jane Anders proposes three types of novels—“alternate history,” “time warp,” and “post-apocalyptic”—which means The Road, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and more are all fair game for discussion. I don’t think that the resulting chart really argues for a one-to-one relationship between current events and related fiction, but it’s an interesting idea to put out there. It’s certainly true that we got a lot of novels about broken-down Latin American countries in 2007 (Lost City Radio, A Far Country, and The Ministry of Special Cases, to name three), and those books certainly felt like responses to the United States’ political predicaments; add a category for “dystopia” and you may have something here. Anyway, Anders writes:

And then was a boom in post-apocalyptic fiction in more recent years, with three huge classics of the genre hitting in 2006. In particular, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has become the poster-child for the literary-authors-going-speculative trend. These books coincided with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and a worsening Iraq conflict. But there’s been a lull in the post-apocalyptic genre since then as well.

George Saunders, Mastering the Hard Sell

“The scariest thing about our profession is at the end of it, in 20 years, what will you know? You’ll know how to service your own talent. That’s it. And even that will be unstable. You’ll learn to juggle, on ice-skates, on a sheet of ice, on a cruise ship that’s either sinking or on dry land.” —George Saunders, speaking last Thursday to a group of creative-writing MFAs at Columbia University