Joyce Carol Oates’ Rough Year

Joyce Carol Oates is making the interview rounds again—she’s about to release a new story collection, Dear Husband, which, oddly, doesn’t get mentioned in Chauncey Mabe‘s interview with her for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Doubly odd, because Topic A is the death of Oates’ husband, Raymond J. Smith, last year:

An English professor, scholar and editor of The Ontario Review, Smith shielded Oates, helping make her prodigious output possible.

“I’m living alone now, so I’m literally taking care of the household things he did,” Oates says. “He took care of them well, but really quietly. Suddenly all the finances fell to me, which is stressful.”

Though she notes in the interview that her infamous productivity has gone down since Smith’s death, this is still a busy year for her: A film version of her novella, Rape: A Love Story, is in the works, the Oates Web site Celestial Timepiece is making much of the fact that 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of her first published professional work, and more novels are in the pipeline. In September she’ll publish Little Bird of Heaven, which she described to San Diego CityBeat last November as “a love story in the guise of a mystery; or a mystery in the guise of a love story. Mostly it is an elegy mourning the passing of a way of life in a small city in upstate New York, hard hit by the economic recession of recent decades.” And in January 2010 she’s publish A Fair Maiden, a novel about a young girl who becomes a painter’s model.

At any rate, the pleasure in writing is still there for her, based on a few comments she made to the UK Guardian recently. You have to do it for love, she says, because there’s little point in doing it for money: “A prose fiction writer’s hourly wage, broken down into units, would be in the modest range of the US minimum wage of the 1950s—approximately $1 per hour.”

Links: Stranded

Vanderbilt University’s Jay Clayton teaches a class that I wouldn’t dream of skipping: Biotechnology and Culture: From Victorian Eugenics to Contemporary Genomics, whose syllabus includes Middlesex, Cloud Atlas, White Teeth, Blade Runner, and a whole lot more. That gobstoppingly excellent reading and viewing list is bolstered by a fine blog that’s currently drilling into some plot points of Richard PowersThe Gold Bug Variations. (via)

If you’d prefer a primer in the basics, Yale University has posted 26 videos of Amy Hungerford’s course in the American Novel since 1945.

In the Daily Beast, Laura Lippman posts an good list of five of her favorite works of fiction, which includes books by Jack Pendarvis, Philip Roth, Kate Atkinson, Megan Abbot, and Herman Wouk. (Haven’t heard a plug for that last author in quite a while.) (via)

I don’t have the patience to read all the squabbling, but apparently fantasy author Elizabeth Bear launched quite a kerfuffle about racism in her genre.

Which has, in turn, prompted an assertion by an anonymous industry insider that publishing in general has a race problem.

The Second Pass, a new Web site dedicated to reviewing new books and revisiting old ones, has just launched. Looks promising.

The NEA’s Big Read honcho, David Kipen, promises he’ll eat a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird if he can’t get all 128 residents of Kelleys Island, Ohio, to read the book. (I picture a tragic scene where the last holdout, after hours of browbeating, breaks down in tears and cries, “I never learned to read!”) This should come in handy for prep work:

Just a Regular Guy

In the new Bookforum, Richard Ford addresses the question of whether his three Frank Bascombe novels were intended to make their hero into an American everyman. He says he’s flattered whenever the subject comes up, but the question also seems to raise his back hairs a little—on top of seeing the idea as too simplistic, he also fears that it may put off some people thinking of reading him for the first time. He writes: “I realize I may not be telling a prospective reader exactly what she or he wants to know about these books, imagined as a ‘trilogy,’ but am only saying what’s on my mind as I’ve begun to think about them all together for the first time—and wanting to free a new reader from some binding and unlikable expectancies, while admitting him to better ones.”

As somebody who hasn’t gotten to the Bascombe novels—a sad admission given this site’s nameplate, I know—I can say that I’ve never been put off from reading the books because critics saw something emblematic in them. If anything that made them more appealing, like an opportunity to meet Rabbit Angstrom’s brighter, more thoughtful cousin. Ford makes a good point, though, that intent is everything in this case—that deliberately trying to create an everyman type (unless you’re Philip Roth) is setting yourself up for failure. The best part of the essay describes how Bascombe tried to force himself into the narrative of Independence Day, and Ford’s ultimately failed attempts to keep him from knocking down the door:

[O]ver that time I began to notice that all the father’s projected calculations about life and events seemed, in my notes, to “sound” like those of Frank Bascombe—the character who’d narrated The Sportswriter. I made dogged efforts to scuttle all thought of a “linked” book. I was fearful of helplessly writing that first novel over again; fearful of having more ambition than skill or sense; fearful of gloomy failure. And yet these fears finally succumbed to the recognition that to be given a “voice” and with it an already-plausible character who can transact the complex world in reasonably intelligent, truthful, even mirthful ways was just too much of a gift from the writing gods to decline. And so Independence Day, after some considerable prewriting adjustments to my original plan, came into existence.

