The Best of the 50s

Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)

It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?

Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:

“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”

Sandra Cisneros: Problem?

Those looking for another canary in the coalmine signaling that the book-publishing industry is having a rough go of it these days—not that you need much more evidence—might consider the case of the Edward James Olmos Houston Latino Book and Family Festival, which recently hosted its sixth and final event. The Houston Press reported earlier this month that festival founder Nuestra Palabra, a nonprofit supporting Latino writers, pulled the plug in part due to book-business economics:

In January, [Nuestra Palabra chief Tony Diaz] says, Continental Airlines stopped their sponsorship of nonprofit organizations and banking institutions pulled their support. Even book publishers, usually eager to have their authors appear at high-profile events like the EJOLBFF, stopped covering travel and appearance fees for authors.

The organization still has a reading series, though, and Diaz makes an interesting point to the Press about how bringing in brand-name Latino authors might force the organization to rethink how it promotes itself:

“Nuestra Palabra is bringing in Sandra Cisneros in to Houston in 2009, but she’s not just a Latino writer any more. She’s at the point where for her to be thought of as just a Latino writer is a disservice to her work and to other folks who can embrace her writing, even though they’re not Latino. So I think this is the time for us to come up with new ways of how to be authentic to who we are but also open up to other communities. It’s not enough to be multi-cultural anymore. We have to be multi-multi-cultural. We have to be multi-media.”

It’s a classic crisis: Go more mainstream and you court criticism that you’ve lost sight of your mission; stay small and you court criticism that you’re not doing enough to get the word out. Inviting Cisneros to speak hardly seems like it would ignite a contentious situation, but it’s funny what sort of battle lines get drawn in a bad economy.

Links: Playing Catch-up

Was Cincinnati’s “King of the Bootleggers” the model for Jay Gatsby?

Speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and drinking, the resort where he attempted to dry out is open to visitors.

J.D. Salinger turns 90 this week.

There are still a couple of days left in National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.

David Robson makes a nice case for Revolutionary Road, but the essay mainly served to remind me of the fine piece that J.R. Jones wrote for the Chicago Reader in 2003 about his relationship with Richard Yates in his later years. Jones’ piece is a lengthy, nicely turned study of what made Yates such an appealing personality, in spite of his much-documented prickliness and compulsions:

Yates went on living…staying in Tuscaloosa after his semester in the Strode House [as a writer-in-residence at the University of Alabama] was up–rent was cheap, and the writing department would pay him a small stipend to read student manuscripts. Whenever I talked to him about his situation he told me he had to make 66 and get on social security. He moved into a spartan two-room apartment near campus, on Alaca Place, and Dan Childress, a writing student who took care of Yates in innumerable ways, helped him buy a used car.
We students were glad to see him stay. He was precise and honest in his responses to our work, and he seemed to take us seriously as writers. He also understood one thing even some of our spouses didn’t–the time demands of the work, the need for long stretches of silence and solitude. “I think it probably is the hardest and loneliest profession in the world,” he told the Transatlantic Review in 1972, “this crazy, obsessive business of trying to be a good writer. None of us ever knows how much time he has left, or how well he’ll be able to use that time, or whether, even if he does use his time well, his work will ever withstand and survive the terrible, inexorable indifference of time itself.” Surely he envied us our time as much as we envied him his talent.

Slowing Down…

Though there’s some news today in Horace Engdahl stepping down as the head of the Nobel Prize’s literature committee (why can’t American commenters get as excited about this as the Swedes?), fact is, holiday plans and slow news weeks means it’s time to start ratcheting things back around here. I’ll pop my head up from time to time, I’m sure, but expect intermittent-at-best updates for the next two weeks.

Still! If you’re a D.C. local, you might be interested to know that the D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the highlights from the new additions are a wealth of events at Politics & Prose, including FSG editor Lorin Stein leading a discussion of Roberto Bolano‘s 2666 (Jan. 14), Jayne Anne Phillips (Jan. 23), and former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. (Jan. 26). Be well, and happy holidays.

