Crime Fiction in the Civil Rights Era

Art Taylor, a critic and professor of English at George Mason University, has an article in the new issue of Mystery Scene magazine (with Marcus Sakey on the cover) about how crime and mystery novels addressed the Civil Rights Movement while it was happening. Both Taylor and the magazine are stingy about details online—in these tough economic times, “pay for the information you want, punk” is the new “information wants to be free”—but he sets up the issue nicely on his blog:

To some degree, my interest in these questions was prompted by the recent republication of Shepard Rifkin’s 1970 novel The Murderer Vine by Hard Case Crime — the first time in over 35 years that the book has been in print. As is their tradition, Hard Case Crime also chose to give the reissue a provocative and even slightly titillating cover, but the true event from which the story grew was nothing but serious — in fact, it was one of the pivotal moments in the evolution of the Civil Rights Era: the killing of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive.

Hard Case Crime has made the first chapter of Rifkin’s novel available online:

A black man of about sixty began to climb the steps with a heavy old suitcase. Once inside, he gave his ticket to Ray, who didn’t wait till the old man could be seated. The bus started immediately and the old man was having trouble with his bulky suitcase in the narrow aisle, which was littered with boxes and shopping bags. It was obviously the bus used by country people to do their serious city shopping in. The old man paused and hesitated when he saw the cluttered aisle. There was an empty seat far in the rear, and there was an empty one beside me. I could almost see his thinking processes.

He would have to ask pardon of ten whites in order to get to the empty seat in the back. He would probably bang a few knees as well with his huge suitcase, and why go through all that humiliation when he could just sit beside me? He looked at me. The look said, Please, mister, are you gonna make a fuss if I sit beside you?

Weiland on State by State

Matt Weiland talks up the new collection he edited with Sean Wilsey, State by State, with the Rake, in the process pointing out what’s both good and bad about the book:

We wanted to make a book as cacophonous and messy and interesting as the nation itself, and that meant allowing writers to do their own thing and go off their own way. It’s kind of the way it feels driving across the country – wind in your hair, and windows rolled down, and everything – and you just bump into different landmarks and different topography and different sorts of people.

So we wanted different sorts of writers, too. Not just novelists, but also journalists and graphic novelists, and we have a musician, and a filmmaker, and of course a cook. We also wanted it to vary in terms of the style of the pieces. There’s Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant piece about New York, for instance, which is in the form of dramatic dialogue. We had no idea he was going to do that. It was terrific. And the unlikeliest piece, I think, was Craig Taylor’s. He wrote about Delaware, and it’s an oral history, like Studs Terkel’s great books.

He’s spot-on about Taylor’s piece, and it may say something that the best piece in a book about America was written by a Brit. As I pointed out elsewhere, the better essays in State by State are the reported ones, and on that front the pieces by fiction writers tend to be letdowns (Myla Goldberg and Jhumpa Lahiri being, surprisingly, the worst offenders). But more than anything else the book is a bit of a mess—for every nicely turned piece by Ha Jin or Alison Bechdel there’s a clunker, none worse than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh‘s odd Ugly American piece, for which the state of South Dakota deserves an apology. (“‘Look at us,’ I shouted. ‘We’re trout fishing in South Dakota!'”)

Videos From the 2008 National Book Festival

I shot a few short videos of some of the authors I caught at yesterday’s National Book Festival. Not especially competently, I’m afraid—I’m working with a two-year-old personal digital camera. But the sound is better than I’d expected, and everybody here gets off a good line or two.

Neil Gaiman, responding to a question about whether his ego ever gets in the way of his work (1:36):

Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, reading her poem “Composition” (0:52):

James McBride, discussing one of the obvious models for his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna (2:12):

Geraldine Brooks, discussing the books that first got her interested in reading (2:21):

(The camera conked out before she got to the punchline. She was able to name the emotion she felt; it’s lust.)