English Into Arabic

Last fall I made a brief mention of Kalima, an effort by the United Arab Emirates to translate books from English into Arabic. At the time, the organization was working in conjunction with the National Book Festival to scout for suggestions of great American literature to include in its series. On the evidence of a recent press release, they made some pretty impressive choices. Below are Kalima’s picks:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Not all Americans, you’ll notice—the release mentions seven authors total from the U.S. were included. A little googling reveals that Publishers Lunch has reported a few more recent rights purchases by Kalima, including Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Robinson’s Housekeeping

Mark Twain’s Holy Writ

In 1905 Mark Twain wrote “The War-Prayer,” a brief short story with a straightforward pacifist message. Its criticism of jingoism—and the use of religion as a blunt instrument to support it—wouldn’t seem to be so terribly provocative that it couldn’t find a publisher, and by that point Twain’s reputation was so firmly established that it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t get anything he wrote to see the light of day. But Twain wrote it at a very jingoistic time, in the midst of the Philippine-American War (Stephen Kinzer‘s Overthrow provides a great backgrounder on how propagandistic that little-discussed era was); Harper’s Bazaar passed on the story, saying it was unfit for a woman’s magazine, and contractual issues prevented Twain from shopping it far elsewhere. “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time,” Twain wrote to a friend. “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”

Twain was right about the piece remaining unpublished in his lifetime. (Probably right about the dead and the truth, too.) The piece wasn’t published until 1923. It’s enjoyed a second life since then, especially among antiwar protesters, and in 2006 its reputation was solid enough that Mark Twain Studies, a Japan-based journal dedicated to the author, devoted a whopping 26 articles on the story, along with republications of the story’s original manuscript (PDF) and typescript (PDF). A new academic journal based at Stanford University, Journal of Transnational American Studies, has now seen fit to republish the whole shebang; I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing, but just bouncing around it’s clear that there’s a wealth of great material inside. John J. Han discusses how the piece was repurposed (PDF) for a Babylon 5 episode; Michael J. Kiskis connects the story to Twain’s other antiwar writing, and to post-9/11 attitudes (PDF); and Twain biographer Ron Powers borrows some words from William Dean Howells to locate (PDF) just what it was about the story that made it so uniquely Twain, and what it is about America that makes the story’s message so easy to ignore:

“The War-Prayer” fully illustrates William Dean Howells’s shrewd analysis of what made Mark Twain’s diction transformative, even transcendent of its “period”: its “bottom of fury,” its “indignant sense of right and wrong,” “its “ardent hate of meanness and injustice.” These worthy passions propelled by “his single-minded use of words, which. . . express the plain, straight meaning their common acceptance has given them. . . He writes English as if it were a primitive and not a derivative language, without Gothic or Latin or Greek behind it.” Or focus-groups, or marketing, or Rove.

This Book Could Be Your Life

Does Eric R. Danton‘s Hartford Courant story last week about DIY publishing address an important shift in the book trade, or is it thick with bad parallels and faulty logic? The story argues that self-publishing, long stigmatized by readers, reviewers, and publishers, is enjoying a rehabilitation of reputation—which is as it should be, because, after all, didn’t we think that DIY was a cool thing in music?

Well, we did, and perhaps we still do, but it wasn’t because we were happy to have an indie-rock culture that was free of gatekeepers, as the story suggests; we just wanted a more diverse assortment of gatekeepers from which to choose. Danton cites a handful of labels that serve as useful models for his thesis of operating outside the corporate system, like Sub Pop, Homestead, SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord. All great labels, but ones that were also very reflective of the personalities of their owners. You got behind SST because its owner was in a great band and signed lots of great bands, which made you slightly more patient about the crappy bands he occasionally signed.

Did we escape the age of gatekeepers with the arrival of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which became an indie-rock phenomenon in 2005 on the back of its unsigned debut album? The Courant story would have it that way: They’re the central musical example in it. But CYHSY doesn’t exemplify how a band can become a (modest) success story without gatekeepers—it exemplifies how the gatekeeper has changed, and no longer needs to be a standard-issue record label.

