Danielle Steel has a blog, desperate writers spot opportunity to plug their books in the comments.
Throwing another log onto the fire regarding the micro-controversy that Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country doesn’t deserve an NBA nomination because it’s not really a new novel: “He began laughing as he read his own words, admitting that he hadn’t read the book for a long time.”
And Jonathan Franzen doesn’t want you to get off your damn cell phone so much as he wants you to stop saying “I love you” into it. The whole of modern American culture is all about TMI, he says:
[J]ust as I can’t help blaming cellular technology when people pour parental or filial affection into their phones and rudeness onto every stranger within earshot, I can’t help blaming media technology for the national foregrounding of the personal. Unlike in, say, 1941, when the United States responded to a terrible attack with collective resolve and discipline and sacrifice, in 2001 we had terrific visuals. We had amateur footage and could break it down frame by frame. We had screens to bring the violence raw into every bedroom in the country, and voice mail to record the desperate final calls of the doomed, and late-model psychology to explicate and heal our trauma. But as for what the attacks actually signified, and what a sensible response to them might look like, attitudes varied. This was the wonderful thing about digital technology: No more hurtful censoring of anybody’s feelings! Everybody entitled to express his or her own opinion! Whether or not Saddam Hussein had personally bought plane tickets for the hijackers therefore remained open to lively debate. What everybody agreed to agree on, instead, was that the families of 9/11’s victims had a right to approve or veto plans for the memorial at Ground Zero. And everybody could share in the pain experienced by the families of the fallen cops and firefighters. And everybody agreed that irony was dead. The bad, empty irony of the ’90s was simply “no longer possible” post-9/11; we’d stepped forward into a new age of sincerity.
The third issue of Slice Magazine, a literary journal edited by New York book editors Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson, has the theme of “In Translation.” The mag’s interpretation is a pretty loose one (“our lives are constantly in translation,” says the editors’ note), which leads to the occasional awkward question. (To Kathryn Harrison: “How would you, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, describe the process of [or state of being in] translation?”). And despite including a few brief interviews with translators (including Natasha Wimmer, who’s worked on Roberto Bolano‘s books), none of the fiction in the issue is translated from another language.
Still, there’s lots to like, and in the heart of the issue is an interview with Andrew Sean Greer that addresses the matter of translation head-on. (The online version is only an excerpt of the interview in the print issue.) He discusses providing a visual aid for translators of his latest book, The Story of a Marriage (reviewed):
I actually write a note to translators, when (and if) they contact me. I tell them to feel absolutely free to go with their own sense of voice and poetry and not go for a literal translation. It is more important to me that the tone and spirit of the book translate than the actual words. That’s a harder job for them, actually. I send them photographs and things so they get the sense of the book as I wrote it. [I] have a number of photographs of Playland by the Sea in San Francisco, which is in the book, but also one particular photograph of a woman with an umbrella sitting by a roaring ocean. That one is not literally in the book, but is in tune with the tone of it. Tells them what I was seeing, as a writer.
I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago’s English department during the early ’90s, a time and place that made me the unwitting victim of the large-scale warfare going on among cultural academics at the time. (Roger Rosenblatt did a nice sendup of it in his recent novel, Beet, which I’ve noted before.) I dutifully hunkered down with a copy of Cultural Studies, accepted Jean Baudrillard‘s every lecture about the tacky, shallow culture I grew up in, pretended to know what Fredric Jameson was on about, then gurgled up a B.A. paper about White Noise that I’m sure I’d be horribly embarrassed to read now.
And I abandoned any ambition I may have had about continuing in academia. Would I have reconsidered had I known the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics was around? As the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Carlin Romano notes in a field report from the ALSC’s recent convention in Philadelphia, the organization was founded in 1993 precisely to get away from the jargon- and j’accuse-heavy world of college lit departments.
The article’s headline suggests a “culture war armistice,” but the article doesn’t delve too deeply into how hot the war became. And I’m curious to know how much of the tensions between the ALSC and the Modern Language Association (MLA) revolved around matters of race and gender. Many of the arguments at the time involved blowing up the traditional canon and decoupling lit studies from dead white guys—a noble goal, though at the time it made this young straight Midwestern white guy feel a little guilty walking into the classroom at times. Romano’s interviewing suggests that the the MLA and ALSC got along on that front, but it was such a fraught time that I have my suspicions:
Opposing “identity politics” – which drove some academic departments to represent almost every ethnic literature on syllabi and through faculty appointments – the ALSC, without opposing broadening, stood for diverse critical approaches.
It urged avoidance of jargon, attention to details of texts before burying them in subtexts, and respect for commonsense interpretations of literature.
The group’s founders, [ALSC President Morris] Dickstein said, “were sticking more to aesthetic criteria than a kind of affirmative-action view of the canon. I don’t think anyone had a problem with the figures who were rediscovered for multicultural reasons, like Zora Neale Hurston, who turned out to be really good.”
Wallace, who left behind a suicide note, had a “history of depression with two prior suicide attempts,” his wife told a coroner’s investigator. Wallace, best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” had last seen his psychiatrist two weeks before his death, and been prescribed several drugs. The report also notes that Wallace had previously undergone 12 electroshock therapy treatments.
NPR’s Web site has an extended excerpt from Nathaniel Rich‘s debut novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, a book I very much admired. In a related interview, Rich notes how he wrote the novel in secret, which may have encouraged the strangeness that infuses its pages:
“I thought maybe, because I wasn’t talking about it … the book itself was getting crazier and crazier and crazier and going into some strange part of my mind — because it wasn’t being exposed to an outside reader who might inject some kind of logicality into it,” Rich says.
