Candid Camera

It’s hard to ask anybody to spend nearly more than five minutes at a stretch consuming something online, I know, but the 84-minute interview with David Foster Wallace from 2003 (h/t Steve Rhodes) is worth the while. Speaking with an interviewer for a German television program, Wallace provides something of a pocket history of some of the major themes of his writing—mass media, addiction, politics, tennis, and the role of the author. If you bypassed Infinite Summer, this isn’t a bad cheat sheet.

Wallace discusses his frustration with reading his own words aloud (“it’s not supposed to live on the breath”), depression (“there’s a lot of narcissism in self-hatred”); and the paradox of having to make an indictment of mass culture that’s appealing to an audience (“making the attack on entertainment entertaining”). He also delivers a sugar-coated swipe at the PA who said that he was moving around too much while he was “pon-tif-i-cat-ing.” Part of what makes the interview so compelling is that the camera is locked onto Wallace’s face the whole time—there are no cutaways, so you get to watching him work on getting his sentences out. Wallace is by no means inarticulate, but he’s often sputtery and frustrated, working harder than most writers to organize a complex line of thought into clear paragraphs. He talks like he writes. More to the point, he talks like somebody who revises over and over as he writes.

And as he struggles to do that, he ends up embracing the very aspect of television he spends so much time criticizing. Numerous times he tells the faceless interviewer something like, “You’ll fix this, right?” or “Figure out some way to edit this so it’ll make sense.” I don’t know what the final product for broadcast was, or if there was one. But though an edited version of the interview may have been an excellent vision of something, only the raw footage could be an excellent vision of how Wallace thought.

Editing changes everything, a notion that crops up as an important point in Richard Powers‘ upcoming novel, Generosity: An Enhancement (a book I’ll likely be coming back to a lot in the coming months). At the center of the story is a woman named Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian woman living in Chicago who seems to possess the “happiness gene”; among the others threaded through the tale is Tonia Schiff, the host of a prominent TV science program, which inevitably targets Amzwar. The entire book is a consideration of what makes a story, and though the scene below, set in the show’s editing bay, doesn’t give away the plot, it does underscore what Powers (America’s most Wallace-ian living writer) felt about Wallace’s concerns on camera:

By the time the scene with Thassadit Amzwar unfolded, Tonia felt ill. All the clips of the manhandled, displaced Berber had been edited to eliminate any cloud or edge. The woman’s increasingly tumbled landscape had been cropped to just the smooth vistas. “This isn’t right,” Schiff said, without turning around. “We’re not doing justice to her. We have to use some of the rockier stuff, too.”

“We’re trying to tell a story here,” Garrett said.

“A story? You mean a fib?”

Links: The Secret History

Joyce Carol Oates recalls the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s “unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour” at Chappaquiddick, and questions whether decades of good behavior as a senator atones for it. This is the “WORST THING I HAVE EVER READ” in the eyes of some, but hey, 26 comments.

The great Jack Pendarvis on how Woody Allen shaped his identity—until he discovered Roy Blount Jr.

Jonathan Lethem tells the Jewish Daily Forward that he’s working on a novel set in Queens during the 50s and 60s.

A brief guide to academic revenge novels.

News to me: Steve Albini writes short stories. He certainly knows how to write a strong opening to an article.

Kevin Canty explains why so many of his story titles are taken from songs. “Nothing mysterious about this,” he says. “I just stink at coming up with titles and somebody’s already done the work for you when they write the song. Why work when you can steal?

Colum McCann
is heading off on a European tour to promote his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, along with musician Joe Hurley, who’s written an EP of songs based on characters in the novel.

Nelson Algren‘s first meeting with Simone de Beauvoir.

Lastly, is your last name Portnoy? Do you have a complaint about something Dan Froomkin wrote? Hoo boy, does Froomkin have a comeback for you!

