For Those About to Revise…

Jonathan Lethem is in a band, which may be a smarter thing than writing a crummy novel about being in a band. I’m Not Jim, his collaboration with the Silos’ Walter Salas-Humara, will put out its first album in September on the fine Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records. If the PR for the album is to be trusted, Lethem was a quick study for songwriting. Says Salas-Humara: “I loved Motherless Brooklyn, but after reading The Fortress Of Solitude, a book I consider a stone cold masterpiece, I knew had to work with Jonathan. We carved out a couple days and met at his house in Maine. I hoped we would get a few things down and I was totally unprepared, and completely blown away, by the speed in which Jonathan gets ideas on paper.” (Via Wired’s Listening Post)

Remainders in Light

Writing in the Washington Post, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp—no, Twelve doesn’t put out a lot of fiction, though it’s Christopher Buckley‘s home—indulges himself in a revenge fantasy held by editors worried about the coming tyranny of the commons. Most books are too junky, too designed to capitalize on short-term trends, and written all too quickly, he writes, but he has an idea for a fix:

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively…. Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

Arguments like this swirl around in journalism on occasion—once people recognize the inherent crappiness/unthoughtfulness/unjournalisticness of most blogs, the thinking goes, they’ll see the value of actual reported stories, and as a result newspapers will (somehow!) monetize the distinction. There are distinctions: The Post has people in Iraq, and most (all?) political/military/policy blogs don’t. But much of the small-press/POD culture that Karp speaks of is already happening, and the response from the larger publishing industry doesn’t appear to be a greater investment in quality; forced to choose between letting a pretty good book marinate for another year or two to become a great one or simply upping distribution and promotion, I suspect that most publishers will choose the latter. After all, book that’s not available for purchase makes no money, and more time on each individual book means few books for a house to work on. And when a company is mindful of the quarterly returns—very mindful if the owner is publicly traded—it knows that “we’re investing in quality” won’t cut it with creditors.

(Via Henry Kisor, who nicely weaves Karp’s story into a smirking commentary about what gas prices are doing to the road novel. Also, the print version of the story notes that a “Jessica” Crispin will respond to Karp’s piece on the Post‘s Web site later in the week.)

Update: Crispin’s response is now online.

The Unreliable Narrator’s Mostly Reliable Narrator

Time catches up with Joyce Carol Oates, author of the fascinating/maddening novel, My Sister, My Love, which was inspired by the JonBenet Ramsey case. (I hope to have time at some to write down some of the issues I have with the book.)

Is it a bad thing that there was so much publicity about the real case?

I think it satisfies a certain desire or hunger in the populace. It depends what you think news is.

Actually, Oates has more than a couple of sentences’ worth of thoughts on the matter.

Roundup: While You Were Out

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Still making people mad.

Tobias Wolff speaks with Australia’s The Age (where his latest story collection, Our Story Begins, has just been published). He recalls the experience of reading galleys of his first novel, Ugly Rumours, a book he now disowns: “”I thought I had gotten way ahead of myself. I wasn’t smart enough to be Pynchon, but I liked the almost 19th century Dickensian layering of perspectives, the kind of wild sense of humour that Pynchon allows himself and the mingling of realism and urban myth and absurdity. Nothing is a waste of time for a writer, but this was not my medium.”

Penguin Classics is launching its African American Classics series with a collection of works by Charles W. Chesnutt. The Atlantic‘s Web site pointed to some of his work in January.

Scott Romine revisits Walter Hines Page‘s The Southerner. The 1909 novel has just been reissued by the University of South Carolina Press.

Lastly, if it’s true that we’re all not reading anymore, at least the book titles are still good for something: “If you decided to name your horses after classics in American literature, you could have horses named Red Badge Of Courage, Tender IsThe Night, The Last Tycoon, O Pioneers, Pudd’nhead Wilson, Absalom Absalom, A Moveable Feast, Travelswithcharley, Tortilla Flat and many others. I’ve just scratched the surface.”

Vintage Singer

Love Comes Lately, a film based on three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, opened last weekend to fair-to-middling-to-negative reviews. Perhaps coincidentally, last week fiction writers Dara Horn and David Bezmozgis discussed Singer’s legacy as part of Luminato, a Toronto arts festival. A report from the Canadian Jewish News doesn’t suggest any fireworks occurred, though Horn didn’t just engage in polite praise of Singer:

In a critique, she said that he was “a bit lazy” stylistically, at least later in his career, and that he falsely presented himself as “the last voice of Yiddish literature” when, in fact, the opposite was really true.

Turning an old saying on its head, Horn, a fluent Yiddish speaker, elicited waves of laughter when she joked that she and her husband converse in Yiddish when they don’t want their parents to understand what they have just said.


