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.”

Roundup: Short and Sweet

This time, Kevin J. Hayes is looking for recommendations of great American short stories, particularly ones of 21st-century vintage. Nobody in the comments has gotten around to mentioning Nelson Algren, George Saunders, Edward P. Jones, and Jhumpa Lahiri, but I’m sure that’ll be rectified soon. And though it’s probably more specific to my interest in noir than in great American literature, but I’ve long been a fan of Dashiell Hammett‘s stories, particularly “The Scorched Face.”

Keith Gessen reviews Richard Cook‘s biography of Alfred Kazin in the London Review of Books.

John Updike‘s speech on American art, “The Clarity of Things,” which I attended in D.C. (and wrote about) is now available at the New York Review of Books‘ Web site. This is a case where it really helps to pick up a hard copy of the issue, which includes reproductions of many of the works under discussion.

And, bringing this full-circle, I have a review of Leni Zumas‘ short-story collection, Farewell Navigator, in this week’s Washington City Paper. If you’re in town, Zumas reads at Politics & Prose on Saturday.

Oh, and One More Thing: That event in Lansing, Michigan, I mentioned last week? The one with Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison? It’s not happening, uh, two days ago. It takes place July 10. So there’s still time to get on board. Apologies for the error, and thanks to the folks at the Michigan Humanities Council for bringing the mistake to my attention.

The Bruccoli Files

At the Big Read blog, David Kipen offers an appreciation of Matthew J. Bruccoli, a leading F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar who died of cancer last week. (You can see Bruccoli’s hand throughout the University of South Carolina’s very deep Fitzgerald centennial site). Kipen had invited Bruccoli to record a commentary on The Great Gatsby for the Big Read. He recalls the experience:

“Strivers!”, he cried, nailing for legions of Big Read listeners in one emphatically flung word the generation of ambitious dreamers for whom Gatsby stood in. Around the office even now, at the mention of Matt’s name, it’s a contest between Dan and me to see who can pronounce it with a more faithful New York honk. “Strivers!” The merest hint of an audible “r” is grounds for immediate disqualification.

Bruccoli was a striver too. Like the teenager in the stacks that Salinger and Updike used to fantasize about, Bruccoli was a bookish kid from an unbookish household. One day he wandered sweatily from a stickball game into a candystore, recognized Fitzgerald’s name on a paperback spinner from a radio play the week before, picked up Gatsby, and he was off to the races. If young Matt was anywhere near as good at stickball as he was at reading, the loss to American sport was incalculable.

Over at the Washington Post’s obituary blog—no, really, I honestly think it’s the paper’s best blogMatt Schudel discusses his experience writing Bruccoli’s obituary. He was working on both Bruccoli’s obit and Jim McKay‘s at the same time, and guess which one got more attention:

It’s curious to note that the death of Jim McKay was all over the news on television, and our online editors were pushing me Saturday to finish the obit and get it on the Web.

One day earlier, no one at the paper asked me about Bruccoli, who wasn’t widely known outside the world of literature, and whose death passed unnoticed by every TV network and most papers. But I’ve already received many comments from people who knew him and his work and who were glad the Post took time to do an original obituary. Not one person has written to me about the much more famous Jim McKay.

A Minor Grouse

Grumping about litblogs is insidery and boring, I know, but there’s a line in a Galleycat post yesterday that’s been annoying me ever since I read it. On Monday Ron Hogan posted a perfectly nice item about some of the more popular galleys at Book Expo America, among them Robert Bolaño‘s 2666 and Amitav Ghosh‘s A Sea of Poppies. Harcourt apparently moved a lot of copies of Padma Viswanathan‘s The Toss of a Lemon, prompting this parenthetical statement from Hogan:

America’s book reviewers being what they are, expect a dozen explanations of how the author isn’t that Viswanathan come September.

Hogan’s frustrations with newspaper book reviewers are well documented, but this is an odd little swipe. Why on earth would it be a bad thing—or even a thing that reveals the mediocrity of newspaper book reviewing—to clarify that Padma Viswanathan isn’t Kaavya Viswanathan, a disgraced author? Journalists make these clarifications all the time with recognized last names. If somebody named Billy Bob Updike writes a novel, I’d note that the author isn’t related to John, and I’m sure Hogan would do it too. After all, he did recognize that some of his readers wouldn’t have instant recall on Kaavya’s name and might be confused. And I’m sure he’s not alone: Litbloggers being what they are, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of links to stories about the Kaavya scandal once The Toss of a Lemon comes out…

The Continuing Genre War

In the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Saler shrewdly connects David Hajdu‘s history of the ’50s comic-book scare, The Ten-Cent Plague and Michael Chabon‘s collection of essays, Maps & Legends. Both throw light on the difficulties that genre fiction has had getting critical approval. Chabon attempts to collapse genre-bound distinctions, writing, “All literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction.” But not everybody’s hearing it. Saler writes:

Skirmishes do continue. Like Japanese soldiers fighting the Second World War long after it ended, some still draw a cordon sanitaire around “literature” to protect it from “genre”, regardless of how closely the two commingle. Jeanette Winterson proclaims “I hate science fiction”, even though her recent The Stone Gods includes robots and a post-apocalyptic future. Certain critics still insist that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize primarily for The Golden Notebook (1962), even though this Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention considers her futurist “Canopus in Argus” novels “to be some of my best work”. (David Langford gleefully tracks anti-genre comments at

That Ansible link is well worth clicking on—it disputes the notion that most people understand that comics and science fiction are more than just kids’ stuff. The people who get the nuances are the people who least need convincing—folks who’ve already read Maus, Fun Home, etc.