The Colonist

Michael Fauver, a writer who’s done time at Yaddo and is heading to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall, is currently residing at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he’s trying to get started on his first novel. He’s describing the process on Why I Won’t Remember Who You Were, a blog with the same title as his book, and he has a few interesting insights into life at writers retreats. Apparently Yaddo often had too much entertainment going on to let him be productive. “A lot of people work here at night,” he writes. “When I was at Yaddo, we drank and played Boggle and watched movies after dinner, so I never felt motivated.” This time around, he appears to be a bit more productive. Recently he spent some time with his colleagues discussing his concern about writing sex scenes :

Turned to Rabbit Redux when I had to write about sex today. I’m so used to shying away from the subject, so I wanted a reminder that you can get away with almost anything if there’s a reason. Miranda July’s work, especially “Something That Needs Nothing,” was what really got me thinking about sex in writing. I’ve been wondering: How far can you take it? Is it like The Penis Game from adolescence? (One person whispers “penis,” and then the other says it louder. “Penis.” “Penis.” “Penis.” Louder and louder until one of them is brave enough to have everyone in the library staring at the guy shouting “PENIS!”) Yeah. Is it like that? You just test your guts? See at what point you wimp out?

I asked some writers at dinner today about it. Is there such a thing as writing about sex too much? One joked that he never stops writing about sex. Another said that it’s only too much if you’re doing it to avoid talking about intimacy. I think that’s spot on. In writing as in life.

This feels like it could dangerously devolve into overshare—if you’re chatting about your novel, on a blog or otherwise, it’s time away from writing it—but he’s just finished a draft of chapter one. (via GW English News)

Saul Bellow’s Tears

Today would have been the 94th birthday of Saul Bellow, a fact that sent me on a wild goose chase for an online version of John Hankiewicz‘s lovely two-page graphic tribute, “A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).” (No luck, but it’s in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti, and well worth tracking down.) Instead, I did find a piece the Rumpus recently published reprinting excerpts of a tribute to Bellow by Herbert Gold titled “A Genius for Grief.” The segments suggest that the overall piece, originally published in News From the Republic of Letters, paints Bellow as a bit of a despairing soul:

Until I came to live in San Francisco, our friendship went through ups and downs, with periods of intense intimacy; that is, Saul confided his troubles, I listened and felt warm about being invited in. Occasionally he stayed with me in New York and gave me the difficult gratification of hinting that I stood between him and some desperate act at the high window. These threats didn’t interfere with his intent sessions bent over the notebooks with their ruled lines upon which his fountain pen tracked his imagination and indignation. I learned that folks don’t usually kill themselves in the middle of composing the suicide note.

I’m not well-schooled enough in Bellow’s biography to know if he had serious issues with depression. But a 1978 interview with Henrietta Buckmaster, published in Conversations With Saul Bellow, suggests that, even if he wasn’t, he gave a lot of thought to a uniquely American kind of despair:

We Americans are in a peculiar position when it comes to brainwashing, because we’ve been spared the worst in modern history—we’ve been spared the holocaust—both wars—we’ve been spared totalitarianism, the forced labor camps, the police regimes and all the rest of that. We are the avant garde of safety, comfort, affluence, security. We’re also witnesses to the horrible effects that safety, comfort, affluence, privilege can have. I sometimes think we’re stuck somewhere in the middle. We no longer have nature and history to punch us in the nose. Other nations could depend on that punch in the nose to keep them realistic. I think we’ve lost that principle of realism in the United States—if we ever had it. Most of us are spoiled and blundering, and we believe, in a very shallow way, in the goodness of our intentions….

[T]here is a comfort for our despair, I think. It’s better than the despair Europe wallowed in.

Interviewer: Meanwhile, things go on and life somehow remains, I think, a remarkable commodity.

Well, life is the only thing we know, isn’t it?

“How many times’d you end up sucking on the rug?”

I don’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to collect first editions, and there’s something about the antiquarian trade that strikes me as unseemly and beside the point, but goodness the catalog [PDF] for the Bruce Kahn Collection is gobstoppingly beautiful. Kahn, a Michigan-based mergers and acquisitions lawyer, has acquired a collection of first editions of 20th century (mostly) American fiction that’s in impeccable shape, from John O’Hara to Philip Roth to Toni Morrison to Cormac McCarthy and on and on. None of it’s cheap: Plenty of the items run into five figures, with a copy of Appointment in Samarra running to $30,000. (If money’s tight, you can drop $2,500 for a signed proof of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.)

