Sherman Alexie and the Case of the Crazy-Ass Fifteen-Year-Old

Sherman Alexie is busy: According to an interview with Failbetter, he’s working on Fire With Fire, the “great big American Native American Novel,” a sequel to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, another young adult novel, Radioactive Love Song, that may or may not be narrated by an iPod, and he’s currently promoting Face, a collection of poetry. But I was mainly struck by the portion of the interview in which he discusses his 2007 novel, Flight, which struck me as a young-adult novel. Apparently the interviewer feels the same way:

You wrote Flight during the same time that you were writing True Diary. Did you think about that as YA at all too?

No—it’s funny that people would even think so.

But I would’ve loved that book when I was fifteen.

But you were probably a crazy-ass fifteen-year-old. It wasn’t the kids I was worried about, it wouldn’t get past the teachers, the gatekeepers. There’s genital mutilation in that book! No, I never thought of it as YA. It’s way too violent. It’s funny, people don’t even remember how violent it is. You know people will say that to me, “Why isn’t that a YA?” I’ll start listing everything that happens and they say, “Wait a second. That never would’ve made it past the school board.”

Well, True Diary didn’t—

True Diary didn’t make it past the school board in a couple places! But it’s so funny—the amazing thing is, it’s certain communities, because tomorrow I’m reading from it in the George Bush Library here. I want to get a photograph of me reading at the George Bush Library and send it to that school and say, “At least a Republican president doesn’t mind.”

Fair points. But I don’t doubt that more than a few fifteen-year-olds, crazy-ass or no, might find Flight more relatable than much of what what’s officially sanctioned for them.

Links: Keeping It Classy

A few reactions to Tuesday’s Bookforum-sponsored event featuring Walter Benn Michaels trying to convince David Simon, Susan Straight, and Dale Peck that American literature is off the rails because there’s not enough poverty in it, or something:

“The animated exchanges…demonstrated how everything Benn Michaels said could be totally right, as far as it went, yet be achingly incomplete.”

“David Simon got excited for a second while making the point that slavery DOES TOO STILL EXIST, HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE GAS STATION BY MY HOUSE, but that line of thought was pretty quickly abandoned.”

Michaels: “The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They’re victims of capitalism. The one thing no one wants to talk about is capitalism.”

None of the reports convince me that Michaels is being anything besides a little doofy and a lot willfully provocative, or that he’d be satisfied with any novel you’d recommend to him.

Better to just read a sensible commentary on the current primacy of historical novels.

Or the “bible” for The Wire that Simon wrote before pitching the show to HBO. (h/t Whet Moser) lists ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Nearly all of them are news to me, but Karen Vanuska is doing some research.

Dinaw Mengestu‘s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears a novel set in Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood before it was revived by the city’s housing boom, has been adapted for the stage. It premieres tonight. In Seattle.

A scene from the funeral for Minnesota author Bill Holm: “Bill was laid out in his coffin with Bach sheet music and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ in his hands.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher weighs in on the closing of College Park, Maryland, store Vertigo Books: “When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal–some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.” The store’s “Wake & Potluck” is tomorrow evening.

The Bobbasheely Business

The AP reports that the Dictionary of American Regional English, a multivolume, comprehensive reference text that has been in the works since the mid-60s, is nearing completion. According to the story, the fifth volume (“S-Z”) should be published next year, thanks to a $295,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Joan Houston Hall, current editor of the project, tells the AP that once the final volume is finished, the next step will be to get the book online. Hall’s favorite word out the batch? Bobbasheely, a Gulf Coast word meaning good friend, or to hang out with a friend; she notes that William Faulkner used it in one of his novels, though the story doesn’t mention which one. Turns out Faulkner preferred the verb definition. It appears in 1962’s The Reivers in this sentence: “You and Sweet Thing bobbasheely on back to the hotel now, and me and Uncle Remus and Lord Flaunteroy will mosey along.”

Hall inherited the project in 2000, after the death of the dictionary’s first editor, Frederic Cassidy. His headstone reads, “On to Z!”

Austin S. Camacho’s Airport Pitch

Earlier this week I came across a blog post by Austin S. Camacho, a D.C.-area author of crime and adventure novels, in which he mentioned the great experience he had signing his books at . . . Dulles International Airport. The idea of signing books in one of the cramped Borders Express outlets was a new one on me—I imagine it’s not a great place to find return customers—but now that even authors with books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux have to find innovative ways to promote themselves, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Since November of 2007 he’s done 16 signings at three D.C. regional airports (Dulles International, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International). Camacho answered a few questions about his experiences via e-mail.