Leveling With the Newbery Medal

Earlier this week the Washington Post published a much-discussed piece about the Newbery Medal, the annual award for children’s books that, critics say, are often inaccessible to their target audience. What I know about children’s literature couldn’t fit a thimble. (I actually wasn’t especially enthusiastic about books as a kid; it wasn’t until I started high school that I got religion, prompted by George Orwell‘s 1984 and, weirdly but quite forcefully, Margaret Atwood‘s Cat’s Eye.) But I appreciate the perspective of Karen Vanuska, a grade-school teacher and fine litblogger who explains what she’s confronting when she teaches a Newbery winner, Jerry Spinelli‘s Maniac Magee. Vanuska’s entire post is worth your time, but here’s an excerpt:

I have lots of students who are English learners and have other learning challenges and if I didn’t read this book aloud, they probably wouldn’t understand it on their own. Which goes to my argument that leveling books is some kind of crazy project that’s keeping a lot of people busy and well-paid but doesn’t help me that much in the classroom. This book is leveled for 5th grade readers based on some formula that is unknown to me. All I know is, I have to stop on nearly every page to explain the 1960’s urban slang to my students. Even my brightest students are struggling. Newbury winner or not, it should not be published without a glossary. Either that or it needs to be leveled at a much higher level — for students who have actually studied the 1960’s and understand the relevant race issues of that time.

Augie March Would Not Like to Be Your Facebook Friend

Review deadlines have slackened for me in the past few weeks, so I’ve been spending a few days taking care of a huge blind spot in my reading: Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March. I’m not sure how I’ve gotten along without it; in fact, it’s a little embarrassing to think that I’ve made any general statement about how class is portrayed in American literature without knowing Bellow’s big, beautiful book. March stumbles through life—in essence, the novel is a catalog of his screw-ups in work, family, and relationships—but he navigates it with his eyes wide open, and Bellow’s sentences overflow with astute observations about how your upbringing and your class and your temperament peg you in life, regardless of tax bracket.

March is an autodidact, and though his reading of the Great Books hasn’t improved his station, it’s allowed him to know it, which isn’t a small thing. That’s what he’s speaking to in the monologue below, as he talks to a friend about his experience working for an eccentric millionaire to research an inchoate tome about wealth and spiritual happiness. (Tentative title: The Needle’s Eye.) The passage below floored me, not just because it exemplifies Bellow’s famously sinuous sentences, but because it speaks so powerfully to the present moment, when there’s an ever-increasing amount of data and a greater concern about what good it is. Information overload has always been with us, yet nobody articulates its emotional impact quite like March:

“I thought if I knew more my problem would be simplified, and maybe I should complete my formal education. But since I’ve been working for Robey I have reached the conclusion that I couldn’t utilize even ten percent of what I already knew. I’ll give you an example. I read about King Arthur’s Round Table when I was a kid, but what am I ever going to do about it? My heart was touched by sacrifice and pure attempts, so what should I do? Or take the Gospels. How are you supposed to put them to use? Why, they’re not utilizable! And then you go and pile on top of that more advice and information. Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous. Anyway, there’s too much of everything of this kind, that’s come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track of, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me? I haven’t got that much head to master it all. I get carried away. It doesn’t give my feelings enough of a chance if I have to store up and become like an encyclopedia. Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that inside the walls of his own being. And all great experience would only take place within the walls of his being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all achievement would stay within those walls. And all glamour too. And even hate, monstrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would be only a terrible, hideous dream about existing. It’s better to dig ditches and hit other guys with your shovel than die in the walls.”

New Ward Just in ’09

Lots of folks are excited about the fact that novels by Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers are forthcoming in 2009. Rightfully so. But what’s got me stoked is the news that Ward Just will publish a new novel in July, titled Exiles in the Garden. From the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt catalog:

…the resonant story of Alec Malone, a senator’s son who rejects the family business of politics for a career as a newspaper photographer. Alec and his Swiss wife, Lucia, settle in Georgetown next door to a couple whose emigre gatherings in their garden remind Lucia of all the things Americans are not. She leaves Alec as his career founders on his refusal of an assignment to cover the Vietnam War.

Chapters Indigo has a little more information. Just is pretty much the only writer I trust to write a decent work of literary fiction set in Washington, D.C. This is great news.

Filming Fitzgerald

In advance of the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, Variety has a nice piece about Fitzgerald’s complicated relationship with Hollywood, and how hard it’s been to adapt his work for the screen. Among the folks tapped to comment are Gore Vidal and late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli, but the most salient quote about Fitzgerald adaptations comes from the guy in the corner office, Variety editor in chief Peter Bart:

Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart, who was [Robert] Evans’ right-hand man at Paramount [which produced the Robert Redford-starring adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”] and later produced “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the Hemingway novel, says Hemingway and Fitzgerald pose a trap. “If you rewrite them too greatly, people who loved the books will rise up in arms. You want to capture their great sense of setting, but you have to tamper with them because they’re not structured (for film). What’s seducing about the work is the quality of the prose, and that you can’t translate to film.”