Perhaps more interesting than the books themselves are the various scribblings included. The copy of John Irving‘s The World According to Garp (apparently sold) is inscribed with a note about the author’s take on the book’s ending: “The meaning of life? ‘We are all terminal cases’, but I find that no surprise and no cause for cynicism or depression. It’s all the more reason to live purposefully and well.” The highlight of the collection on that front, though, is a 1974 handwritten letter from Thomas Pynchon to his friends David Shetzline and his wife, Mary Beal. Writing on graph paper (Pynchon apparently has a thing for graph paper), he recalls his disinterest in attending an impeachment rally in Greenwich Village. From the catalog:

“Maybe I am wrong not to show up, after all think of all that great neurotic pussy that always shows up at things like ‑‑ oh, aww, gee Mary, I’m sorry! I meant ‘vagina,’ of course! ‑‑ like that, and all the biggies who’ll be there…” He goes on to describe that he is having “what the CIA calls a ‘mid‑life crisis,’ looking for another hustle, cannot dig to live a ‘literary’ life no more…” A “lump of hash I lost somewhere in Humboldt County 3 years ago” figures into what becomes an increasingly textured, complicated narrative, the way his fiction does, at the same time that it represents his side of an obviously ongoing dialogue, and elicits further contact from the recipients: in referring to stories of bad LSD circulating, he asks “You might as well tell me. How many times’d you end up sucking on the rug?”

The letter is yours for $25,000.


Yesterday Karen Templer announced that she was shutting down Readerville, her long-running site dedicated to books, writers, and readers. This saddened a lot of people, including me—I liked the site, and, more selfishly, Templer was one of the first people to approvingly take notice of what I was doing. But Readerville’s closure didn’t spawn any grim handwringing over where we might all go to talk about books now. Templer herself notes that today the field is wide open for that:

I’m thrilled at the vast assortment of tools for people to connect online—from blogs to Facebook and Twitter, to the many social book cataloging sites, and beyond. Readers have resources nobody could have imagined nine years ago, and it’s a joy to see books being talked about in every corner of the Internet.

Those conversations go in a million directions, but last week Yen Cheong, assistant director of publicity at Viking and Penguin Books, considered whether the kinds of people hosting those conversations roughly split into two camps. Working from some thoughts by Sarah Weinman, Cheong notes that there’s a distinction between “first wave” litbloggers like Weinman, Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, and others, and “second wave” book bloggers running sites like Booking Mama and Beth Fish Reads, and others I would never have known about had Cheong not written her post.

My ignorance of the second-wavers is one of the things that helps peg me as a first-wave litblogger, as Weinman suggested. I won’t bother parsing figuring out who belongs in what wave, which strikes me as the dullest insider-baseball conversation imaginable. But the comments on Cheong’s post brought up what I thought was a very interesting conversation about engaging with commenters, and how they relate to perhaps more “journalistic” bloggers. I was particularly struck by a comment by Trish of Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin?:

The first wave is talking at the reader and sticks with a journalistic style of writing. The second wave is in it for the conversation. I don’t know any book bloggers (as opposed to lit bloggers) who have comments disabled.

I’m not saying the first wave is wrong, though it’s certainly not my preference to shut down conversation by turning off comments, so I obviously prefer the second wave. However, it just seems silly to not have conversation on a blog about books when reading is such a solitary hobby anyway. Readers tend to want to talk about what they’re reading, want to talk about books and authors and their book club.

So while I really admire what the lit bloggers did to start up what I would call book blogging, I think they continued a style that newspapers are finding unsustainable.

The “unsustainable” argument doesn’t wash for me. Book blogs, first-wave or otherwise, don’t operate under the same profit motives that newspapers do—a blog’s sustainability is attached to little more than the willingness of the blogger to get up in the morning and make time to write, and you can’t declare bankruptcy if you’re making nothing. But Trish’s overall point about how litbloggers relate to readers is well-taken. I’ve bounced around a few newsrooms and known plenty of journalists, and the relationship between writers and readers has long been awkward. Journalists often have a defensive posture toward readers because we are often literally asked to defend ourselves. Before blogging became essential parts of newspaper sites, people didn’t usually reply to articles and reviews by sending letters and e-mails saying “FIRST!” or “Nice post!”—they wrote to let you know what an idiot you were for holding a particular opinion, they wrote to call out your errors, they wrote to threaten lawsuit, they wrote to wonder out loud about the sanity of the people who ran the paper because, after all, they hired your sorry ass. People who wrote in with praise, let alone an eagerness to start a conversation, were a little suspect. Publications have a thick skin when it comes to negative feedback—the Washington Post runs a lively weekly page, Free for All, dedicated to nothing but readers calling shenanigans on Post journalists. But its very existence bears out the difficulty of the relationship—readers were people around whom you had to have a thick skin, people you had to make room for. No Post staffer who values the respect of his or her colleagues would suggest the paper run a weekly page of letters full of praise.

So by the time journalists waded into blogging, plenty of them didn’t do it very well—interaction was a relatively foreign concept, and it positive feedback was going to be rare except for star writers and columnists who’d acquired large fan bases. I recall a number of staff-meeting conversations in which Web folks would train editorial staffers about how to directly engage with commenters, which led to a lot of posts that clumsily closed with some iteration of “So, what do you think?” Insincerity was built into the process, because it was presented less as something that we might enjoy doing or that might improve our work and more as something that might help the publication make money someday. The argument was that (imagine Al Pacino in Scarface talking here) first you got the comments, then you got the page views, and then you got the money. I’ve always been cynical about that line of thinking—heaven knows that online ad revenue is nothing to bank on right now—and that feeling that only got bolstered when the comments on a post would, as it often did, melt down into a cavalcade of jackassery. “I’ll care about the commenters,” my stock line went, “when I have proof that one of these fuckers is gonna buy a futon.”

