Links: Very Strange or Very Famous

What kind of writer was Raymond Carver? As the new Library of America collection of his work shows, it’s complicated, largely for reasons having to do with Gordon Lish.

Related: “When Novelists Sober Up”

Portnoy: Gay?

Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian.”

Alice Hoffman on how Fahrenheit 451 rejuvenated her.

A musical about the last days of Ernest Hemingway (“complete with a cheery song about how to load a gun”) stinks, and it’s closing early.

William Kennedy is finishing his first novel since 2002’s Roscoe; it’ll be an addition to the Albany Cycle.

Amitav Ghosh would love to hang out more with his neighbor Jhumpa Lahiri, but she tends to be busy.

An inventive approach to book shelving. But heaven knows where my Robot Chicken DVDs would fit in this scheme.

George Pelecanos‘ UK publisher sure is pushing the Wire angle hard with the cover of his new novel, The Way Home. He’s so popular in England that they let him open for the Pogues:

On that note, I’ll be taking some time off from the blog for a few days, enjoying some time off the grid, listening to music, and spending a little more time reading books than chattering about them. We’ll get this thing plugged back in around the middle of next week.

Quitting Time

I’m sure Rob Horning isn’t the first participant in the Infinite Summer race to crash into the wall, but his crack-up makes for more interesting reading than others’:

It’s not that I don’t read long books—I’ll happily plod along through Trollope’s triple deckers, and in graduate school I worked mainly on the novels of Samuel Richardson,whose Clarissa clocks in at 1,500 pages in the Penguin edition. I just don’t have patience for long, incoherent books. Infinite Jest seemed like pointless jigsaw puzzle; unlike Pynchon’s books, in which their seems to be so much interconnection between the various threads and so many resonating levels of meaning criss-crossing through the text that it’s almost overwhelming but always compelling you to work at holding it together in your mind, Wallace’s book just seems to dump a bunch of confusing stuff in your lap and hope that you are too disoriented to recognize that it’s not interesting.

Horning feels a little guilty for stopping short (“the book succeeded in making me feel like a failure”), but he needn’t. I tend to make a good-faith effort to finish what I start, but that’s largely a sensibility instilled in me as a reviewer, where I’m ethically and contractually obligated to get to the end of what I’m assigned. So I give up less often than most people, but I still do at times—Geraldine BrooksPeople of the Book and Kim Deitch‘s Alias the Cat being two recent ones I’ve abandoned. And I’ve shipwrecked at least twice on big important bricks like JR and Gravity’s Rainbow.

George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen figures this is a perfectly fine state of affairs. He tells the Washington Times that he finishes only about 10 to 20 percent of the books he starts:

“If I’m reading a truly, actively bad book, I’ll throw it out,” he says. His wife will protest, but he points out that he’s doing a public service: “If I don’t throw it out, someone else might read it.” If that person is one of the many committed to finishing a book once started, he’s actually doing harm.

The disappointing part of Horning’s giving up on Infinite Jest is that he’s in many ways the book’s ideal reader—somebody attuned to David Foster Wallace‘s gamesmanship and who was willing to meet the novel’s complexities halfway. I suspect that part of the problem here, and what’s going to ruin more Infinite Summer participants like Horning, is that it’s a time-bound experience. It’s not that the “75 pages a week” mandate is especially onerous, even considering Infinite Jest‘s dense pages. But it reframes the experience, making the novel something that needs to be finished instead of read. For reviewers and academics, this hardly counts as a problem; for everybody else, though, it turns the book into a reminder of a school assignment, a mad hustle to cram for a test that’s never going to be delivered anyway.

Q&A: Stephen Elliott

Eight years ago, I spent some time with Stephen Elliott for a feature story I was writing. Back then, he was an up-and-coming writer with a lot of promise—he’d nabbed a Stegner fellowship, and his second novel, A Life Without Consequences, was getting positive reviews. Stephen was genial and very easy to talk to, even about his experiences in group homes, his drug habits, and his toxic relationship with his father, Neil.

