George Saunders, Going Big

Nina Siegal has posted the full text of an interview she conducted with George Saunders around the time of his 2006 story collection, In Persuasion Nation. The conversation is a smart and wide-ranging one, covering satire, the role of fiction in American society today, the post-9/11 novel, theme parks, the meaning of “experimental” literature, and more. I was particularly struck by Saunders’ cri de coeur about his own struggles with being both “popular” and “niche”:

[P]ersonally I’ve been frustrated to some extent by my inability to draw a bigger audience and I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about why this is. Is it because I’m so smart? That would be nice. But somehow I doubt it. Then I wonder is it because I am doing fancy-pants Elitist art moves, too insecure to be a real populist? Am I being punished for being a product and landlord of the MFA Ghetto? Possibly. Or is because the Masses are drones? Well, I think of Dickens: he did okay. But then I think of “Swapping Proctologists” and think, well, hmm, maybe they are Drones. My secret fear is that I am somehow writing in a way that both 1) pre-guarantees a small audience and 2) stems from some flaw in my personality, ie, I am not big-hearted enough to write something that ‘most’ (more?) people could read and enjoy and be moved by.

My resolution is to try and make my writing as big as I can while, at
the same time, recognizing that many of the best effects available in
fiction are highwire effects that the majority of readers might not be
ready for.

John Updike, RIP

As I’ve noted in a couple of places, I’ve been reading John Updike‘s Couples, so hearing the news of his death yesterday has been doubly disorienting to me. I’ve always had an affection for his work (I seem to be unusual among many commentators in preferring his fiction to his criticism), so I feel just as sad about his death as anyone, but there’s something strange to go from hearing the news to reading the closing pages of that 1968 novel; it only emphasizes the fact that few writers were so good at writing about our foibles, about how we struggle with sex and religion and family, but the elegance of his writing never meant he went easy on his characters.

I saw Updike speak for the first time last May—he was giving a speech about American art at the Warner Theatre. (A blog post I wrote about the event for the Washington City Paper has a link to the text of the speech.) The event was put together by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which meant that it had a sort of affair-of-state import to it—a color guard and everything. It was reassuring to me to see a novelist get treated with that kind of gravitas. Who gets to be the recipient of that kind of treatment now? Ten years from now?

A lot of links and appreciations are making the rounds. I don’t want to add much more to the noise, but a few links of note:

Christianity Today points to some of its theologically driven features and interviews with Updike.

Erica Wagner‘s fine appreciation in the London Times: “Whether the reader thinks his frank style is tongue-in-cheek, rococo or simply always in contention for a Bad Sex Award depends on your perspective but Updike was in the vanguard of writers who kicked down the door of American bedrooms everywhere.”

The Harvard Crimson reports out Updike’s college days.

Karen Vanuska digs up Updike’s first published piece in the New Yorker.

A contemporary review of Couples in the Nation, which if nothing else speaks to the backlash the success of the novel engendered. (Yes, it’s long, with a lot of characters to keep track of, but to say that there’s “no tension between him and his subject, no stylistic consistency, and no interest for the reader” is overstating things badly.)

Thomas Mallon: “Perhaps the keenest compliment one can pay him as a man is to say that his life will make for a lousy biography.” (That said, Self-Consciousness is a very compelling memoir.)

Joel Achenbach writes an appreciation of Updike that expresses his disappointment in last year’s The Widows of Eastwick, but: “it had its rewards, not least of which was seeing Updike channel the diminished dreams and chronic pains of his aging characters. The reader thinks: So that’s what it’s like, getting old.”

“More Streptococci!”

Matthew Yglesias and Robert Farley have recently pondered the question of why the devastating Spanish flu of 1918 hasn’t been covered much by American writers. Neither of the posts (or their comment threads) mention the first novel that came to mind: Myla Goldberg‘s 2004 novel, Wickett’s Remedy, an interesting (if not entirely successful) attempt to tell a personal story about the epidemic with a few narrative tricks thrown in. But that doesn’t settle the question of why there was so little writing about the epidemic around the time it happened.

I don’t have an answer to that. But, looking for a little guidance, I stumbled over an interesting passage in The Gun and the Pen, a 2008 book by Keith Gandal about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner‘s responses to war in their writing. Gandal locates a passage in, of all places, Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer that, while not exactly thorough, does invokes the epidemic to bolster his antiwar critique:

Forward! Time presses…Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines! More and more of it—until the whole fucking works is blown to smithereens, and the earth with it!

