Heartbreaker

As literary memorabilia goes, $5.8 million is a lot to spend. But if you’re interesting in owning the home where F. Scott Fitzgerald learned all about unrequited love, it’s on the market. The mansion in tony Lake Forest, Illinois, as a story in the Chicago Sun-Times points out, was the home of a the King family, whose teenage daughter Genevre was something of a femme fatale for young Fitzgerald: “The romance lasted a few years, but eventually Genevre got tired of toying with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s affections and gave him the boot. He went on to write The Great Gatsby as well as numerous other short stories in which a rich, beautiful, but self-absorbed young woman spurns a lovelorn young man.”

The Glamorous Life

Scott Esposito gets a little testy after reading Joe Queenan‘s recent piece in the New York Times about book-discussion questions. Doing side work, Esposito writes, has its downside:

This kinda gets at one big problem I see with current “professional” reviewing–namely that the critics are freelancers who need to do stuff like write supplementary questions to earn a living.

Not that there’s anything wrong with freelance writing assignments. But when a critic is scrambling around for income, I have to believe that this impingement on her time and resources begins to detract from the quality of her reviews.

OK, hands up: Who of you out there gets to review books full-time without other duties impinging on your time and resources? Congratulations, you’re lucky. Or you rob banks. (But not if it’s gonna take you away from the new Jhumpa Lahiri!) Or the Bank of Mom & Dad cuts you a check every so often. Or, perhaps, you’re a full-time freelance book reviewer, which likely makes you part the very problem that Esposito speaks to: Because book reviews pay so poorly, you write so many of them and plow through books so quickly that you yourself are hardly worth reading.

I’d love to review books full-time. But I just took a look at my monthly mortgage bill and added up the amount of freelance money I made reviewing books last year, and, gosh, it’s practically a 1:1 ratio. So, I work a day job, read when I can, write when I can, do all of it as responsibly as I can, and have some awareness of when I’ve taken on too much. (This is my best argument for being a professional, and I refuse to put the word into scare quotes like Esposito does.) The notion that the best-case scenario is to subsist exclusively on reading books and writing reviews of them–no editing work, no Q&A writing, etc–is nice, but so is the notion of world peace. Like Esposito, I’m all for “broadening the field”–though I never thought of it as especially narrow one, especially now that anybody with a blog and some enthusiasm can get cracking. But to say that we need to “give more critics the opportunity to spend an adequate amount of time with a book under review” is to register a complaint about a problem that isn’t going to go away. Everybody works under time pressure; if Esposito is waiting for reviewers who have ample time to read books and review them, he may quickly learn how difficult “broadening the field” is going to be.

Oates Interviewed

The Columbus Dispatch has an e-mail interview with Joyce Carol Oates–the first I’ve seen with her since the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, in February. She has a new book of short stories, Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway, and inevitably the discussion turns to Smith:

Q: In your journal entries, you have described yourself as “ lazy” and even “staggeringly indolent” and yet you’ve been astonishingly prolific for decades. Do these contrasting inclinations still exist?

A: Since my husband’s unexpected death, I really have very little energy. I am tired nearly all the time and have terrible insomniac nights. So perhaps the longtime theme of my “energy” is no longer relevant. … Now, living alone, I feel as if I am lacking gravity, or oxygen … the freedom of aloneness is a melancholy thing.

My husband was not at all involved in my literary life; he did not read most of my writing, only just reviews (as an editor, Ray had a first-rate eye. We were together in this house most of the time, in our separate offices, meeting for meals, afternoon walks and bicycle rides, and social engagements. Ray never interfered in my professional life — did not offer opinions, and did not read most reviews of my work or articles about me. We were each other’s best friend and confidante — though I tried not to disturb Ray with bad news of any kind, unless it was necessary.

The Man Who Groused

The London Telegraph has a review of Michael Cook’s new biography of Alfred Kazin, a book that portrays the critic as a melancholy, adulterous man who (as a critic at least) shot his wad before he was 30. Grumpy critics may be the most vulnerable people on earth. Witness this catty exchange mentioned in the review: “While he said of his third wife, the novelist Ann Birstein, that no writer ever read less, she countered that she had published more than him if you removed his quotations.” Michael Dirda came away with much the same feeling reading the biography, though the Kazin he describes has an optimism to bolster all that misery:

While Kazin remained throughout much of his career a public advocate for 1930s-style hopefulness — the one aspect of Edmund Wilson he didn’t admire was the great man’s pessimism — he nonetheless poured out his own angst and spite and growing melancholy in his journals. While he consciously believed in human aspiration, moral passion and ideals, within the chambers of his heart he seems to have fought constantly against self-pity and the kind of loneliness we associate with the figures in the paintings of Edward Hopper — or with Melville, Dickinson and many other 19th-century American authors. And yet writers, the critic was convinced, couldn’t wholly retreat from life into the self. He believed strongly that art needed to be grounded in the real, to be an attempt to grasp the complexities of a time, place or people.