In the years that followed, Stephen kept mining that history for his fiction, though he’s largely abandoned the form in favor of politically oriented nonfiction. His new book, The Adderall Diaries, is largely memoir, addressing his father, his busted relationships, his life in San Francisco’s S&M underground, his brief experience as a “search engine expert” during the late-90s dot-com boom, and his use of the drug Adderall. Its narrative spine, though, is his coverage of the trial of Hans Reiser, a brilliant computer programmer who last year was convicted of killing his wife, Nina. That it all hangs together speaks to Elliott’s talents—he finds the connections in all these stories without overstating them, or coming off as solipsistic.

Elliott is also the founder of the Rumpus, one of the best literary sites to launch in the past year, and he’s used it as a platform to get the word out about The Adderall Diaries by creating a “lending library” for it. The book comes out in September, but there are still slots open for those who want to read it via the lending library.

Elliott answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.

The inspiration for your book is the trial of Hans Reiser, but you ultimately chose to make it less of a true-crime book and more of a three-part narrative. When did it become clear to you that the book needed to include your father and your history of breakups and addictions, as well as the Reiser trial?

You know, I was just writing. I didn’t have a book advance or anything like that. I didn’t know what the book was about. I got involved in this murder trial because I had some connections with Hans Reiser’s best friend, who had also confessed to eight murders. I thought I would write a true crime book based on the two of them. But I didn’t actually know how to do that. I was coming off a long period of writers block, or what seemed like a long period, or what seemed like writer’s block, and I was just trying to get everything onto the page.

So, I tried to write a true crime book, but that wasn’t coming out. So then I thought I was writing a kind of diary/memoir of going back to taking Adderall. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me what I was writing, I was just following threads, It just felt good to write.

The weird thing is there actually is a true-crime story in The Adderall Diaries. I do end up getting a full narrative of the Hans Reiser trial. Not everything of course. There’s always more information. But there was a lot of closure that I didn’t see coming. A lot of things happened in the final two months.

You discuss your struggles with writing fiction a few times in the book. At this point, do you think it’s something you’ll return to? As you note in The Adderall Diaries, so much of your fiction is autobiographical—what itch does fiction writing scratch that memoir writing doesn’t?

Right, the struggle with being a writer and what that means is a large part of The Adderall Diaries. My problem was, I had been writing for so long I didn’t know what else to do with my life. How would I fill my day if it wasn’t spent trying to write something? I had created a structure for my fiction, a set of beliefs that I thought constituted good fiction. You can really see these beliefs in my novel, Happy Baby. There’s almost no back story in that book at all. There’s almost no adjectives. It’s all show, no tell. There are no tangents.

But the problem is, if you tie yourself too closely to a style of writing, it can get boring. I wasn’t enjoying writing fiction anymore. It wasn’t doing the same things for me. I wasn’t finding release. And, as you mention, my fiction is autobiographical. I’m not very creative.

I’ll return to fiction, if it’s the best medium to get across something. But I don’t think I’ll ever write fiction that’s not related to my personal experiences.

You mention In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song as two books you admired as you began researching the Reiser trial. Did you spend much time with other true-crime books while working on The Adderall Diaries? If so, what did you get out of them, and what disappoints you most about true-crime stories?

Those are two great books. And they were also written by novelists who were having trouble writing novels, so I could relate.

I read some other good true crime books, in particular True Story by Michael Finkle. Most true-crime books are disappointing, of course. But most books are disappointing. There are a lot of mediocre books in the world. And I’m not just talking about books that I don’t like, I’m talking about books that the author and the publisher know are mediocre, but they publish them anyway.

I keep a list of every book that I read. The books that really influenced me while I was writing The Adderall Diaries were Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, Stoner by John Williams, and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. Especially Human Smoke. These are all innovative books, classics in their genre, except for Human Smoke, which I think will get that recognition long term. None of them are true-crime books.

