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.
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 blog—Matt 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.
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…
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 http://news.ansible.co.uk)
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.
Ben Fountain, author of a tremendous 2006 short-story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, (my review of the book for Kirkus is on the book’s Barnes & Noble page) speaks with the Kansas City Star about Ernest Hemingway‘s influence on his work.
Several stories concern cultural collisions. Americans go overseas and find their values changed or confronted. In “The Good Ones Are Already Taken,” an American soldier goes to Haiti and comes home spiritually changed. To his wife’s dismay, he has “married,” in a spiritual sense, a Haitian goddess. Why are you interested in such themes?
For me, that’s where life is lived — in these train wrecks of cultural collisions. That’s where the most interesting things happen, where our notions of reality, and what’s good and what’s bad, are challenged in the most visceral ways. … What happens to you when you run up against another reality and you keep banging your face into it? That’s when we change. Ideas don’t really change us so much. It’s lived experience that changes us.
The interview appears on the eve of a large international Hemingway conference that opens in Kansas City tomorrow. As a thorough background piece in today’s Star explains, Hemingway lived briefly in K.C., starting his writing career as a cub reporter for the paper. As Steve Paul reports, just before Hemingway headed to Europe a colleague sent him off with a note that encouraged him to have bigger ambitions for his career:
“Hemmy, old scout, if you don’t pack up a Baby Corona and shoot some feature stuff to the Great Longanbaum when you get on the front you’re just a plain damn fool. This is your chance – the opportunity of your lifetime to make the limelight. You can do it. You can do it big. I don’t want to flatter you, but I’d give a million dollars in cold iron men if I possessed your originality. You see things. You know things. You read human interest like a book. And above all you can tell it. All you need to do is to keep your confidence in the Great Hemingstein screwed up to the highest pitch.”
Power’s back on (though my Internet connection is still a bit balky). A few things I missed:
Pakistan’s Daily Times has the complete text of Ernest Hemingway‘s “A Very Short Story.” Summary: war, letters, gonorrhea.
All those complaints about Truman Capote‘s shabby reporting are finally starting to penetrate: In Cold Blood is a “Classic American novel.”
In Michigan next Tuesdayon July 10? Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane will all speak at MSU on June 10 as part of the Michigan Big Read. The last two should at least have some good Jack Nicholson stories.
Irish author Polly Devlin writes about running into Mary Gordon and soon decamping to teach at Columbia University in New York City, where “you are judged on your grooming and your status—not on your age.” Oh, Polly, you’re judged for everything there…
The storm that blew through D.C. all of a sudden yesterday afternoon and evening knocked out the power at my home; posting will resume once Pepco fixes whatever it is that needs fixing.
Nextbook’s Joanna Smith Rakoff interviews Joanna Hershon, whose third novel, The German Bride, tells the story of Jewish settlers in Santa Fe in the 1860s. Hershon notes some of the stories that she uncovered in the course of her research:
Life was really no joke in terms of the danger. Just the fact that she arrived in Santa Fe after crossing the country was an incredible achievement. Because on the way there were incredible dangers—cholera and Indians at the time, and yes, on the way there, there was a time where they arrived at a camp site in the middle of the night, and they made camp, and then woke up at dawn only to realize that they had slept on the site of a massacre. So there were bodies everywhere.
A friend of mine has fair-to-middling luck playing the McSweeney’s speculative market—snapping up whatever junk the publisher has put out, waiting a bit, then selling it at a tidy profit to some nerd who probably hasn’t read it either. (An eBay search suggests he won’t be retiring soon, but there are probably black markets for Eggersiana I haven’t heard about. Want my first edition of You Shall Know Our Velocity!? Make me an offer.) An article by Anne Trubek in the Utne Reader (originally published last fall in Good) studies the vicissitudes of collecting “hypermodern” literature, giving some space to McSweeney’s fare, with a few other options. William T. Vollmann isn’t one of them, though. Trubek writes:
Collecting is a risky game, though. Some scored with McCarthy, but followers of William T. Vollmann lost big in the 1990s. Ken Lopez, a bookseller who specializes in modern and hypermodern titles, told me of a failed attempt to corner Vollmann futures: “A small group of young guys got together to monopolize the market,” he says. “They would travel to book signings, buy 10 copies of Vollmann’s books for $17.50, and mark the prices up to $100.” But they overshot, and today the market is overstocked, supply having outstripped demand.
A little while back the Charlotte Observer pondered the fading legacy of William Saroyan. In the meantime, the Fresno Bee has been digging in and investigating it, building a neat widgety timeline, posting an unpublished novella, Follow, and more, wrapping up its coverage with long feature on whether Saroyan’s reputation will improve in the future. (Fresno State University has a course on Saroyan, but it’s part of the Armenian Studies department, not English.) One suggestion as to why Saroyan isn’t on the top of readers’ and critics’ book piles:
But Saroyan’s legacy suffers because he has no great novels to his credit, said Fresno journalist and writer Mark Arax, who knew Saroyan.
“He was spontaneous,” Arax said. “He wrote in these incredible bursts of energy and creativity. That kind of talent served him best in short stories. I think he found the writing of the great American novel, and all the character development you have to do, a little tedious.”