End of the Road

It’s no substitute for William Least Heat-Moon‘s Blue Highways, but Paul Theroux‘s road-trip story in the latest issue of Smithsonian is an entertaining chronicle of a speedy trip across the United States. It can be difficult to think of Theroux as an American author sometimes, given how rarely his fiction is set there, and Theroux himself confesses he feels a bit like an outsider working on the piece:

In my life, I had sought out other parts of the world—Patagonia, Assam, the Yangtze; I had not realized that the dramatic desert I had imagined Patagonia to be was visible on my way from Sedona to Santa Fe, that the rolling hills of West Virginia were reminiscent of Assam and that my sight of the Mississippi recalled other great rivers. I’m glad I saw the rest of the world before I drove across America. I have traveled so often in other countries and am so accustomed to other landscapes, I sometimes felt on my trip that I was seeing America, coast to coast, with the eyes of a foreigner, feeling overwhelmed, humbled and grateful.

A book by Theroux that attempted a broad treatment of the country would be worth reading (though hopefully it would have fewer clunky generalizations like “as a nation, we are warriors as well as peacemakers”). But would enough people want to read it to make it worth publishing? The road novel seems like a relic now, runoff of the enthusiasm that followed the WPA guides and the construction of the interstate highway system. (Last year’s collection State by State was a weak attempt to revive that spirit; the majority of the pieces were drab once-over-lightlies, scanning each state the way people tend to scan magazines.) I recently (finally) finished Richard YatesRevolutionary Road, and among its many pleasures is how it underscores the intense feeling of wanderlust in the mid-50s—the open road was new and exciting, suburbia was new and oppressive, and can’t we just get the hell out? Decades later, the highway has become less interesting, and more and more writers have taken Sherwood Anderson‘s command to William Faulkner to heart—try to understand your “little postage stamp of native soil” instead of trying to figure out a whole nation. (The only contemporary road novels that immediately spring to mind are Mark Z. Danielewski‘s Only Revolutions, an experimental narrative that drenches the story in wordplay and irony, as if a road story were now so trite it would be foolish to tell it straight; and Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, which decimates the landscape, as if we were idiots to ever romanticize it.) We’re not worse off for this lack—now that we no longer live in a monoculture, a big, nation-swallowing novel seems both impossible and pointless—though it’s a little surprising that writers are less inclined to figure out how we fit in the larger scheme of things, in favor of figuring out the tiny spots where we are in the first place.

Reading With the President

The White House announced today that President Barack Obama is bringing a handful of novels with him during his weeklong vacation, including Richard Price‘s Lush Life, Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong, and George Pelecanos The Way Home. (He’s also bringing a couple of “serious” books.) All fine selections, and though I’d like to hear what he thinks of the books overall when he’s done with them, I’m also curious to learn what he thinks of this particular passage from Lush Life, in which Matty, a homicide detective, finds his plans to recanvass a neighborhood where a murder has occurred have been derailed thanks to a surprise visitor…

“Matty.” Yolonda holding up the phone. “Dargan from Berkowitz.”

Matty braced. Detective Dargan, Deputy Inspector Berkowitz’s Bad News Bear. “Hey, Jerry.”

“Yeah, hey, Matty, look, we just got word, the president’s coming into town tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“OK.” Matty waited for the other shoe.

“So, we’re going to need to postpone your recanvass.”

“What?” Matty tried to come off stunned. “Why?”

“The word from on high is to pull manpower from all units, including yours. No excusals.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? I spent the last two days lining everybody up for this. You couldn’t have told me earlier?”

“We just found out ourselves.”

“How the fuck can you not know the president’s coming in until the day?”

“Hey,” Dargan said calmly, “I have nothing to do with this. I’m just the messenger.”

Fucking Berkowitz.

“Is he in? Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea,” Dargan said mournfully.

“And you’re taking people from my squad? It’s a seventh-day homicide recanvass. You can’t take my people.”

“No excusals,” Dargan said. “Sorry.”

“This fucking sucks. Let me talk to him.”

“Not a good idea … And Matty? Truly … Let it be.”

As he slammed the phone down, Yolonda snapped off her cell. “They’re pulling me and Iacone,” she said. “You know something? I don’t think I’ve ever been inside the Waldorf.”