Gandal explains: “‘More streptococci!’ is probably Miller’s attempt to reference the influenza epidemic of 1918 that was spread by the Great War and killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and 300,000 to 500,000 Americans—at least two and a half times the 122,000 U.S. soldiers that died in the war, and around half of those combat deaths are also attributable to influenza.”

What’s the Matter With “Hapworth”?

A story today in the Washington Post about Alexandria, Va., small publisher Orchises Press feels like a get that didn’t get got: J.D. Salinger recently turned 90, Orchises had the rights to Salinger’s never-published-in-book-form novella, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” and rumors have recently circulated that a book version was forthcoming. Orchises owner Roger Lathbury declines to discuss specifics of l’affaire d’Hapworth, which created quite a stir back in 1996, when the small publisher announced it landed the book’s rights.

So if Lathbury isn’t talking Salinger, what’s left is a nice if unsurprising profile of a small publisher, complete with the reporter following Lathbury to UPS and Kinko’s. (The owner of a small press has to do it all!) If he’s wounded by whatever happened with “Hapworth,” he’s not letting on: “”I don’t know how much that would have changed my life — I got more manuscripts for certain after that. . . . People were calling from South Africa,” he said. “I really am focused on what I have published and what I am going to publish.”

Links: Naming Rights

The Mississippi University for Women is pondering a name change—in part because, well, it’s a co-ed school. Among the three proposed names on the table is Welty-Reneau University, named after cofounder Sally Reneau and author Eudora Welty, who attended the school for two years. “I think it should be Welty University. That name seems like it would attract more males here,” says one student. Huh?

A high-school district in Newman, Calif., in the state’s central valley, is discussing whether to ban Rudolfo Anaya‘s novel Bless Me, Ultima (recently selected for the NEA’s Big Read program), because of profanity. Relevant quote: “Trustee RoseLee Hurst said the foul language is tantamount to violence and she’s an advocate for removing violence from schools.”

Meanwhile, Washington teacher John Foley thinks it’s time to phase out To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men from English curricula. At least he has some suggestions for replacements.

The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards were announced last night.

The winner of the Newbery Medal will be announced tomorrow.

The American Booksellers Association announced that 69 independent bookstores opened in 2008. No work on how many had to close its doors in that time, but things can’t be in complete crisis if Georgetown can handle a new shop dedicated to foreign literature and works in translation.

The Washington Monthly tapped a variety of authors and pundits to recommend books that President Obama should read. The list is stuffed, as you might expect, with a lot of policy tomes. But a few novels sneak in: Joel Garreau pitches Huck Finn (sorry, Mr. Foley!), Jeff Greenfield suggests a Washington novel I haven’t heard of, Garrett EppsThe Floating Island, David Ignatius recommends Graham Greene‘s The Quiet American. And George Pelecanos smartly submits that the new president get to know the best fiction writer living in D.C.:

I would recommend that President Obama read Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. It’s a short-story collection that brilliantly illuminates the humanity and struggles of everyday Washingtonians. Despite the phony Washington bashing during the campaign, D.C. is as Main Street as any place in America, and just as deserving of federal attention. The District could be a model for reform. A leader with Barack Obama’s intelligence and enthusiasm has the ability to make that happen.

The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Among the events coming up this week: Alex McLennan and James Matthews (whose collection of generally military-themed short stories, Last Known Position, I recommend) today at the Writer’s Center; Leonard Downie Jr. Monday at Politics & Prose (I recently reviewed his debut novel, The Rules of the Game, for Washington City Paper); the aforementioned George Pelecanos, also Monday at the Arlington Public Library; and former president Jimmy Carter, Wednesday at Borders Baileys Crossroads. Also, the Politics & Prose February schedule is now out, and anybody interested in getting tickets for Malcolm Gladwell’s Feb. 5 event at the Avalon Theatre should probably get on the horn to P&P ASAP: A former Postie who writes books that appeal to businesspeople and policy wonks, coming to a town that’s home to the Post and that’s full of businesspeople and policy wonks is bound to be a big deal.

Updike Agonistes

I haven’t read much of John Updike‘s recent work—the shallowness of Terrorist, combined with the middling-to-scathing reviews of many of his other recent books, has sent me in other directions. But I still root for the man, partly because his Rabbit novels had such a strong pull on me as a teenage reader. Partly inspired by Rod Liddle‘s recent praise for 1968’s Couples, I’m hunkering down with it now for real, and very much enjoying it—I’d forgotten that Updike had (has?) an experimental streak as a counterweight to those foursquare, WASP-y people and plots, and the stream-of-consciousness passages in Couples get deep into the way his main character, Piet Hanema, wrestles with the abstracted mess of morality and need that’s attached to his infidelity.