Hoop Dreams

I’m not keeping up with NBA or Sherman Alexie the way I ought to. Since the beginning of the year the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger has run a regular column by Alexie titled Sonics Death Watch. (The Seattle SuperSonics are moving to Oklahoma next season, which was news to me. Sorry, I’m a baseball guy, though the Nats make that particular affection difficult.)

Anyway! Alexie has this column on the Sonics and it’s…OK. The guy clearly loves his team, and occasionally he finds a way to neatly work in his thoughts about race into a basketball column and not make it seem ungainly:

I think white fans love white point guards, even the disappointing ones, because of tribalism. The small white guys in the stands identify with the small white guys on the court. Makes sense to me. If a Native American ever makes it to the NBA, he will become one of my favorite players, even if he’s terrible.

But I truly love NBA basketball because of its otherness, not the otherness of race, but the otherness of athletic ability. During a recent game, Luke Ridnour threw a bounce pass into the key that was gorgeous and extraterrestrial. And for just a few seconds, I loved Luke and chanted his name along with the other fans.

J.D. Vs. X

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I’m not entirely certain where Dan Starling‘s study of Malcolm X and J.D. Salinger is going, but his visual juxtapositions are interesting. Here’s what’s on the Web site of the Richmond Art Gallery in Richmond, British Columbia, where the exhibit is on display: “Both men stopped speaking and publishing during the same historical moment in 1965. Photographs, a travelogue video and book works examine the last public significations of both men. The artist reconfigures what these materials might represent in considering the formation of cultural memory in a society preoccupied by celebrity, racialization and authenticity.”

Junot Diaz, Straight Up

Newsweek has a nice online-only Q&A with Junot Diaz. (Though that subhead needs fixing: He won the National Book Critics Circle award, not the National Book Award.) (Update 4/5: It’s been fixed.)

Do you get frustrated by always being identified as a “Dominican” writer or a “Latino” writer, and never just as a straight-up “writer”?
No, because there’s no such thing as a straight-up writer. I think when people say a straight-up writer, what they really mean is a white writer. In other words, historically there has never been this concept of a nonracialized, nongendered writer. The fact that the word “writer” has to be modified so often is because everybody knows that when people speak of writers, we tend to mean, on an unconscious level, white males.

Dept. of Self Promotion

So, that question I asked a little while back? I was being a bit mercenary in putting it out there–I’ve been cobbling together a piece about D.C. novels that’s now up on Washington City Paper‘s Web site. This may stoke the anger of people convinced that reviewers are “one of the lowest forms of life.” But to paraphrase something Walter Kirn wrote a while ago, if we’re not interested in arguing about books, why are we reading them?

I also have a brief review of David Hajdu‘s new book, The Ten-Cent Plague.

The Chicago Way

From Scott Simon‘s new novel, Windy City:

“You think that all we have to worry about here is picking up trash, plowing the snow, and keeping Al Capone in his grave? My God, man. There are a hundred languages spoken here. Assyrian, Lakota, Urdu, and Yiddish. The Yoo-nited Nations doesn’t have to worry bout how to say ‘beans’ in as many languages as any diner on Western Avenue. All of these folks with five-day beards and black head scarves who are going for each other’s throats over in Snowdonia? They send their kids to the same school here and tell them, ‘Now behave!’ This nation kicks a little ass some place, and soon we got thousands of them living in basements on Halsted Street. Next day, you’re in the back of their cab while they’re on their phones, plotting a coup. We’ve got nuclear physicists from the Poon-jab and goatherds from Namibia. We’ve got brain surgeons from Ogbomoso–that’s in Nigeria, if you were too embarrassed to ask–and rocket scientists from Petropavlovsk–that’s in Kazakhstan, as I’m sure you knew–working as doormen. One day, after they find life on Mars, we’ll have bug-eyed, green-ass Martian-Americans bussing tables on Clark Street. This great heaving mass of diversity is united by a single, momentous desire: They expect you to get the snow off their street.”

Crime Fiction Isn’t Real Fiction. Except When It Is. But Wait…

James Wood has a nice piece on Richard Price‘s Lush Life–though in truth it’s actually a neat little primer on how great dialogue does useful figurative work and isn’t just a play at “realism.” All the same, I stopped paying close attention when I got to this line:

Price has greater novelistic ambitions than his genre can accommodate, and one longs to see him free himself from the tram track of the police procedural. For that is exactly what his language does, time and again: it breaks away.

If his language successfully transcends genre fiction, then what is it he needs to break free of? Wood’s complaint here seems close to the argument that genre fiction can’t be “real” fiction. Lacking much background on Wood, I can’t speak to his long-held opinions on the matter, but it seems like a shallow argument that’s beneath his stature.