He has two signings this weekend: Saturday, April 18, at the Borders Express in Wheaton, Maryland, and Sunday, April 19, at Reagan National between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

How did you get the idea of doing book signings at airports? Had you seen or heard about other authors doing it?

I haven’t met anyone who approached book signings the way I have. Using the Yahoo Local search I made a list of all bookstores within an hour’s drive of my house. The stores in my local airports are all Borders stores (one in Reagan National, two in BWI and three different stores in Dulles Airport) so they came up on the list.

Any lessons learned from your first signing?

You learn quickly to leave your pocketknife at home, print eye-catching table signs, and clue the bookstore staff on who your books should appeal to.

I found the store managers very welcoming. Apparently they don’t get any of the corporate-arranged signings other stores get, and writers never call them, so they’re happy to hear from us. They print big posters at their expense (other stores don’t) and try to book the next signing at the end of the present one.

I imagine that there are a number of barriers to getting readers’ attention at an airport—they’re tired, they’re rushing to catch a flight. How do you grab somebody’s attention in that context, and is the strategy different than at a more conventional bookstore?

Most bookstores attract browsers actively looking for their next good read. Airport shoppers are either bored with time to kill waiting for their flight or rushing to find something to read on the plane. These will be impulse purchases made with little consideration so you really have to have your elevator pitch down pat. You must engage quickly, tell them in a few seconds why they might want your book, then move on to the next person if they’re not interested.

Another assumption is that people who shop at airport bookstores prefer to take comfort in the familiar: They want the new James Patterson, or a celebrity/business magazine. As a small-press author, how do you get potential readers out of that headspace?

To help their decision making process you need to know whose writing compares to yours. I can say, “If you like Patterson’s Alex Cross novels you’ll love Hannibal Jones,” and “If you like reading about Jack Reacher or Dirk Pitt you’ll enjoy the exploits of Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien.” If they don’t know who Pitt and Reacher are, they aren’t the market for Stark and O’Brien. If they do know those characters you can say, “I’m a big Clive Cussler fan too, but he’s not here to personalize and sign your book. I am.”

Sales-wise, how does a signing at the airport perform compared to a more conventional signing?

Sales numbers are about the same, but there are some differences. I get fewer multiple sales. More people ignore me. More people don’t speak English. On the other hand, the airport stores never return books, my books fly all over the world not just in the town the store is in, and these stores have no regular customers so I could go back the next day and find a whole new set of customers.

Are there any unique security issues that you need to be concerned about with airport signings?

Just give yourself extra time to get through security, and be prepared to be escorted if you need to visit the bathroom. I’ve packed lots more tips into my manual, Successfully Marketing your Novel in the 21st Century, which is available on

What Did You Write During the Class War, Daddy?

What does Walter Benn Michaels want? In a frustrating essay in Bookforum, he argues that in recent years American literature has fallen down on the job, mainly because it has failed to get into the business of “criticizing the primacy of markets.” Instead writing novels about, say, the widening income gap, we’ve written much-praised novels that spend too much time looking backward to slavery or the Holocaust—Beloved, The Plot Against America, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are particular failings for Michaels on this front, while American Psycho is praised for at least working off the premise that this country is sickened by its consumerism.

Setting aside for a moment the implied argument that what American literature really needs is a good novel about the widening income gap, the maddening thing about Michaels’ piece is the author’s seemingly arbitrary decisions about what books get to be considered as worthy. If he wants to say that historical novels, by definition, fail to look at the present, that’s fine as far as it goes. (Though The Plot Against America had plenty to say about present-day anti-Semitism and propagandistic administrations.) But, strangely, memoirs are wiped off the table because their stories are not about society but individuals. Margaret Thatcher is quoted to exemplify the problem here; Michaels cites her saying, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So a book like Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior would be too shallow, concerned as it is with just one family; apparently so would Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family (while we’re talking about nonfiction), even though it’s one of the best-researched, most granular portraits of the effects of that widening income gap you’ll ever read—and it was written during the boom years, which according to Michaels caused this current failing in American letters. (I’m sure LeBlanc will be disappointed to hear that during that all those years of reporting in the Bronx she was just playing into Maggie’s hands.)

But The Woman Warrior has a double failing for being a story about immigrants, according to Michaels:

And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages.