You mention in passing a lot of the research you were doing on the trial—homicide officers, a forensic psychologist—which gives me the impression that you were dedicating a lot of your time researching the Reiser trial. How much of your time were you dedicating to the story, and how much do you think it fed into some of the compulsive behavior you describe?

I don’t really know, because I didn’t know what the story was. I was easily 90 percent done with the book before I knew what it was about. In fact, I would say it wasn’t until I met with my father for the first time in five years, at the very end of the book. That was when I realized I had been writing a book about me and my father that whole time, and that my relationship with my father had defined who I was.

I did spend a lot of time researching the Reiser trial, and I went to court every day it was in session for something like six months and I followed a lot of false leads.

As with much of your autobiographical writing, you tend to be restrained when it comes to some of the rougher periods of your life—it’s very plainspoken, unornamented writing. For instance, you write: “My stripper year ended with an overdose in a rented room a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and when I go out of the hospital I spiraled into a period of unbearable depression.” Are you careful about overstating, or overdramatizing them? Do you wrestle with how much to include, or whether to include them at all?

Yeah. But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? I’m trying to write something someone would want to read. There’s a couple of things going on here.

The first is that I’m a really slow reader myself, so I try to be very respectful of the reader’s time. I don’t want to over-explain things or talk down the reader. When I say my stripper year ended with an overdose followed by a period of depression, what more is there to say?

The other thing is that I don’t feel sorry for myself and I don’t want the reader to feel sorry for me.

I always wrestle with how much to include, or whether to include something at all. There are hundreds of drafts of The Adderall Diaries. If I didn’t edit so compulsively the book would be 800 pages. When I write I put something on the page and then start rereading it, trimming it down. I reread every passage over and over so much that it’s basically memorized and I might wake up in the middle of the night and think, “If I just moved that paragraph…” It’s like, I get the book in my head so I can move things around and cut them in my head and know exactly what that would read like and how it would affect the narrative.

I think that’s a really common way of writing for a literary writer. It’s all continuous editing, wrestling with what to include. That’s why it would never make sense to get paid by the hour for writing. I’m working for pennies. But I’m not complaining. I’m lucky.

So I pulled the New York Times article in which you’re cited as a “search engine expert,” and here’s what it says: “Stephen Elliott, director of emerging technology for the online marketing company ROI Direct.com, disagreed. ‘Spamming doesn’t make you a bad person,’ he said. ‘Spamming makes you a stupid person… You make the big gains by walking as close as you can to the edge without breaking the rules.'” You talk a pretty good game as a Web expert. Do you think you could’ve swung a long-term career in Web businesses? Would your interest in writing have changed if Catalogs2Go had taken off?

Maybe. No. Actually the answer is no.

That’s a longer story your readers are going to probably want some background on. There’s a chapter in the book where I mention that I was a temp in San Francisco during the dot.com boom and I had an idea for a search engine thing and next thing you know I’ve got a department of people working for me and I’m being quoted in the New York Times.

I was really happy when that was going on. I enjoyed creating those websites. I was in a position where I could work on and execute my ideas. Even if they were stupid, socially irrelevant ideas, like search engine marketing. It was a creative project and I was into it. But then, as something grows more people get attached. And these people are just employees, and they’re fighting for a piece of something, and they start questioning you, and soon it’s not fun at all. Every time a creative person comes in contact with a corporation there’s going to be that disconnect.

I’ve never successfully worked for someone. I’ve been fired twelve times. It’s a character flaw. I can’t take direction and I don’t particularly like making money for someone else.

For a little while I was allowed to be an artist in a business environment, until I wasn’t.

You described the process of covering the Reiser trial as “playing emotional Russian roulette” in that you were sunk into the story but worried what you would do once the story was written. What did you work on once this story was done? Was the separation from the story as bad as you feared?

It was. When I was working on The Adderall Diaries I was worried about what would carry me once I could no longer focus on this project. But I didn’t do anything about it, and that’s exactly what happened. Then I started The Rumpus (www.therumpus.net). And that’s kept me busy since.

