The Hot 200

I don’t envy the task that David Madden has before him: The California State University, Sacramento English professor is spending the rest of the year finishing the Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Fiction, which is set to be published in 2010. Not only are there going to be plenty of ingrates who’ll get similar info cheap and easy, he has to limit the book’s contents to about 200 authors. He bemoans his fate a little in the Sacramento Bee:

Who goes in? Who gets left out? “When you make selections, you are also deleting somebody,” Madden said. For example, Tom Disch won’t make it, even though his New York Times obituary this month quoted the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts as saying his work was “important” and “Swiftian.”… [But] he included authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They’re writers sometimes put in the pulp genre but who were hugely influential. Lesser-knowns like Paul West and Thomas Berger, author of “Little Big Man,” made it, too.

Why Book Bloggers Won’t (Often) Review Books

Lissa Warren, writing in the Huffington Post, has it right:

I’ll tell you what does make my jaw drop: the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs…. I read them often for news on new titles (and older ones I missed) and Q&As with authors. Many of them are also good for stories on publishing trends, which as a book publicist and editor I appreciate a great deal. But, for the most part, these blogs don’t actually review books. Instead, they cover the business of books, book culture, and the world of the author. Yes, they often link to reviews–but, ironically, they’re usually of the dead tree variety.

This is an aspect of litblogs I used to grumble about: It’s hard to argue that blogs are supplanting book coverage in newspapers when blogs rely so often on those very papers for something to write about. Want to crow about how you’re erasing the necessity and utility of a weekly book review? Take the reviews offline for a while and see how much you have to work with. (I know about the most notable exceptions, such as Bookslut and the Quarterly Conversation.) Now that I run a blog myself—now that I’m part of the same parasitic culture I used to take issue with—I understand the issues a little better, and I respect the different but vital roles each play. Reviewing, when you care, takes time; writing that takes time is still best suited for print, or at least a Web publication that has an editorial team structured much like a print publication. Blogging is often an off-the-cuff sort of thing, and I’m still less interested in hearing somebody spitballing an opinion about a book in a blog post (or in an Amazon review) than reading something that went through some sort of vetting process.

So Warren’s request that bloggers review books more often is well taken, but likely not something to happen for a while—at least with me. Because registering an opinion is something that anybody can do easily, without too much effort. Reviewing is labor, and I’m old-fashioned enough to still believe that labor ought to be paid for. (So is Scott Esposito, apparently, who, bless him, is figuring out a way to kick some cash to his contributors.) Find a way to get more money into the hands of more bloggers, and it won’t be hard to find more quality reviews.

Netherland Discussion at TPM

Talking Points Memo has chosen Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland as the first novel featured in its book club. Great idea: I finished the book a couple of weeks back, and I was deeply impressed with how steadily the book balances a clear-eyed picture of New York’s crudeness and chaos alongside such elegant writing. Mobsters and cricket; seedy hotels and top-tier brokers—O’Neill’s city is full of contrasts, but he never presents it as an easy tale-of-two-cities squabble. O’Neill pulls that off partly by refusing to invent cookie-cutter portraits of immigrants and ethnic enclaves—you’ll run into a lot of novels these days (especially New York-set novels), that revel in using such people as comic relief or as cheap reiterations of the Magical Black Man. O’Neill’s characters, by contrast, are ambitious, emotional, self-contradictory, given to statements of ethnic pride, but never strictly for the sake of character detailing.

At any rate, the matter of American-ness in an increasingly global world is very much on O’Neill’s mind in his opening post, in which he questions what globalization might spell for the American novel:

[T]hese days you don’t have to station yourself in America, or even take a particular interest in the American consumer, in order to prosper on an ‘American’ scale. As a result, the traditional preoccupation of American novelists–in essence, to do some kind of justice to the American dream narrative, with all of its assumptions and concerns–threatens to become as anachronistic as Chuck’s plan to Americanize cricket. To what extent, then, is the American narrative viewpoint, globally dominant since World War II, now losing its preeminence?

Given the lively (if often gassy) responses in the comments, it’s a subject folks want to engage in. Joining in on the discussion for the remainder of the week will be Dale Peck, Kurt Andersen, Mia Carter, and Will Buckley. Should be fun. (via)

Time and Twain

I confess I missed Time magazine’s recent big to-do over Mark Twain, partly because it spurs some guilt. Mr. Clemens isn’t exactly a blind spot in my reading—I’ve read the essential novels, and more than a handful of short stories and essays—but I’ve also missed plenty, and I wasn’t much in the mood for a reminder when Time‘s cover package came out. David Kipen‘s approving blog post on Time’s efforts notes that I have plenty of cheats when it comes to catching up on Twain—particularly, which has an entire page dedicated to quotes on Teddy Roosevelt alone. Kipen’s post also notes that, news to me, Jane Smiley prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Huckleberry Finn. Smiley clarified this point in a 1998 interview:

People seem to remember my saying that Huck Finn is a lesser novel than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin should be taken as the greatest American novel. I didn’t say that. I just said that I didn’t think Huck Finn was the greatest novel ever written and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was better than its reputation.

Roundup: Spell It Out

Motoko Rich‘s fine story about the differences in reading habits between generations comes with a great Web-only sidebar pointing to supporting documents, surveys, studies, tests, and more. Among the fun stuff is the site for UDL Editions, an effort by a nonprofit to produce Web-only versions of classics that are interactive. Their online books have clickable words that point to an illustrated glossary unique to the book; see, for instance, the UDL version of Jack London‘s The Call of the Wild. The “Stop and Think!” prompts aren’t particularly noxious or preachy, and they can be scaled by reading level; I would’ve been thrilled to have access to something like this growing up.