All of which is to say that, despite all the chatter about his declining talents, it’s a little sad to see Updike himself somewhat copping to them. In an interview with the McClatchy Papers, he discusses writing at age 76, which for him means stubborn persistence in the face of a few new infirmities:

I notice some signs of mental deterioration. My memory isn’t as good; I can’t think of words. I might forget what one character’s eyes are. Maybe each novel might be the last — but no, I’m not quite ready yet. There’s still the illusion that I’m still learning this curious trade, for whichwhere’s very little coherent instruction. I never once believed in writing schools; this is very much an amateurish endeavor, so that the chance of growing in it is still there for a 76-year-old.

Downie Review in City Paper

My review of The Rules of the Game, the debut novel by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., is now up on Washington City Paper‘s Web site. Excerpt:

[C]hief among the many politicos swimming in Downie’s dense plot is Susan Cameron, a vice president who rises to the Oval Office following her running mate’s death. That subplot is engaging enough, but Downie knows that those themes aren’t enough to make for an interesting thriller. If he wanted to expound on what it’s like to play hardball with military and intelligence agencies, he’d be better off writing a memoir, and if he wanted to talk politics he could have saved himself a lot of typing and gone on C-SPAN, referring readers to books by his former staffers (“Newspaper editor turned novelist” and “special guest on Washington Journal” generate about the same celebrity wattage). So, to keep things moving as a work of fiction, he embeds a third game—inappropriate fucking.

If you’re in D.C., Downie will discuss the book Monday, Jan. 26, at Politics & Prose.

Stray Thoughts on Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores

Michael Muhammad Knight‘s The Taqwacores is a clunky novel: Knight has an artless style, his characters tend to be more talkers than doers, and their collective vision of punk rock never seems to look past 1983 (though somebody in the Buffalo group house where it’s set has a copy of Mermaid Avenue lying around). But like so much punk literature, it gets over on sheer enthusiasm and nerve, and it’s not hard to see why the book practically invented a subculture out of whole cloth: Since it was self-published in 2003 by Knight, a converted Muslim, its vision of a then-mythical Islamic punk scene in the United States has inspired a happening-for-real Islamic punk scene. The Taqwacores then found a home with an indie publisher, got another one in the U.K. (though not without some censoring), and gets a bigger publishing platform this month through Soft Skull Press, following features on Knight and taqwacore in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The story, for me, is surprising and heartening. My interest in punk was always more as a reader and a listener than as any kind of participant—I thought I had a pretty sweet gig back in the mid-’90s when the East Bay Express would regularly send me to cover Gilman Street shows—but there was a lot of great reading in that world. Big clunky books like Joe Carducci‘s Rock and the Pop Narcotic and slim personal fanzines like Cometbus—the latter of which seems the obvious model for The Taqwacores. Aaron Cometbus was an East Bay punk whose zine was stuffed with personal stories about roadtrips, breakups, arguments, and shows, bolstered by the author’s willingness to go anywhere and hang with anybody, even if it ended in disaster. Especially if it ended in disaster—winding up broke in, say, some crummy Seattle neighborhood with a busted bike and a disappeared friend—because at least you had a story to tell later.

Cometbus was never much on religious doctrine. But that’s the kind of spirit that The Taqwacores‘ narrator, Yusef Ali, is channeling. A shy Pakistani-American studying engineering at a Buffalo-area university, he lives at a run-down house full of Muslim punks to avoid having to live at a more traditional Muslim student center. The house’s (and the novel’s) design puts Yusef into conflict a variety of philosophies about Islam—most powerfully in Umar, a strict constructionist about the Koran (“2:219” is tattooed on his neck, referring to an ayat regarding drinking and gambling) and Rabeya, a young woman who wears a burqa but who excises passages she disagrees with from her Koran. She tells Yusef why she struck an ayat that prescribes wife-beating, though he argues that the passage can be interpreted numerous ways:

“Yeah Yusef, I know. I went through that ayat up and down. I looked at what all the scholars said, even progressives like Asma Barlas; did you know that in that context, the word daraba might not even mean ‘to beat?’ It could also mean ‘to prevent.’ Sure, I did all the gymnastic tap dancing around that verse a desperate Muslima could do. Finally I said, fuck it. If I believe it’s wrong for a man to beat his wife, and the Quran disagrees with me, then fuck that verse. I don’t need to stretch and squeeze it for a weak alternative reading, I don’t need to excuse it with historical context, and I sure as hell don’t need to just accept it and go sign up for a good ol’ fashioned bitch-slapping. So I crossed it out. Now I feel a whole lot better about that Quran.”