Has your father read The Adderrall Diaries?

I don’t know. He promised he wouldn’t but we haven’t talked in a while.

As the story ends, you’ve tapered off but haven’t ended you use of Adderall. Where are you at right now as far as that and other pills are concerned?

I still take ten to fifteen milligrams of Adderall a day. I don’t recommend it, but it’s what I do. I didn’t want to say that I wasn’t taking Adderall anymore, though I know it would’ve been a more logical conclusion. But I hate memoirs that come to false conclusions and tie life up in a neat little bow.

Jill McCorkle’s Bad Marriage

“PS,” a short story by Jill McCorkle in the current issue of the Atlantic (and her collection Going Away Shoes, out in September), is a small but sharply written tale—a fuck-you letter to a therapist that cloaks a clear-headed confession about a failed marriage that in turn cloaks a deep anxiety about how badly things went off the rails. But though the narrator is unsteady, McCorkle is very much in charge, keeping its tone casually, bitterly comic. The narrator writes, “I think that marriage vows should include an escape clause that says the contract is broken if one party up and makes a big switch in religion or politics or aesthetic taste.” Later, as an aside in a story that’s largely a series of asides, she writes, “this drug that they give you with a colonoscopy is just a dream—you’re relaxed on one side, wide awake and watching television. I wanted to nominate myself for an Emmy.”

The narrator, it’s quickly clear, is going to tell her former marriage counselor (the impossibly named Dr. Love) everything, and McCorkle’s kitchen-sink strategy works double duty. It keeps the story moving as a work of fiction—we know the truth is going to explode out of this person eventually, and it’s just a matter of waiting for it. And it mirrors the narrator’s flummoxed condition of being forced to make sense of the constant shifts that her estranged husband has made, how she struggled with his transformation into an entirely different person. Making it an epistolary story only heightens the intimacy—we’re gonna hear everything, like it or not, colonscopies and all. (And titling a story “PS” isn’t a bad way to compel folks to read to the end too.)

The Atlantic‘s Web site includes an interview with McCorkle, which has the strange effect of making the story seem simpler than it is. The narrator of “PS” isn’t completely out of the woods, but the author is comfortable calling the story a redemption tale, saying it’s about “being able to shed all those things like anger or resentment or grudges that people often carry for way too long.” But McCorkle’s thoughts on writing routines and reading habits are interesting, as are her selections for underrated books:

Just off the top of my head, the book that I send students to again and again and again is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. I love that book, and I just learned so much from it. I recommend that to my students because so often when students are working on stories they are looking for threads that might weave a collection together, and it’s just such a wonderful book.

I would have said The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was wonderful, and then Oprah chose it. What Carson McCullers did in that novel was remarkable, especially given how young he was. And various stories, like “Old Mortality,” by Katherine Anne Porter—she’s a writer who also lately is getting a little more attention than she had in a long time, and I think deservedly so.

Strange, though, that McCorkle is the type to avoid recommending a novel just because Oprah did. Aren’t we done thinking that a Oprah sticker automatically takes a book out of the “high-art literary tradition?”

Update, July 29: Ms. McCorkle e-mails to point out that, contrary to what I suggested in my post, she was supportive of Oprah’s pick of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “What i meant to say is that by her picking it, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—which is one of my favorite novels out there—did get a great flurry of well-deserved attention,” she writes. The interview on the Atlantic‘s site also corrects the mis-gendering of McCullers, which was an editor’s error, not McCorkle’s.

Links: Archive Search

Virginia Quarterly Review looks back on its early history with Wallace Stegner, including some manuscript scans.

Speaking of: Stegner’s daughter-in-law, novelist Lynn Stegner, is working on an anthology about what it means to grow up in the West with another writer, Russell Rowland. You say you haven’t read anything by Rowland? Don’t be so sure.