The Great Dubya-Era Novel

In hunting for a novel that best exemplified life during the Bush years, Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff makes a not-bad choice with Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections; though the Franzen vs. Oprah = Obama vs. Bush argument is a bit of a stretch, the book is indeed a “warm social novel on an epic scale.” But I’m not wholly buying the assertion that, “Eventually someone will write a post-9/11 novel that successfully incorporates the attacks with the anxieties that were already simmering in our collective psyche in the summer of 2001.” I figured that’s what Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country accomplished, and he made it funny to boot.

Besides, I’m not convinced that the great post-9/11 novel needs to confront the matter head-on. A few other suggestions I would’ve tossed out, had I been in the story meeting:

Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio—As an allegory for the disconnect Americans felt from their government, Alarcon’s South American tragic fable captured the current mood of fear and anxiety.

Ward Just, Forgetfulness—An intimate profile of how terrorism hits close to home, and the frustrations in policing it.

Philip Roth, Exit Ghost—On top of precisely describing the feeling of profound disappointment in the wake of the ’04 election, it also neatly evoked the feeling of wanting to get the hell out of Dodge for a while.

Susan Choi, A Person of Interest—Without addressing post-9/11 terrorism directly, Choi’s dense novel gets at the identity crises that stem from terrorist provocations.

Paul Auster, Man in the Darkfor reasons already discussed

Others? I didn’t go hunting for post-9/11 novels, and I’m sure I missed plenty.

Links; Housekeeping

David Foster Wallace used his Amherst undergraduate thesis to dismantle a philosophical brand of fatalism. Quite successfully, to hear some scholars tell it.

Tobias Wolff‘s short story “Awake” is available in full on the London Times‘ Web site.

Jhumpa Lahiri
wins a lot of prize money. She gives a lot of it away.

The young, brilliant, intellectually and sexually tormented Susan Sontag.

Care to go on a train ride with Paul Theroux?

Bantam is reprinting Ernest Callenbach‘s ’70s cult novel, Ecotopia, which imagined a world of slow food and recycling bins years before such things got traction in American life. (Also: Nice to see the byline of Scott Timberg, who was recently laid off by the Los Angeles Times.)

Denis Johnson doesn’t have a damned clue what the future of the book is, and it’s anybody’s guess why he was invited onto a panel to discuss the matter. “He admitted to an audience member who wondered how much of the panel’s resistance to digital media was old fogeyism, ‘I think I can give you an exact figure on that: 87 percent. We’ve become irrelevant. We no longer point the way for the culture, but we’ll always be important to individuals. That’s the communication and always has been — between one individual, the writer, and another, the reader.'”


Some News About Me

When I started this blog in January, I stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, told myself that I would feed it at least once daily. Eventually I eased up on the throttle and took Saturdays off, then wound up using that day to update the D.C.-Area Readings list. (Some great events have recently been announced, by the way, especially the Nextbook reading series at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, featuring Etgar Keret and Rivka Galchen, among others.) Running a blog is addictive, not just because it forces you to keep an eye on a beat but because it introduces you to a whole crowd of friendly, supportive people. I’m flattered by the attention and subscribers and support my effort has received—especially from the litbloggers who welcomed my arrival to the blogosphere despite the fact that I showed up about five years late.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that things may get unsettled here in the coming weeks and months. Dec. 19 will be my last day at Washington City Paper, where I’ve worked for the past two years (following two years at its sister paper, the Chicago Reader). Starting in January I’ll be working at Associations Now, a magazine published by the D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives & the Center for Association Leadership. I’m excited about the change: I’ll be joining a group of smart people doing idea-driven journalism, working at a glossy, learning more about the nonprofit world, and hopefully finding a use for some of my more egghead-y reading on networks and organizational theory—subjects one winds up absorbing osmotically when there’s a sociologist in the house.

Happily, my new employer has no problem with my freelancing and blogging, though updates may not come as often as usual—the day job always comes first, and I’ll be spending some time getting up to speed with the new one. (And anyway, book reviewing and blogging has always been a sideline for me. With very rare exceptions, I never read or wrote about books at the office. The blogging was always completely separate.) The upside to all this, for me, is that it’s an opportunity for me to rethink this whole enterprise. If Twitter is teaching us anything, it’s that link journalism via blog has its limits; seeing as 90 percent of what this blog does is link journalism, I’ve been pondering what to do here in the way of interviews, essays, and more. (N.B.: I’ve updated the page for authors and publicists, both of whom are welcome to contact me directly regarding ARCs, readings, and interviews.)

I’ll see how things work out in the coming months. In the meantime, thanks to the many folks who read these posts, wrote in, suggested links, and commented. I’ll make this confounded thing work one way or another.