If the novel seems too carefully engineered to set up these arguments, that’s the point—to arrange a push and pull over doctrine, heritage, culture, sex, and freedom. Indeed, the novel culminates in a sort of punk-rock summit over doctrine that ends with one of the more provocative incidents of gobbing at a concert imaginable. To that end, The Taqwacores works more as a manifesto than as a work of fiction, but how influential would the book be if it were merely a manifesto? How many Islamic punk bands would come together if Knight simply groused about the lack of them? The best way to create the world you want, Knight argues, is to show people your model for it. That seems especially true for Islam: Knight knows a closed-off culture when he sees one, and he makes Yusef a stand-in for that closing off; he’s so out-of-touch with himself that he needs somebody to shove a Victoria’s Secret catalog in his hands to give him license to masturbate. That scene is there for a reason—however crude a metaphor it might be, it’s symbolic of Knight’s argument that a culture evolves only when it recognizes that it’s free to use its imagination.

Soft Skull publishes Knight’s memoir, Impossible Man, in April. For a sense of taqwacore in action, Al Jazeera English aired a segment on it last month:

Links: Clock’s Ticking

Edgar Allan Poe turns 200. Take the quiz, or buy the stamp.

Moby-Dick‘s influence on artist Frank Stella.

Gerald Early discusses his job as editor of the brand-new “Best African American Essays” and “Best African American Fiction” series. E. Lynn Harris guest-edited the first edition of the latter series; Nikki Giovanni is handling next year’s.

Richard Ford bids the Bush administration farewell in the Guardian.

And speaking of the Guardian: If you wanted to read Audrey Niffenegger‘s online graphic novel The Night Bookmobile but had a hard time navigating its clunky interface, John Dunlevy has assembled a helpful table of contents.

Thanks to Very Short List for pointing to Daily Routines, which gathers up anecdotes on the work lives of famous people. The section for writers, as you might imagine, draws heavily on Paris Review interviews—among those included are Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Ernest Hemingway. But let’s take a look at Pauline Kael, who offers a useful reminder of the first principles of good writing:

[S]taring at the piece in horror and exclaiming at her own ineptitude, she would immediately begin tearing it apart, scissoring and recombining the paragraphs, writing in new observations and jokes in the margins or above the lines, at which point the piece would be typed again. The process continued without interruption at the office where, like Proust after an injection of caffeine, she would assault the galleys, rearranging and rewriting, adding and subtracting still more jokes–on and on, until the pages were reluctantly yielded to the press.


The D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the notable events coming up in a very notable week in Washington: Alice Walker Monday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; Iraqi-born artist and writer Wafaa Bilal Thursday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; and Jayne Anne Phillips, discussing her brilliant new novel, Lark & Termite, Friday at Politics & Prose. As always, your tips and recommendations for the readings page are welcome.

NEA Reports Increase in Number of People Who Want to Say They Enjoy Reading Books

Thanks to Mobylives, I now realize that Caleb Crain has a blog, and a very good one. His post on the National Endowment for the Arts’ new Reading on the Rise (PDF) report is an essential read not just as a primer on the findings, but as a tonic to some of the inaccurate, even glib coverage that the report has inspired. Like Crain, I’m a little skeptical about interpreting the announced numbers as a new reading boom, and he gets at one issue that I haven’t seen other commentators address. Namely, response bias:

The sticky part about the measurement of reading, sociologically, is that reading is a prestige activity. People tend to lie and say they do more of it than they do. As the afterword to the new report points out, the NEA in the last few years has reached out to millions of Americans with brand-new, well-funded programs to encourage reading. In the fall of 2007 it released a report on reading’s decline that got lots of attention from journalists like me. Thanks in part to the NEA, literacy was a big news story in 2007 and 2008. I even saw it referred to on television, and I don’t watch much television. All of this is worthy and to the good. But it’s possible that in raising people’s awareness of the importance of reading, the NEA encouraged them to exaggerate their reading habits. With a survey like the NEA’s, which relies on self-reporting, there’s no way to know for sure whether reading habits themselves were changed. It’s as if there were a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work here. A government agency can either measure reading habits or intervene in them, but if it tries to do both, it runs the risk of measuring no more than the spread of its intervention message.