“I spent a long time reducing the craziness factor to a more manageable … amount,” he says. “I was the first through 12th reader.”
Interviewer Rick Kleffel has a longer chat with Rich about the novel on his Web site.
Per Wästberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, spoke at Harvard last week, playing it both ways regarding his colleague Horace Engdahl: American literature is provincial, yes, but: “[Engdahl] said many things out of frustration at the end of an interview…that were not wise,” Wästberg said. “I regret that.”
Lionel Shriver to fiction writers who don’t use quotation marks because doing so would compromise the elegance of your dialogue or some other such horsehockey: “Knock it off!”
Richard Russotalks about working with Paul Newman, abandoning academia, and, mostly, his writing habits, which he gets at by way of the habits of John Cheever, who wrote in a basement storage room:
“He brought a sandwich and sat there in his underwear,” Russo remarked. “Mid-day he’d have his sandwich, edit what he had written, retype it and put it into a box. At 5 he’d get dressed and ride up in the elevator with the same people. He did this five days a week. I don’t necessarily recommend that routine, but the point of the story is that writing’s a job and you have to treat it like any other job. There will be times if you’re talented and lucky where you will be visited by inspiration, but you’ll discover it doesn’t change your habits all that much.”
Mark SarvascaughtMarilynne Robinson discussing her new novel, Home, at the Los Angeles Public Library last night. My favorite of her comments that evening: “I don’t like plot very much—please contain your surprise. … It becomes a big machine that carries everything after it.” Sarvas also shot a brief video of Robinson reading from Home:
Yesterday New York University hosted a memorial for David Foster Wallace attended by fellow writers, publishers, editors, and agents, including Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders. Sarah Weinman has a thoughtful summary of the event in which she expresses some reasonable concern about the whole thing being overdone. “Every time letters were mentioned or read from, I projected to the inevitable book containing DFW’s edited correspondence,” she writes. “There are public memorials slated for Vancouver, Arizona and probably many other places. But how much is too much? When does group memorial stop being genuine and start being disingenuous?”
On a different note: My current object of book lust is University of Chicago Press’ forthcoming The Chicagoan, a lengthy, extended tribute to a short-lived Jazz Age cultural magazine of the same name. The PDF sampler of some of the magazine’s pages floored me—the magazine’s model is clearly the New Yorker, but there’s plenty of evidence that its makers knew they were in a working-class town, even if the target audience was the folks in charge. (H/T Pete Lit)
Rivka Galchen, author of an excellent debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and nominee for Canada’s Governor General’s award for fiction (she was born in Toronto and lives in New York), registers a complaint about America’s literary patriarchy: “[I]n Canada, more than half of the prominent Canadian writers are women, whereas in the U.S. it’s just boys, boys, boys—and not even manly boys. I mean, we have a lot of great writers down here but I’m sort of ashamed about that.”
E.L. Doctorowrecalls his “assault on the boundaries between fact and fiction.”
Joyce Carol Oatesreports back from Las Vegas’ Liberace Museum.
Galleys for books coming out in 2009 have begun making the rounds, and I’m curious what the response will be to Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, a somber and knotty but very affecting novel about a day in the life of a rural Chinese town during the tail end of Maoism. (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” recently published in the New Yorker, isn’t an excerpt.) Li, a Beijing-born writer now living in Oakland, Calif., has gotten a little more attention lately for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Wayne Wang’s recent adaptation of one of her short stories, though it hasn’t done much business at the box office. A companion film also based on a Li short story, The Princess of Nebraska won’t do business at the box office at all. Wang released it on YouTube earlier this month:
Regardless of how much either film earns, the experience of making them at least exposed how Chinese censorship remains alive and well. Over the summer Li wrote an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle about what happened when a Chinese investor wanted a stake in the film version of Prayers:
Not long after I finished the script, Wayne told me that one of the top entertainment companies in China had expressed interest in partially funding the film. Soon preproduction began, and the film was set to shoot in late September. But everything comes with a price. As the shooting date drew near, the Chinese investors politely requested a line of dialogue about the Tiananmen Square protest be taken out of the script. Thinking we could sneak the idea back in a less explicit way, we obliged. But soon another request arrived, and another, asking for more lines to be cut. By the sixth request we decided that, as independent artists, we could not work like this. A week before shooting was to start, the investors withdrew their money. The last line they had asked to be cut: “Communism is a good thing. Only it has fallen into some bad hands.”
The latest issue of GQ has a feature by novelist Richard Powers, who agreed to have his entire genome sequenced to a) learn more about the process and b) see if he’s at serious risk for any diseases. As for a), it’s clear that getting our entire genomes mapped is becoming cheaper and faster, privacy issues be damned. As for b), if you can tolerate GQ‘s clunky web site, which breaks out the story onto 21 pages, the whole thing is worth your time. A sample:
I ask [George Church, director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School] if genomicists will ever be able to look at a person’s alleles and deduce something about his or her temperament. I have in mind the novelist’s territory, those mysterious components—warmth, spontaneity, humor—that, however uncomfortable it makes us to admit, seem to be somewhat to largely heritable. Will a genetic signature ever help us understand the origin of high-level behavioral traits? Church gazes off into the distance, with that look of pure experimental pleasure. “Well, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between high-level behavioral traits, low-level behavioral traits, and physical traits,” he says. “They’re all physical, in some sense.”