Now that I run a blog with no ambition to sell you a futon (or even a book), my attitude towards commenters has eased up. And plenty of journalists have gotten a lot better at building relationships with readers. Me, I still do a poor job on that front—my interest in presenting and thinking about information still trumps my interest in starting conversations. But I hope I get better in time, and this may all just be evidence that people who blog about books are settling into some familiar roles with new shapes; the litbloggers are doing what many daily newspapers played before they were forced to cut or eliminate their coverage (though hopefully with more awareness of and engagement with readers), and the bookbloggers get to supplement, if not replace, the traditional in-person book club. And there’s one other change, which wasn’t much discussed in Cheong’s post or its comments: the increasing role of bloggers with a more academic bent. Relatively new sites like Andrew Seal‘s and D.G. Myers‘, along with new efforts like Dan Green’s Critical Distance project, suggest to me that even very high-end critical outlets like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s will have their authority challenged as well. I don’t think we’ll see the imminent collapse of for-profit enterprises dedicated to paying smart people good money to write criticism, nor are English departments going away anytime soon. But access to serious and sustained critical thought has never been easier, which bodes well for everybody.

So, what do you think?

The Modernist Effect

Maybe Walter Benn Michaels is right after all? Gordon Hutner, an English professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and founding editor of the journal American Literary History, has just published a book, What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920-1960, arguing that many American novels dealing with day-to-day life have been neglected in favor of modernist writers whose rhetorical acrobatics were more appealing (and perhaps more remunerative) to academics. In an interview [PDF] facilitated by the publicity department at the University of North Carolina Press, Hutner lists a few of the authors he researched, critically acclaimed in their time but largely ignored now. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of writers I’ve never heard of: The female writers alone include Margaret Barnes, Josephine Lawrence, Margaret Culkin Banning, Caroline Slade, Maritta Wolff, and Margaret Halsey. (It may say something that Elaine Showalter‘s lively, comprehensive history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers, makes no mention of any of these authors.)

As for why they fell by the wayside, Hutner says that their novels address “middle-class experience from a middle-class point of view,” counter to prevailing critical thought. He goes on:

[A]cademe, since the 50s and 60s, has not exerted much interest in this kind of fiction. Such novels do not typically lend themselves to the subtleties of rigorous rhetorical analysis, the methodologies of close reading that form a professor’s specialty. The disciplinary emphasis on major writers or representative writers militates against professors developing too much curiosity over less familiar names. Scores of books on Faulkner, for example—and not all of them consequential—but not very many on intriguing careers like T. S. Stribling or Hamilton Basso. In fact, a junior scholar would have been discouraged from writing a book like mine…

I imagine reviewers and literary bloggers in academia will have plenty to say about this. (I haven’t seen any formal reviews appear online yet.) Regardless, I would love to see Hutner follow through on his suggestion at the end of the interview that his next book might look at fiction from the last ten years through the same filter.

(h/t Neglected Books)

(Brief programming note: Due to travel, review deadlines, laptop malfunctions, a few hiccups in my schedule, and, not least, the happy acquisition of a shelter dog, my blog time has been restricted more than usual for the past few days. Anticipate strangeness here for a bit. But I plan to have the D.C.-Area Readings list updated as usual, and should be back into something resembling a rhythm next week.)

“I’m a police.”

Since February the Guardian‘s TV blog, Organ Grinder, has been hosting a nerd-out about The Wire—FX is airing it there, and hopefully they’ve found a way to show it without bleeping out Clay Davis. (Or, perhaps more precisely, bleeeeeeeeeeeping.) The latest entry covers series creator David Simon‘s appearance at the Hay literary festival last weekend. Much of the ground Simon covers is familiar to anybody who’s heard him speak, but I hadn’t heard the anecdote he broke out about a squabble between Martin Amis and John Updike over some Wire-y language:

He also recalled the time Martin Amis was criticised by John Updike for using the phrase “I’m a police” in his 1997 novel Night Train. Amis told National Public Radio that Updike “should get a copy of David Simon’s Homicide”. Simon, who was listening to the interview in his car, thought: “Here are these actual literary lions arguing over some small part of a police procedural; it was the most exciting day of my life.”

(Street slang definitely isn’t Updike’s thing; Roger’s Version has plenty of acute observations of the projects in its Boston-like city, but practically no dialogue between people who live there.)

Most authors have a way of disappointing Simon, even the ones in the realist tradition. He told the Hay crowd, “I like Dreiser, but the guy couldn’t write a human being to save his life.” I’m curious what books by Theodore Dreiser he’s read; I can see his complaint applying to An American Tragedy, which hasn’t aged well and makes clear how much its characters are part of the book’s plot mechanics, but I’ve always admired the portrait of George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, which is one of the more effective descriptions of a slow mental breakdown in fiction.