Sharon Olds made a vow to Satan when she was in her early 20s and now she’s a famous poet.

George Pelecanos: “I can honestly say you’ll never read a straight mystery from me again.”

Kent Haruf‘s papers have been acquired (PDF) by Southern California’s Huntington Library. In relation to the news, he talks to the Pasadena Star-News about his slow, often frustrating climb as a writer:

You have to have a lot of patience and a lot of belief in yourself. I was 40 before I published anything and I had been writing hard for about 15 years before then. I had gone to the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa and studied writing formally, but it took me a long time before I had gotten good enough to have written something that people would want to buy. I taught graduate students in MFA programs and they were talented people. What happens to most people is that it’s too difficult to make a go of it and most people quit. Then they find out that the things that they do is perhaps not as satisfying, but maybe a little more easier.

So, in my estimation, you have to stay with it despite everything. You have to find some way to believe in yourself in some profound way that’s unshakable. I see it as a small flame that I have to attend to everyday. If I don’t do that, it’s in danger of going out.

Roman Holiday

A month or so back marked the 20th anniversary of the International Forum on the Novel, a gathering in Lyon, France, that brings together a host of writers from around the world to discuss matters like (from this year’s docket) “A Historian Facing Literature” and “The Bildungsroman.” (There’s a PDF of the complete program at the forum’s Web site.) Among the panelists on the latter gathering was Jonathan Lethem, and he’s also one of the novelists who answered the forum’s call to choose the one word that defines their writing. Lethem’s answer: furniture. The Guardian has his explanation:

Furniture may be explicit or implicit, visible or invisible, may bear the duty of conveying social and economic detail or be merely cursorily functional, may be stolen or purchased, borrowed, destroyed, replaced, sprinkled with crumbs of food or splashed with drink, may remain immaculate, may be transformed into artworks by aspiring bohemians, may be inherited by characters from uncles who die before the action of the novel begins, may reward careful inspection of the cushions and seams for loose change that has fallen from pockets, may be collapsible, portable, may even be dragged into the house from the beach where it properly belongs, but in any event it must absolutely exist. Anything less is cruelty.

Ein Berliner

The Village Voice recently caught up with Paul Beatty, whose new novel, Slumberland, hasn’t been getting as much attention as I’d expected. Granted, one of its central scenes revolves around a porn flick involving untoward treatment chicken, but it’s a great seriocomic glimpse of cultural and racial splits, as chronicled by an American in Berlin. Beatty had spent a year in the city back in the ’90s, but Slumberland was more closely inspired by the amazing story of Henry Grimes, a top-shelf jazz bassist who was missing and presumed dead by some until a few years back:

Asked if Stone reminded him of anyone in particular, Beatty throws out some guesses, saying that the character owes something to both his mother and father: “Also, I got the idea from this guy, Henry Grimes. He used to play bass for Albert Ayler, then disappeared for a long time. A friend of mine sent me an article from Wired about a guy who tracked him down—Grimes was living in some SRO in L.A. I always love it when people say: ‘Fuck it, I’m gone!’ “

Oates on “Tabloid Hell”

Residents of the greater Washington, D.C. area are currently having their patience tested with a 12-part series about the death of Chandra Levy. Best as anybody can tell, the series is little more than a tick-tock of a scandal that happened seven years ago, one that sheds no new light on how to investigate a high-profile murder in general, or on how D.C. police in particular might better comport themselves in the future. It’s old and tiring stuff to a lot of people, which may be why nobody seems to be beating down the door to talk about Joyce Carol Oates‘ new novel about a JonBenet Ramsey manque, My Sister, My Love.

To be sure, the book has issues. (If critical characters like Skyler’s dad seem wooden and irrational, is that Oates brilliantly exposing the tics of the novel’s unreliable narrator, or is she just writing weak characters?) But Oates’ obsession with tabloid-news culture itself never seems misguided, and she discusses “tabloid hell” in an interview with BookPage, in which she reveals that Bill O’Reilly was good for something:

“I had the whole Fox News syndrome,” she says. “I was watching Fox News while I wrote the novel, watching Bill O’Reilly. I do come from a Christian background and the Christianity on Fox News is just used for political purposes, it’s so transparent. Bill O’Reilly always used to say ‘secular progressive’ for left wing. Secular progressive sounds pretty good to me! Fox News? I call it Hawk News. I don’t watch that anymore. I just can’t even look at it now.” She detoxed with “The Daily Show.” “He’s excellent,” she says. “I get a lot of news from Jon Stewart.”

Nelson Algren’s Food Writing

WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:

Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.

Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.

Alexie on The Exiles

Sherman Alexie—novelist, poet, filmmaker, and Sonics fan—has been making the interview rounds on behalf of The Exiles, a 1961 film by Kent Mackenzie about Native Americans living in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood. Alexie, with the assistance of filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), helped resurrect the film, which is screening for a few more days at New York’s IFC Center. Time‘s Richard Corliss has an appreciation of the film, and Alexie discusses some of the film’s unique qualities with IndieWire:

[O]ne of the great things about the film is that it’s about urban Indians. Much of my written work is about the urban experience. Indian artists have been doing very little with that. We’re very reservation-centric. The fact that a film from the 1950s is urban, while we have failed to do that much ourselves, is very interesting.

iW: Why is that?

SA: I think it’s the idea — the misconception — that reservations are more authentic. When you’re talking about Native artists, by and large, you’re talking about people who never lived on the res, or left the res. We use our art to feel more connected to the tribe. It seems the way we do it is by writing about the res. I think the art has always been trying to find an identity, rather than writing about the identity it actually has.