“A kind of stove to keep that fire safe and useful”

Jeff Baker‘s feature in the Oregonian on Katherine Dunn is the kind of author profile I wish there were more of—a thoughtful, multisourced piece on a writer who truly deserves the long-form treatment (h/t Michael Schaub). Dunn’s most recent novel remains 1989’s brilliant Geek Love, and in the 20 years since she’s been busily writing about boxing, both as a journalist and a fiction writer. Her next novel is tentatively titled “Cut Man,” which will do further harm to her strange original plan to title her books:

“I was reading a lot of European history and I thought Attila the Hun had gotten a bad rap,” she said. “I had this notion that I would write books that over time would spell out ‘Attila.’ I had the A. That’s why the second book was called ‘Truck.’ I wrote a third book called ‘Toad’ that was rejected by my editor in a very ferocious fashion: ‘Nobody in this book is likable!’ Which was discouraging. But at that time I was already into a fourth novel … that would have been published, if it ever had been, as ‘Inquiry.’ So then I would have ATTI … In my ambitious days I even thought I would manage ‘Attila the Hun’ but at least I wanted ‘Attila.'”

Her new book is a collection of her boxing journalism titled One Ring Circus. In June she talked to Guernica magazine about the book and the appeal of the sport:

I hope that it’s an invitation to non-boxing fans to take a look at this very peculiar subculture which is built on and devoted to violence, but has a remarkably friendly and often quite hilarious aspect to it. I think many people nowadays have very little access to information about boxing and so they’re left with Hollywood stereotypes, and I think that far too often that gives them the wrong idea. But I think boxing really is a contribution to human culture, in the sense that humans are the most dangerous predator—probably with the exception of a few microbes—and boxing is one of those forms that human society has developed. It’s a kind of stove to keep that fire safe and useful.

The Grapes of Mild Outrage

Because I have class issues, I was interested in the closing exchange in Dan Chaon‘s recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. (I enjoyed his 2004 novel, You Remind Me of Me; haven’t read his new one, Await Your Reply)

In an interview, you spoke about the working class today being portrayed in fiction as “TV-watching, Twinkie-eating hicks.” You said you’re trying to show “a searching intellectual and emotional life in people who aren’t educated or rich.” Why don’t more novelists find inspiration in the working class?

There’s not as much contact between people of different social classes as we like to imagine. We’re not living in Oxford, Miss., where Faulkner was able to hang out with extremely rich and extremely poor people. Except in small towns, people are really divided. Most people who grow up in poor communities are not becoming writers. I have students who are the first generation to go to college. They may be great writers, but they want to improve their lives, and becoming a writer is probably not the best way to do that.

Seems like a simple enough point—we don’t have much fiction about working-class lives because there aren’t many working-class writers, and we don’t have many working-class writers because writing, when you’re hovering around the middle of the class ladder or two-thirds of the way down it, is a risky venture. (If you grew up that way and aspired to write, you were more likely to pursue skilled-tradesperson status as a journalist or PR professional. Easier to explain to the parents. I suppose journalism is off the table in that regard, now.) There are exceptions, of course, like Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Stuart Dybek, and Dorothy Allison. You know you’re an exception because you make a point of it: The first line of Allison’s official bio stresses that she is “the first child of a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who worked as a waitress.”

Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s a shortage today of good writers with working-class backgrounds—there’s a shortage of good writers from any background, after all—as a shortage of writing about work itself, and about what “working class” means today. Blame it on a hobbled American manufacturing base, or a fear that any writing about labor will become The Jungle; or, most likely, that work itself is a dull subject to write about. Regardless, American fiction about work is often fiction about finance and offices, as I’ve scribbled about before. Working-class jobs are more often things ripe for satire—like the carnivals in George Saunders‘ “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and Wells Tower‘s “On the Show.” Both are short stories, as if a book about getting your hands dirty couldn’t clock an eight hour read. Even a fine recent novel on the subject, Stewart O’Nan‘s Last Night at the Lobster, is strikingly slim, barely 150 pages. And though O’Nan has admirable respect for his characters, the overall tone is one of defeat—the Red Lobster in which the novel is set is about to close forever, the snow outside is miserable, and nobody cares to thinks much about the restaurant itself. If you think about it too hard, it’ll just remind you of the futility of life at the lower reaches of the corporate org chart, something the manager considers as he opens for the day:

If he never opens, he thinks, they can never close. It’s a kid’s wish. Whatever happens today, tomorrow the place will be a locked box like the Perkins up the road (and he’ll still have to show up in uniform for a few hours and hand out gift cards to the disappointed lunch crowd, as if this was his fault). For the last two months he’s been carefully managing down his inventory, so they’re low on everything fresh. Corporate will inventory what they can use and send it to Newington—the spoils of war. The rest, like the glass-eyed marlin, they’ll have hauled away. Probably gut the place, leave it to the mice and silverfish he’s fought to a draw for so long.

Why not just burn it to the ground? Whoever comes in is just going to want to build new anyway.

Update: A tipster directs me to this excellent four-way commentary about working-class writers from 2004 between Chaon, Susan Straight, John McNally, and the late Larry Brown. Among other things, the roundtable adds more recommended writers to the pool, including Kent Haruf, Tim Gautreaux, Pete Dexter, and Lynda Barry.


On an unrelated note—though books about music are often stories about failing to get paid properly for your efforts—I have a review of four books about the music industry in today’s Washington Post. It starts this way:

The music industry is supposedly dying, but it’s not going away quietly. A contentious debate this year over online radio royalties turned on who gets paid what in the pop economy. Congressional hearings on a proposed merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster delved into whether one company would monopolize a corner of the concert business. Michael Jackson’s death not only prompted a massive sales boost for his recordings but also brought a rare moment of agreement between fans and critics on the musical icon’s legacy. As four new books make clear, these stories are just the latest iterations of decades-long arguments over how music gets played, heard, admired and paid for.

The four books are David Suisman‘s Selling Sounds (the one I liked best out of the batch), Greg Milner‘s Perfecting Sound Forever, Elijah Wald‘s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Greg Kot‘s Ripped.


I’m back from having spent the better part of a week in Toronto, where I heard Clay Shirky, Charlene Li, and lots of other smart people speak at my employer’s annual meeting. (It’s also where Candy Spelling was pitted against a Build-a-Bear Workshop, but that’s another matter.) I’ll get back into the usual swim of things shortly. (This has been the longest I’ve been separated from this blog since I started it, I think; it’s a strange feeling.) In the meantime, consider taking a look at the Southeast Review‘s Q&A with Donald Ray Pollock; D. G. Myersappreciation of Philip Roth‘s Goodbye Columbus on its 50th anniversary; and, perhaps because I’ve been exposed to too much celebrity journalism while biding my time in airport terminals yesterday, Miley Cyrusthoughts on The Catcher in the Rye.

Going Fourth

The Brooklyn Paper brings word of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, which awards $50,000 to the person who’s written the best fourth published work of fiction. (The story keeps saying “novel,” but the official guidelines are more general.) Up for the debut prize are Chris Abani, Aleksandar Hemon, Jim Krusoe, and Arthur Phillips. Phillips tells the paper what a fourth book means for a writer:

“The fourth novel certainly represents a psychological change in a career,” he said. “With the fourth book, I feel like I’m treated as a writer who has been around for a while — and who, if he is going to keep sticking around, is going to have to do something else to keep getting people’s attention.”

The paper also has a tongue-in-cheek chart on other famous fourth novels. A few more fourth fictions, while we’re at it (“checked” against Wikipedia, so inaccuracy may be pervasive):

Joyce Carol Oates, A Garden of Earthly Delights
Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star
Paul Auster, The Locked Room
Russell Banks, Hamilton Stark
Ha Jin, Waiting
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief

Not much to extrapolate from that list; there’s one of Jin’s best novels, but also DeLillo’s worst. The best that can perhaps be said is that by the time the fourth book rolls around you may be poised for some kind of breakthrough: Chabon’s fifth book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. But plenty of writers I admire (Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, Nathan Englander) haven’t even published their fourth books yet, so it’s not much of a benchmark for success or acclaim; as far as I can tell, Ben Marcus and Heidi Julavits haven’t hit book number four, and they got to help judge the award.