Richard Price on writing for The Wire: (0:30):

Richard Price on writing dialogue (0:45):

Heller in Hebrew

Readerville points to an interesting story in Haaretz about the struggle to bring out a new Hebrew translation of Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22. The timing was right—the prior translation came out in 1971, and its publisher had been in decline. Yehuda Meltzer, head of Books in the Attic—which also put out the Harry Potter books in Israel—picked up the slack. But when it comes to translating English works into Hebrew, one must pick one’s spots:

According to Meltzer, he paid a relatively low price for the rights to the translation, apparently, several thousand dollars. “We paid a fairly ridiculous price given the inflated contracts that the big publishers have been dishing out of late,” he says. “In any case, I buy very few rights to fictional books in America and England. Both because I don’t want to get involved in auctions – it’s not worth it – and because in my opinion, English is actually the hardest language to render into Hebrew. It’s a rich, flexible and deep language. Israeli publishers think there is no problem translating from English, but in the end, it’s very hard to read Hebrew versions of books by Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Saul Bellow.”


So the bailout is foundering, the weather’s gonna to be awful, and Sarah Palin is scaring the bejesus out of everybody, but I’m still planning to attend the National Book Festival tomorrow on the National Mall. Likely tents to find me hunting for shelter in: Stanley Plumly, Neil Gaiman, Francine Prose, Richard Price, Louis Bayard, Paul Theroux. Tiki Barber, maybe not so much. Heading out yourself? Care to meet? Drop me a line.

Links: Curse Words

Dennis Lehane on just how easy it is to spend five years writing a historical epic: “How the fuck am I gonna finish this? What did I get myself into? This is going to be the one everyone figures out I’m full of shit.”

The publication date for Curtis Sittenfeld‘s American Wife in the U.K. has been moved up from Feb. 2009 to, uh, yesterday.

Jack Kerouac‘s early days as a football prospect and wannabe sportswriter.

Writing in Prospect, Julian Gough finds a way to whack David Foster Wallace and George Saunders simultaneously. The complaint—which you may have heard recently—is that a writer’s ambition and creativity gets stifled when he or she is planted in academia. Bring it, Julian:

[I]t happens to most American academic novelists (like the superbly gifted writer George Saunders who, at 49, has still never written a novel or left school.) They waste time on America’s debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn’t worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes.

Cesare Pavese, American Ambassador

The International Harold Tribune has a story (not reprinted from the NYT, apparently) on the legacy of Cesare Pavese, an Italian novelist, essayist, and translator who committed suicide in 1950. His home in Santo Stefano Belbo has been converted into a museum, which is set to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The article pays tribute to Pavese’s own writing, but also makes a case for him being the prime mover in bringing American literature to Italian readers during World War II:

Pavese’s translations of American novels by Joyce [sic], Dos Passos, Stein, Steinbeck and Faulkner, to name a few, and essays on American fiction also had a significant ripple effect during the years of Fascist rule.

“During full Fascism we read his translations and followed his cultural battles,” said Raffaele La Capria, an Italian writer and another recipient this year of the Grinzane Pavese prize. “For a young boy, they opened the horizons of unpredictability, holding out the promise of political and spiritual freedom.”

Claudio Gorlier, a writer and one of Italy’s foremost experts in Anglo-Saxon literature, added that, “entire generations of young Italians discovered America” because of Pavese’s “splendid and modern” translations.

He was apparently hugely ambitious in his tastes for material to translate. In the introduction (PDF) to New York Review Books’ The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, R.W. Flint suggests that such labor was a way to counter fascist indoctrination:

Pavese emerged from the conditioning of the Thirties, an era when the better part of Italian decency went gradually underground, speaking in his books a new language of his own: a terse, pungently oblique domestic language of “small” people living apparently small lives, the inflections of whose speech carry the full weight of the times. This kind of vigorous disguise, too vigorous for the muddled heads of officialdom, is an old Italian specialty, particularly in the north. During the Thirties and Forties, Pavese had translated some ten contemporary American novels, as well as Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, Moll Flanders, David Copperfield, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Crumley: “A Pot of Coffee and 100,000 Cigarettes”

Shortly after crime author James Crumley died last week, Washington Post obituary writer Patricia Sullivan hit her personal archive to find a clip of an interview she conducted with Crumley in 1985. She was a staffer at the Missoula, Mont., Missoulian at the time, and her piece gets at some of the novelist’s pugnacity:

“When I’m working, I can write anywhere,” he said. “In Guadalajara, I wrote a big portion of my first novel standing at the mantle in the living room while two marriages broke up around me and some guy wrote poetry at the top of his lungs.”