Peter Osnos visits a Beijing bookstore and looks approvingly on the many Western books available to him. “The neuralgic issue of censorship is confined to a substantial but specific range of books both in Chinese and from abroad,” Osnos writes. He and Ha Jin need to have a chat.

Mark Twain‘s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, has announced that 2010 will be the “Year of Twain,” marking the centennial of his death and 175th birthday. A dedicated Web site will cover all the exciting events happening next year; for now, you’ll have to settle for the Oak Ridge Boys, who hit town August 22.

Litchfield, New Hampshire, is still squabbling over how to put what stories on its reading lists after parents pitched a fit over the likes of David Sedaris and Laura Lippman appearing in the curriculum. “The stories are not appropriate ‘for developing minds that are very impressionable,'” a parent tells the Nashua Telegraph. One can only imagine the impression that high-school students get from watching their parents wring their hands in public.

Elsewhere in New Hampshire, parents are concerned about John Irving‘s A Prayer for Owen Meany. So, maybe just be careful about bringing books into New Hampshire for a while.

“I see from this paper’s letters section that various well-meaning but clueless liberals are upset by my recent assertion that Ernest Hemingway was on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.”

Somebody posing as Jay Murray Siskind, a professor in Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace for the journal Modernism/Modernity. The joke was so funny that pretty much nobody got it for five years.

Wired‘s interactive map to Thomas Pynchon‘s Los Angeles has gone global.

And Andrew Sean Greer figures you can stop asking him about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button any time now.

Ward Just in the Second Pass

A piece I wrote about the two versions of Ward Just‘s story collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert is up at the Second Pass. Let’s look at a clip:

Just, before turning to fiction, covered Vietnam for the Washington Post and Newsweek, and writing for such establishment outlets naturally pitted him against the New Journalists who made splatter paintings out of facts. (The narrator of Just’s 1983 story “About Boston” dines with a newspaperman who says that “nouvelle cuisine reminded him of the nouveau journalism — a colorful plate, agreeably subtle, wonderfully presented with inspired combinations, and underdone. . . . A triumph of style over substance.”) The disclaimer, though, can also be read as a kind of endorsement of the New Journalism philosophy. If the facts have a way of misleading, as the last sentence says, then in these nine stories Just is attempting to better capture Washington through fiction. Dispensing with facts permitted him to talk openly about the town. If it was only as a journalist that he could speak truth to power, in this book he aspired to speak the truth about it.

To be an advocate for Just is to be a little lonely, excited over something that on the surface seems impossibly dry—I imagine it’s what being a fan of the Fall is like. Fact is, Just’s favorite characters are politicians and journalists, two relatively dull tribes of people. And he’s routinely refused to apply familiar stereotypes to either of them, making them seem more powerful (or more comfortable with their power) than they actually are. The second version of Flaubert is as good place to start as any, as is 1997’s Echo House or 2004’s An Unfinished Season, the first Just novel I read and the one that prompted me to dig deep into his bibliography.

Canon 2.0

Andrew Seal points to an interesting find within the bowels of Google Books: the almost-complete text of a 2007 book by Karl Bridges, 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read. True enough, the number of books listed that I’ve read comes to exactly two—and one of them, sorry to say, is Jay McInerney‘s Story of My Life.

I read the novel as a teenager, and recall actively disliking it. But then, like most teenagers, I was a more susceptible to received wisdom, and my chief guide through the 80s brat-pack novels was the brilliantly snarky faux Cliffs Notes guide that Spy magazine published in 1989 (not without some controversy). Since then, the novel has become known for reasons other than its alleged greatness, but I’m still open to hearing an argument for it. Unfortunately, Bridges’ book is disappointingly thin on that front. His critical commentaries are brief and, er, bloggy, and for a book that’s allegedly pumping greatness it sure does a soft sell. Story of My Life, I learn, doesn’t have much going on in terms of plot and character, but “is a funny novel, delivered crisply and intelligently.”

If nothing else, though, it’s another list to argue over, and one of a few voices that have pushed me toward the work of Vera Caspary, who I hope to get to soon.