In the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell studies Richard Wright‘s life after his glory days of 1940’s Native Son and 1945’s Black Boy. Leaving the United States for Paris in 1947, Wright largely flailed as a writer, producing unfinished novels and (in Campbell’s assessment) clunky travel books. Hazel Rowley‘s new biography of Wright attempts to make a case for his writing on Africa and Indonesia, but Campbell isn’t having it:

Wright was never much of a stylist, and when his subject matter ceases to be topical, there are few reasons for the disinterested reader to open his books. In her mostly judicious account of Wright’s valiant progress, Rowley attempts to persuade us that the method of travel books … was “decades ahead of its time”…. But even if the reader is willing to overlook the travel books of Graham Greene, Peter Fleming, the early Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and others, Wright’s facile, notetaking method and the long-winded conversations in which interviewer frequently upstages interviewee, are apt to become wearying.

If, as James Baldwin suggested, Wright abdicated his role as a writer about black America, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina isn’t interested in revisiting Baldwin either, or any of his well-known colleagues. As part of NPR’s “You Must Read This” series, she makes a case for a lesser-known book, Ann Petry‘s 1946 novel, The Street:

The Street creates a lot of discussion, often uncomfortable, in my literature classes. It makes us confront difficult questions about race and class. Who has access to the American Dream? Why do some characters make it but Lutie doesn’t? Petry wants her readers to see the two sides of America: the gleaming and moneyed suburbs, where she herself was raised, and the struggles of black women in Harlem, where she moved after her marriage.

The Black Read

Darin Strauss talks to Time Out New York about his new novel, More Than it Hurts You, which explores Munchausen by proxy. Strauss will be blogging his book tour for Newsweek (where his wife is a staffer), and the TONY story has this curious passage:

[T]he book—at points a careful examination of race of gender—arrives after a primary season that’s pushed those topics to the front of the national conversation. “I had black friends read it to make sure that it was, you know—that it was authentic,” Strauss says. “The way that Newsweek gives stories the ‘black read.’ ”

I know that newspaper copy editors operate in part with a mind toward locating passages and phrases that might cause offense. (You can say “conned,” but never “gypped”; it’s not OK to say that somebody is “confined to” a wheelchair.) And I’m sure that stories that address race issues in detail get extra care in that regard. But the idea of a “black read” is a new one on me.

Roundup: Bait and Switch

(If you’re arriving here from the Readerville Journal, welcome. If you’re not arriving here from the Readerville Journal: The folks at that venerable site have been nice enough to dub this site its Blog of the Week.)

Frank Wilson‘s Books, Inq. points to a review of Lionel Shriver‘s The Post-Birthday World, an exemplar of very divisive novels. (Wilson’s taken this up before regarding Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road.) It was one of my favorite novels of last year; my review for Kirkus is floating somewhere on the Barnes & Noble review page.

Coudal Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, has put out its latest edition of Field-Tested Books, in which various writers contribute short essays about their experiences reading outside of the usual contexts of libraries, living rooms, and public transit. Bless Joe Meno‘s essay on Winesburg, Ohio, which I blogged about at Allvoices.

Mark Twain‘s home in Hartford, Conn., is in deep trouble; a visitors’ center wound up costing double what was anticipated and energy costs are way up. I’d suggest putting on a short play and charging customers a ton for it, but maybe that’s a little too glib. Seriously: Donate here.

Superman is 70.

Guy Sorman, writing in City Journal, enthuses about the Amazon Kindle. Walking in Central Park one day, he convinced his wife that she needed to read Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd, right now, and uploaded it to his Kindle: “I typed “Billy Budd” on the keyboard. It took five seconds to complete the wireless download and cost me approximately $6, debited from my Amazon account.” Had Sorman talked to me, I could’ve saved him six bucks, but I will concede that the Kindle is preferable if you’re insisting your spouse read something outside at that very moment.

I knew that Gore Vidal was bitter at how he’s been treated by the New York Times over the years, but yeesh:

What do you think is your own best novel? I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.

Well, it was a great pleasure talking to you. I doubt that.

Crazy Talk

The latest edition of the online literary journal Triple Canopy has an interesting piece by Rivka Galchen, whose debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is next on the reading pile. (The New York Observer ran a nice profile of Galchen last month.) In “Case Notes of a Medical Student, East Harlem Psychiatric ER, Winter 2002” she describes interviews with a number of troubled patients. For instance:

HM, 25-year-old male, brought in after his mother called his day-treatment program because he was “scaring her.” H/o schizophrenia. Extremely calm and polite during interview. Initially denies hearing voices, denies any symptoms. Says he
was brought in because he has been drinking wine. He is drinking wine because it is the blood of Christ and the more he drinks the more he will be like Christ. The cops are like the Romans who crucified Jesus. God is his father. When he was twenty, God gave him wings. He’s angry with his father for bringing him into the world and just leaving him there. His mother believes in a white Christ, the wrong Christ. His program director, present for the interview, reveals that HM has a history of arrests for aggravated assault. “They’re trying to clip my wings,” HM says. “I have no choice.”