On that note, I’m off for the better part of a week, working and traveling. Figure we’ll be dark here until next Thursday, though I’ll likely pop up on Twitter (@mathitak) from time to time.

The Scale of the Place

Documented because it’s a lovely passage, and because the other two cities I’ve lived in (D.C. and San Francisco), never seem to earn this kind of breathless observation:

“Thomas Kurton tells Thassa Amzwar to pick a meeting spot anywhere in the city. She laughs at the blank check. This city has forests in the northwest big enough to get lost in. To the south, black neighborhoods the size of Constantine that white people never enter. Convention centers with the look of fifties science-fiction space colonies. Warehouse districts full fo resale contraband peppered with refrigerated corpses. Cemeteries a hundred times the length of a soccer pitch, with gravestones in forty-one languages. There’s Chinatown, Greek Town, Bucktown, Boystown, Little Italy, Little Seoul, little Mexico, little Palestine, little Assyria…Two Arab neighborhoods—the southwest Muslims and the northwest Christians—where people from a dozen countries congregate to eat, recite Arabic poetry, and mock each other’s dialects.

She has my problem: too much possibility. A thousand parks, four hundred theaters, three dozen beaches, fifty colleges, fifteen bird sanctuaries, seven botanical gardens, two different zoos, and a glass-encased tropical jungle. Meet anywhere? The scientist doesn’t realize the scale of the place.”

Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

“Sound feminist or something grounds”

The New York Times‘ book blog, Paper Cuts, points to David Updike‘s eulogy for his father, John Updike, at a March tribute at the New York Public Library. David is, pretty much inevitably, an underrated writer, and his new story collection, Old Girlfriends, is worth tracking down. He’s inherited a lot of his dad’s themes but his stories don’t feel like mimickry, as if having that last name freed him instead of overwhelmed him. (The time-pressed might head straight for “Kinds of Love,” in which a man attends church with the woman with whom he’s having an affair.)

The nice thing about the Paper Cuts post is that it also points to a complete transcript [PDF] of the New York Public Library Tribute. The usual kindnesses were voiced by Knopf and New Yorker cohorts like Sonny Mehta, David Remnick, Roger Angell, and others. But Ann Goldstein, who edited Updike’s book reviews for the magazine, provided some of the most interesting commentary—it’s a window into how Updike came off as somebody openly willing to accept editing without having to change a damn thing. Goldstein reads a couple of examples of his reactions to edits:

From 1992: “My criticism inspires me with an increasing impatience. It seems simultaneously timid and reckless, a callow papering over of an invincible ignorance. Toward the end, on galley 12, I wearily brushed your suggested revisions aside, unable to rise to the occasion and finding my own phrasing more succinct and natural.” (laughter)

From 1989: “I noticed that somebody went through and deleted the Miss on I’m sure sound feminist or something grounds. It just seems a little discourteous to an elderly fellow like me to call her ‘Dillard,’ like some androgynous housekeeper or gruff governess. (laughter) The one beginning the paragraph on galley 9 seemed especially curt. It was our way in the days of Shawn to give all living female authors the courtesy of a Miss or Mrs.—Mrs. Spark, Miss Murdoch—but I am happy to go with the new ways if it seems important.”

Editing, for Updike, was “scraping off the fuzzballs”—something dutiful, fussy, perhaps even a little unnecessary (if you’re Updike, anyway). And though he liked the fussing, according to Goldstein he particularly loved it when a piece needed a quick turnaround—as any writer who’s written for a print publication knows, a signal that your copy won’t be mucked with much. “What fun, this sudden shuttle of proofs back and forth,” he’d tell Goldstein in those moments, “as though I live in the real world after all.”