The Goldberg Variation

I was asked recently what bookselling-industry tipsheet Shelf Awareness is. “It’s a daily roundup of bookstore closings around the country,” I said. These days anything that will help sell a book is worth trying, and though I suspect that pretty soon some ASCAP or BMI rep will arrive to suck all the fun out of this, I admire the efforts of the Booksmith in San Francisco to attach a mix-CD giveaway to a handful of its offerings. Among the selections are the Decemberists’ “Myla Goldberg,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and so on. “”I was inspired by the song Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush,” Martha Petit, the staffer who assembled the disc, tells LitMinds. “Todd (also a Booksmith staffer) and I were discussing what a great song it is and I relayed the story of a friend who also loved the song but had no clue that it was a reference to Emile Bronte’s novel.” (via Book Patrol)

A Royalty Pain

A Persian translation of John Barth‘s first novel, The Floating Opera, recently won a literary prize in Iran. According to a story published on the Tehran Times Web site, Barth would’ve been happier about the award if he had approved the publication of the translation:

In a letter to the Qoqnus publishing company, American novelist John Barth has asked Iranian publishers to publish the copyrighted books only with the permission of the copyright owners.

However, he stated that it is a great pleasure for an author to see that his books are translated into other languages and published in other countries and that he feels honored by the recent publication of his 50-year-old novel in Iran.

John Barth was not the first writer who objected to the unauthorized publication of his book in Iran, [Qognus managing director Amir] Hosseinzadegan added.

He explained that many foreign publishers do not sign agreements with Iranian publishing companies and many of them who sign agreements are not satisfied with their royalties since book prices are much lower in Iran compared to Western countries.

My ability to understand and navigate Iranian bookselling sites is limited, but Barth’s novel doesn’t appear to be available on the Qognus pages of this site.

Broken-Down Town

Myron Magnet‘s essay on Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, is largely intended to bolster the case post-Giuliani crime reforms in New York—the piece appears in City Journal, published the conservative Manhattan Institute. Setting politics aside, though, the piece works well as a glimpse into how Bellow provoked arguments about class, race, and city life:

The novel’s personification of all that crime is a tall, powerfully built thief whom Sammler sees several times working the Riverside Drive bus, a dandified black man sporting a camel’s-hair coat, homburg, and Dior sunglasses. Sammler, slightly taller, can watch him over the heads of the other standees as he skillfully snaps open the handbags and methodically empties the purses of his unaware victims. One day, shielded from the other passengers by his broad, well-tailored back, the thief robs a weak old man with red-lidded eyes of “sea-mucus blue,” cowering in the bus’s back corner, his “false teeth dropping from his upper gums” in his terror. The thief pulls open the man’s jacket with its ragged lining, takes out his plastic wallet, and methodically rifles through the contents, pocketing the money and the Social Security check, while dropping the family photos like so much trash. Then, in a gesture of ironic contempt, he jerks the knot of the old man’s tie “approximately, but only approximately, into place.”

Jhumpa Lahiri Isn’t Doing Anything Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth—still in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list—isn’t out in the U.K. yet. The Guardian assembles a primer on Lahiri’s success, though I want to say that Edward Helmore is overreaching with his argument that her work signals a seachange in American fiction:

But can Lahiri’s stories—along with those of immigrant authors such as Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Gary Shteyngart (from Russia) and Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic)—supplant the white male authors who informed US culture throughout the 20th century? In the era of globalisation, are immigrant stories the more compelling, relevant and energetic? Part of the answer lies with the US education system, which is making renewed efforts to make room for authors like Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee and Khaled Hosseini.

I get the argument: There’s only so many times you can hear Updike/Roth/Chabon/McCarthy bolted to lists of great American authors before you start thinking that you’re in a world exclusive to white men. But like the “Bob Dylan Is Back!” story that gets written every time he puts out a new album, “Our Newly Diverse American Fiction!” is a story that’s been told repeatedly for decades now. You heard it with Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Amy Tan, and more; the shelves of my home growing up were filled with Harry Mark Petrakis books (no Wikipedia page for him!), and he began writing in the ’50s. Were journalists writing trend pieces in 1918? If so, you might’ve heard something about My Antonia wresting American literature from the urbane fists of Henry James.

None of the authors I’ve just listed claim the place that Roth alone does, and it’s fair to speculate about why that is. But the real story isn’t about the immigrant narrative being something new, but why it’s often played a B-team role. After all, even Updike recognizes the value of the assimilation narrative, even if he wasn’t enthusiastic about my favorite novel of last year, Ha Jin‘s A Free Life. As long as those stories stay in the shadows, the ones that grab some sales heat will be extolled, wrongly, as something shockingly new.

Roundup: Looking Backward

At the Washington Post‘s Short Stack blog, Marie Arana goes hunting for books that expose unfamiliar corners of Washington D.C., “rather than grouse about how Washington has never produced a classic tome that truly nails the city the way Tom Wolfe did New York or Dashiell Hammett did San Francisco.” (Was it something I said?) Coming up empty, she calls on Christopher Buckley (Boomsday, Thank You for Smoking), who concludes his list with “any White House memoir”: “They all have two themes: 1.) It wasn’t my fault! and 2.) It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t been there. Now that really tells you something about this town.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Fuller lists her five favorite books about the modern American West.

Romance publisher Harlequin is getting big on Web 2.0 tools—readings on Second Life, short erotic novels readable on cellphones (“because size doesn’t matter”). Says the company’s internet guru, Brent Lewis: “We chunk down most stories [designed for cellphones] so you’re only getting about 500 words per day. I believe strongly that mobile will become an important delivery mechanism for publishers in North America.”

Attention Chicagoans: The Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting photos of Chicago from 1949 to 1968 by Art Shay, in conjunction with a new staging of Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day at Lookingglass Theatre (which has a preview video of the show).

Love on the Rocks

My favorite line from James Frey‘s interview with the Wall Street Journal about his new novel, Bright Shiny Morning: “Most of the facts in the book are real.”

The WSJ has an excerpt from the novel, and the paper really should’ve been presented it as a quiz/reader’s guide: How many alleged facts here are accurate? What are the odds that James Frey was sneering and consulting Very Little Known Facts when he was composing this passage?

It is legal for human beings to marry rocks in the City of Los Angeles.

The first such marriage occurred in 1950, when a secretary at an autoparts factory named Jannene Swift married a large piece of granite.

The Port of Los Angeles handles almost 200 million tons of cargo every year.

For some reason that, despite extensive scientific research, remains unknown, potato chips weigh more in Los Angeles than in any other part of America.

There are sixty-five people in Los Angeles who have the legal name Jesus Christ.

There is more pornography produced in Los Angeles than in the rest of the world combined.

Dept. of Wild, Unsupportable Generalizations

Choire Sicha believes that men can’t write any more—or rather, that the latest batch of post-McSweeney’s young novelists need a pair of stones. How romanticizing the mid-’80s supports this thesis is beyond me (maybe it’s because Jay McInerney‘s Ransom had samurai swords or something?), but here you go:

The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone. Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author. And they are bewildered, I think, because their bewilderment shows in books that try to understand class and economic conditions even as they are being happily further ensnared by them. Their books read as if this were the first time they’d ever thought of all this.

Read it if you dare. Sicha’s argument is so stuffed with overstatement that it practically repels thought. (If there’s something to be said about the connection between getting laid and greater class understanding, an editor at the Observer might’ve compelled Sicha to articulate it.) But one thing: If you’re going to make assertions about the value, strength, and importance of women writers, maybe spell Marilynne Robinson‘s name right?