This is where Danton’s story starts to fail me. His equation of DIY music with DIY publishing fails to acknowledge the culture of discussion, argument, documentation—and, yes, gatekeeping and tastemaking—that’s still installed in DIY music, and doesn’t provide a convincing parallel for DIY publishing. Who’s replaced POD-dy Mouth? Where’s the culture of readers engaged with POD novels in the same way as Pitchfork? Or even the collaborative group of, say, young fantasy writers who’ve built a small cult around themselves by branding the novels they self-publish? Instead, the story’s chief example is Joel Fried, who’s sold a thousand or so copies of his book of essays, Bursts, through BookSurge. How this proves that self-publishing has obliterated its amateur-hour stigma escapes me. If anything, Stewart O’Nan comes off as the most convincing voice in the article, arguing for the old-fashioned publisher: He tells the Courant, “I want to get my book between covers and onto the shelves of as many good bookstores and good libraries as I can, hoping that in time maybe that will translate into it being on the shelves of lots of good readers, and I find the big houses give you the best shot at that.”

I’m not rejecting the value of self-publishing out of hand, and if there are good answers to those questions I asked in the previous paragraph, I’d like to hear them. But it’s inarguable that Danton needed better sources. One possibility would’ve been N. Frank Daniels, whose debut novel, Futureproof, was published in January by Harper Perennial after enjoying some acclaim as a self-published book. The novel itself didn’t do much for me—it’s an overlong accounting of a young man’s descent into heroin addiction, and its plainspoken tone would’ve been more appealing if its plot did anything but move in a ponderous, and-then-this-happened fashion. But it has its fans, and Daniels’ piece in the back of the book, about how he got those fans, is great reading. Feeling he had a worthy book but knowing he didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of going the O’Nan route, he developed a plan:

I would personally market the book to as many people as I possibly could via the Internet and its many avenues for self-promotion. I petitioned people, using primarily MySpace and Amazon, asking them to read the first fifty pages of the book and respond positively or negatively to what they’d read.

Only then did he go through the process of self-publishing the book, which led to a rave from POD-dy Mouth, which led to an Entertainment Weekly piece on the POD-dy Mouth rave, which led to more touring on Daniels’ part, which led to Harper Perennial knocking on his door.

What I like about Daniels’ process is that he gauged interest in his work before self-publishing it, instead of self-publishing his work first, then gauging interest in it; he made an effort to build a small but engaged audience that genuinely hoped for more from him in the future. That’s not unlike every smart band that realizes that nobody wants to own its music until they’ve had a chance to hear it a few times, which means a lot of time spent playing a lot of shows and building a fan base organically. Back in the olden days of Homestead, SST, and Sub Pop, you earned your right to take up space on the merch table, and it’s still a valid approach even if the merch table is now online and enormously long; it proves you’ve respected your audience enough to work on what you’re doing before putting a price tag on it, or even making it available for free. If indie rock is any sort of a model for DIY publishing, it’s not merely in self-publishing—it’s in smart self-publishing strategies that think of the audience before the book.

Links: Scribble Scrabble

Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities, the blog of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, is full of all manner of interesting literary arcana, from lesbian pulp novels to old Raymond Pettibon drawings. The Hartford Courant catches up with the blog’s minders, with a particular eye toward its collection of writer’s notebooks.

Henry Kisor, mystery author and former books editor at the Chicago Sun-Times (where he gave my so-called critical career a boost a few years back), is going through his old files and digging up some fun stuff, including letters from Art Buchwald, and a vicious missive from G.P. Putnam’s Sons editor William Targ calling Nelson Algren an “inhuman turd.”

Esquire deems Colson Whitehead‘s John Henry Days a candidate for great American novel of the new century. Which is….interesting…considering the magazine didn’t think much of it when it came out.

Sherman Alexie has a whole bunch of works in the pipeline. He tells the Northern Arizona University Lumberjack: “I’ve got a new book of poems coming out shortly called Face. This fall, I have a book of short stories coming out called War Dances. Next spring is the release of the sequel to my young adult novel. The sequel’s called The Magic and Tragic Year of my Broken Thumb. And I have a novel coming out fall of 2010 called Fire with Fire. And then I have another young adult novel coming out the Spring after that called Radioactive Love Song, and then I have another novel coming out the fall after that called Thunder and Lightning.”

I’m still thinking about novels about motherhood, a subject that D.G. Myers raised recently. Seems to me that Sue Miller‘s The Senator’s Wife, and a few other Miller novels besides, should enter the discussion.

But this novel? Not so much.

It Takes Two

Writing in the Rumpus, Adam Johnson proposes that more fiction writers start including collaboration in the their toolkit. Working together forces an individual writer to set aside his or her ego, allowing the “team” to better concentrate on the business of characterization, setting, and so forth:

I wish I would’ve been asked to collaborate on just one story for a workshop back in my MFA program. I would have hated it, of course, because it would’ve meant that I’d have to question all my instincts, that I’d have to get off the crutch of my limited skills, and that I’d have to write a true character for once, a fictitious person that wasn’t a guised version of myself. I would have had to ask, out loud, questions like: What is this story about, what is this scene trying to show, and what’s at the heart of this character? And I’d have had to listen to another writer answer. For once it would have been about writing and not “being a writer.”