Things are a little quieter int he backyard shed where Crumley now pens mysteries, short stories and reviews. Rebuilt by graduate English students “with Ph.D’s in carpentry,” the room overlooks a dog pen and the backyard of his lower Rattlesnake neighbors. The room is cluttered with books, ashtrays, a stereo system and a half-dozen dictionaries, sitting squarely in front of the typewriter. It takes “a pot of coffee and 100,000 cigarettes” to get to work each day, he said.

Philip Roth Presents

Naturally, Nextbook has flooded the zone on Philip Roth’s new novel, Indignation. The site is following assessments of the book in its Filter, the Los Angeles TimesDavid J. Ulin contributes his own lengthy (middling) review, and there’s an interesting piece by Josh Lambert on how a rarely read early Roth story, “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” became a rarely seen episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The article points out that almost from the start, Roth wasn’t much for visual adaptations of any literary work, let alone his:

In 1957 and 1958, Roth wrote biting appraisals in The New Republic of two flashy adaptations of classic Ernest Hemingway novels. He lampooned The Sun Also Rises (1957), starring Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, by reviewing it in the form of a Hemingway parody (“Until they get to Spain it is a bad conversation piece. It is very slow until Spain”). A few months later he dismissed David O. Selznick’s A Farewell to Arms (1957) as “a spiritless, silly, and . . . embarrassing movie,” noting that Hemingway’s novelistic achievements would be “impossible . . . for a camera to convey.” Long before producers started banging on his door, before Richard Benjamin became Neil Klugman and Portnoy’s Complaint fetched $350,000 for its film rights, Roth had concluded that movies were irrelevant to his literary work, a notion made explicit years later when he told a producer, who had asked him what sort of involvement he wanted to have in the film adaptation of The Human Stain, that all he cared about was that the check cleared.

David Gessner’s Love-Hate Relationship

David Gessner is a nature writer who pays the bills by teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington. In today’s New York Times Magazine, he bites the hand that feeds. For all the virtues of teaching—a steady paycheck, smart colleagues—he’s bogged down by the duties assigned to a writer who’s supposed to be monkishly dedicated to fiction. And, now that creative writing departments have bloomed, he’s concerned that we’re building a nation of polite, academic writers:

I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something.

Less discussed here is whether a writing teacher who’s disengaged with—even resentful of—his or her students is the right person for a teaching gig, and if disinterested writing teachers are creating a generation of disinterested readers and writers. That’s impossible to measure, of course, but Gessner’s piece does speak to a clunky system that supports writers more that students but leaves both sides unhappy. Redoubles Effort to Become Worst Lit-Themed Social Networking Site on Earth

I received a chastising e-mail the other day from Red Room, the Bay Area-based literary site that promises me that I’ll be able to connect, maybe, with my favorite authors. “Starting September 20th, 2008, real names and real photos will be required for all members,” the note says.

This is a tactic drawn straight from Facebook, which is stubborn about making sure users use their government names. That led me to hope that maybe the site was going to allow users and authors to interact somehow. But as in January, when Red Room pitched itself as a MySpace for writers, or in February, when the site’s minders made clear that Amy Tan gets her own page but you don’t, the joint is still flailing. True, users do now get their own pages. But Ellen Swain Veen, Red Room “featured member,” how shall I get in touch with you? You are working on a “crime novel, short plays, and a non-fiction book for law students,” which is interesting, and you have a lovely photo of a cat. May I friend you or somehow get an update when that crime novel’s wrapped up? No, but I can send you a message that requires me to jump through a CAPTCHA hoop.

But at least I can get a message to Veen. If I want to interact with a big-name author, like, say Maxine Hong Kingston, I have precisely zero options. She’s written one blog post, last December. I’m not mad—she’s been busy. But is there any way for me to find out if she’ll ever write a second?

Not that I can tell, after reading Red Room editor Huntington W. Sharp‘s article about the improvements to the site. Which are modest: Updates are included on one page, but it still keeps its Berlin Wall between authors and members. Silly.