Here, I’d love to shove a copy of Ha Jin‘s A Free Life in Michaels’ hands; though he may be obligated to dismiss it for being an immigrant story, it is a story about money for the mortgage. It may not be the Great American Class War Novel he’s dreaming of, but he’s never going to find it if he keeps paging through novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. (Presumably the latter’s portrayal of Newark in American Pastoral didn’t scratch the itch for Michaels in the way he’d prefer.) He’s also not going to find it if he keeps moving the goal posts.

If you’re in New York tonight, you’ll be able to catch a discussion about all this, featuring Michaels, critic-novelist Dale Peck, novelist Susan Straight, and journalist David Simon. Simon’s Great American TV Show, The Wire, is praised by Michaels at the end of his essay, so I have to imagine that at some point during the conversation Richard Price‘s Clockers will come up—the novel was, as Simon has said many times, a key inspiration for The Wire, and a better argument for the book Michaels is looking for than American Psycho. One question I hope somebody asks: Would anything change if we had more novels of the kind Michaels wants? (Assuming, of course, there’s been any drop-off in them.) Would we have better public policy? A better society? Simon, I suspect, would say no—in numerous interviews he’s shied away from any big statements about the show’s impact. Novels simply don’t change the world in that way. Some time back I asked Price about the legacy of Clockers, and he figured the book mainly affected how his books were shelved:

Q: What do you think is Clockers’ legacy?

A: There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers….” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.

So before we get into too many high-flown statements about what responsibility fiction has to society, it’s worth considering whether fiction has any capacity to transform it.

John Irving’s Bad Habits

I’ve had little interest in reading John Irving‘s recent books, and part of the reason for that is encapsulated in an ingenious chart on Wikipedia displaying recurring themes in his fiction—by the time of A Prayer for Owen Meany, I figured I’d gotten his moves down, and though deeply admired The World According to Garp as a teen, I never liked Dickens enough in the first place to keep up with an author who’s just “Dickensian.” Still, the Q&A with Irving in the Denver Post—tied to a stage production of Owen Meany—is interesting reading, partly because Irving cops to a few of his thematic tics. A reader notes that a number of violent deaths in the book have a sports element to them, to which Irving replies:

This is a novel about the damage Americans do to themselves; sports are a part of that damage. If world news were covered as extensively, and in such detail, as the ceaseless March Madness over college basketball, wouldn’t Americans be better informed about the world, and our place in it, than we are? Your observation is a good one. It’s not literally, of course, that sports are killing us; but what we pay intense attention to it, and what we ignore is surely doing us some harm.

And he suggests one more column for that Wikipedia page:

Virgins (in my novels) apparently interest me. Jenny Fields (Garp’s mother) is a virgin, except for once. Also (“except for once”) Dr. Larch in “The Cider House Rules.” But Jenny’s reasons are feminist, and Larch’s are eccentrically a part of his overreaction to everything. Johnny Wheelwright is in love with Owen; his heart is broken.

Links: First-Time Callers

Hello there. There’s a goodly chance that you’re here today because Mark Sarvas was nice enough to include this blog on his list of ten “Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs.” I feel a bit like the little old lady whose hair is still in curlers when the Prize Patrol van arrives, but I appreciate your swinging by. If this is your first time here, a few “greatest hits” posts you might want to look at: my piece on the best books of 2008, some stray thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a few more on the future of book reviewing, a guide to Haruki Murakami‘s translations of American authors, and some thoughts about best practices about for DIY publishing. I usually do link roundup like this once a week, but as with many things in life, this is changeable. Onward.

Don DeLillo‘s America points to a cache of DeLillo radio
interviews on YouTube

Jay McInerney talks to the Wall Street Journal about his new story collection, How It Ended which includes an update on the life of Alison Poole, the protagonist of his novel Story of My Life. Poole was modeled after one of his ex-girlfriends, Rielle Hunter, perhaps better known for her attachment to former presidential candidate John Edwards.

One less teacher is using Toni Morrison‘s Beloved in the classroom. Kids are still using The Scarlet Letter to learn about public humiliation, though.

The Daily Iowan catches up with longtime Kurt Vonnegut confidante Loree Rackstraw; make sure to check out the slideshow, which has some fine images of Vonnegutiana in Rackstraw’s home.

It’s the 25th anniversary of Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street. At a recent event at Rice University honoring the book, she offered some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard: “First, you write like you’re talking to someone in your pajamas. Then you revise like your enemy is reading it.”