And about those MFA programs: Yes, Johnson notes, they have a collaborative element to them, and yes, he supports them. That, in spite of his acknowledgment that MFA programs have a way of making for carefully machined prose. (This is a criticism I leveled at Johnson’s debut collection, Emporium, some years back, though clearly my complaint could have used some more thought and evidence. Blurbs aren’t fair game in criticism, kids.) After all, you have to learn to walk before you can run, and getting down the basics allows for more dazzling acrobatics down the line. “I believe the proliferation of MFA programs is a good thing—more hounds to the hunt,” Johnson writes. “And what’s wrong with learning the skills of writing first, so that when an important story comes along, it has a game author?”

I’d be more willing to get behind Johnson’s defense of collaboration if I could think of more evidence of them—or at least more evidence of cases where it went smoothly. I think if Raymond Carver‘s much-documented contretemps with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver’s stories, to my mind, were improved by Lish’s heavy hand, but nobody would think of that as a healthy collaborative environment to seek out. Johnson cites an unpublished collaboration with his wife as evidence that the system can work well. Are there others that are available on the shelves?

Mr. Poe Regrets

This Saturday marks the opening of “From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe,” a exhibit at the University of Virginia designed to commemorate the author’s 200th birthday. Among the artifacts featured is a recently discovered 1842 letter from Poe to his publishers, apologizing for being drunk that last time they hung out together, hitting them up for a chance to be published, and generally behaving like a magazine intern. The News Leader (Staunton, Va.) explains:

In the letter, written in July 1842, Poe apologizes to publishers J. and H.G. Langley for his drunken behavior. He encloses an article he hopes the publishers will buy, as he is “desperately pushed for money.” He also blames a friend, poet and lawyer William Ross Wallace, for making him drink too many “juleps” and tries to make amends for the unfortunate result: “Will you be so kind enough to put the best possible interpretation upon my behavior while in N-York? You must have conceived a queer idea of me – but the simple truth is that Wallace would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying.”

The Langleys rejected the piece. Insofar as Wikipedia is trustworthy on the matter, 1842 was a rough year for Poe: That year his wife, Virginia, suffered a bout of tuberculosis that drove him to begin drinking heavily. The exhibit runs through Aug. 1 first at the University of Virginia Library’s Harrison Institute, after which it will move to the University of Texas’ Ransom Center, which helped assemble the exhibit.

Won’t Somebody Please, Please Think of the Children?

D.G. Myers, who for my money runs one of the best new(ish) litblogs going, recently spent a little time with the question of whether American literature has something of a family problem—he argues that there’s a lack of fiction that addresses parenthood, especially motherhood. The problem, he suggests, may lie with the backgrounds of writers themselves, and to give something of a scientific imprimatur to his musings, he looks at the the authors featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1914-1945) and discovers: “Forty-nine children born of thirty-seven writers—a child-to-writer ratio of 1.32, the fertility rate of a former Soviet Bloc country.”

One problem—heck, let’s call it sample bias—is immediately apparent. By drawing the line at 1945, Myers is neglecting writers who came into prominence after World War II, and might presumably have been having children during the largest burst of fertility in the country—the Baby Boom. John Updike had four children. John Cheever had three. Raymond Carver had two. Michael Chabon has four kids. Female authors? Louise Erdrich: three children by marriage, three by adoption. Marilynne Robinson had two children. Maxine Hong Kingston has one child, as does Alice Walker—though, famously in that case, mom and daughter don’t get along.

Of course, it’s best not to obsess too much over this: I’m being just as selective as Myers is, and there are plenty of childless authors in the postwar era (DeLillo, Roth, Cisneros, Welty, etc). And it wouldn’t change his central concern about “how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing.” There are plenty of families in American literature, he figures—they’re just a lot like the Snopes clan, or the Portnoy family.

Tolstoy’s riff on happy families comes in handy here—it may simply be that normal family life doesn’t make for interesting fiction, in the same way that the workplace rarely does. Though I’m happy that my family life in no way resembles, say, Russell BanksAffliction, that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the book. Ordinary family life makes it into plenty of novels and stories, though that ordinariness can make critics skittish—the chief (and I think wrongheaded) complaint about Ha Jin‘s A Free Life was that it didn’t do much but cover relatively mundane domestic matters. The real trick is to cover those mundane bits of family life in a way that has depth and intelligence; the young mother in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong comes to mind, as does the aging father in Robinson’s Gilead. Whether or not this country has a “low-fertility-rate literature”, as Myers writes, the fact is it hasn’t neglected stories about families—it’s just that the wisest writers seem to know how sizable a task it is to write about them honestly and well.