Links: Mall Rats

Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, the quintessential big book about Washington power players, turns 50.

Lorrie Moore: “I don’t feel I’m a natural writer. I feel every paragraph I write stinks. But I’m a pretty good editor. I’m not that fluid in getting the sentences out right the first time. There are times when you lose confidence. There are scenes that are hard to write. So I make changes. I am still making changes.”

Audrey Niffenegger recalls her early days in Chicago’s art scene.

Henry Louis Gates recently handed out the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are given to best books about race in the past year. Among the winners is Louise Erdrich, for The Plague of Doves.

New York magazine talks with Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death,” the lead story in his new collection, The Double Life Is Twice as Good, is a genius riff on noir themes matched with Ames’ traditional acts of self-flagellation.

Serpent’s Tail Press (which has published some of my favorite David Goodis noirs) is launching a classics series. It’s an interesting take on classics: Among the first batch of reprints are Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin and George PelecanosShoedog.

An excerpt from Raymond Carver‘s “Beginners,” included in Library of America’s new Carver collection.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, has a new story collection, The Man From Kinvara.

A chat with the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Society in San Francisco.

Tortilla Flat is a good name for a John Steinbeck novel, but a bad name for a Southern California sports bar.

And a Thomas Pynchon scholar picks precisely the wrong guy with whom to cop attitude about television.

Bad Reputation

There’s only so much sympathy I can work up for Laura Albert, who spent a few years writing critically acclaimed fiction as JT Leroy. Albert is no Janet Cooke, but she was a fraud all the same, going beyond concocting a pen name and engineering a persona of a young male cross-dresser, dragging a whole lot of media folk into the fakery and duping a whole lot of readers along the way. (Jack Boulware wrote an excellent feature on the whole foofaraw back in 2006.)

So I take Albert’s pleas for understanding in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle with a grain of salt, but the interview is worth reading, circling as it does around the question of whether her written fiction is diminished because of her public fiction. She tells the Daily Eagle interviewer:

It’s all worth it. It’s wonderful to use all the artistic gestures available within the playground of fiction to create a dialogue about the topics on which our culture has maintained a silence — to create new archetypes, so some of us can recognize our stories being told.

David Milch said something that helped me understand my own work better: “You know, people say that my writing is dark. And for me it’s quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn’t try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is joyful.”

For me, doing it in my own voice was too painful. JT LeRoy was asbestos gloves to handle material that I otherwise couldn’t stand to touch. I wrote about what I knew, the topics that I was familiar with.

The wilds of Brooklyn Heights in the ’70s became the wilds of West Virginia. Believe me, they translate.

I admired Albert/Leroy’s Sarah when it came out in 2000, but back then I was also living in San Francisco, where the JT Leroy hype was thick. Maybe it deserves a reread, but scanning through it again, I’m surprised at how flat-footed the prose seems now—some provocative glimpses of truck-stop types, described either plainly or, if Albert’s working herself into a froth, faux-holy roller patter. A sample:

The rain never came that night. The sky boomed, flashed, and squeezed out a few fat droplets, but no more than that. That miracle was clearly the jurisdiction of a saint triumphing over the sorcery of a black snake. Some whispered about the ash trees that burnt up in flashes of lightning, just the sort of conniving sign of a black snake. But Stella said there is always plenty of heretical jealous folks around to spread nasty rumors.

Setting aside whatever plot points I may have forgotten, drab, hokey bits like that are rampant in Sarah—textured affectations that look like they’re saying something because they have a whiff of the Old Testament about them, but are ultimately stuffed with hot air. (Even as evidence of the narrator’s confused state of mind, it doesn’t do much.) Once the hoax came to light, I passed on catching up with the equally acclaimed collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Seems like I dodged a bullet. Jerry Stahl praised Sarah by saying Leroy writes “like Flannery O’Connor tied to the bed and plied with angel dust.” Why did we ever want that?

Selling Shorts

Donald Ray Pollock‘s recent interview with the Southeast Review covers a lot of interesting territory about short stories, not least the hard time that short fiction has these days (cf. this post):

I think everyone knows that it’s hard as hell to find a publisher for a collection of short stories, hard but not impossible. They just don’t sell that well, which is a mystery to me. Most people are so “busy” these days and distracted by technology and bullshit that you would think short fiction would be more appealing to them than a big novel, but that’s apparently not the case. Too, there are just so many of us trying to publish stories. I read slush for The Journal for a year and was amazed at the amount of stuff submitted every month. A lot of it was damn good, but, heck, the magazine could only accept maybe 10-12 stories per year.

As for me, I was very, very lucky to land with Doubleday. An agent just happened to pick up an issue of Third Coast, which is a small but respectable magazine, read “Lard,” and then emailed me. Within a few weeks, his agency had sold Knockemstiff. As for opposition, I probably got 150 rejections from magazines over the course of maybe five years. All the “big” magazines kept rejecting me, along with plenty of the smaller ones. But, as everyone will tell you, that’s to be expected. You just have to keep sending stuff out and plugging away. It’s a tough racket, but those who really want this thing will do that, just keep writing regardless of the number of rejections they receive.

The intro to the piece notes that Pollock hopes to eventually teach fiction writing. He’s got his wish this week—at least for a day.

Dept. of Self-Promotion: Denver Post books columnist David Milofsky has an interesting piece about what the future of book blogging might look like in the face of dwindling newspaper content and increasing paywalls. I’m quoted in the article as saying that we’ll have more original content on blogs and fewer blogs that just link out to other things. Like, uh, this post does. Life is a bundle of contradictions.

Links: Pocket Symphony

James Ellroy has very strong opinions about classical music: “‘I dig late Mozart,'” he says. ‘There’s a hair of dissonance, there’s more vavoom, the late symphonies. I got Böhm, the Berlin Philharmonic. I love the 21st Piano Concerto – “Elvira Madigan” – Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto. But that’s it. Haydn you can have, Handel you can have, Baroque I can’t listen to.'”

Matthew Yglesias
is still catching hell for liking Moby-Dick. A Mother Jones blogger retorts: “I didn’t care for it. I’ll spare you the details since I’d just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?” Yglesias did make an error in saying that you can’t understand America without it; the only book for which that’s true is the Bible, and then just the angry parts.

“Mailer felt obliged to make literature, or better yet a demonic theoretical broadside, out of his hump-piles and pungent smoke.”

Montana: America’s new home for werewolf fantasy novels.

The Ransom Center has a host of online materials relating to Edgar Allan Poe, in relation to the exhibit that opens there next week.

Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings helped keep Mary Chapin Carpenter from becoming miserable when she was starting to play her songs at D.C. clubs.

Production of the film version of Don DeLillo‘s End Zone is on hold.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller, who once worried in public whether a graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report represented “an advance or retreat for civilization” (no, really), is now sweating a graphic-novel adaptation to Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451: “I find myself wishing graphic novels weren’t so hip; their popularity has made me question my own motives. Am I just trying to sound cool? Is an affection for graphic novels by anyone over 25 simply the literary equivalent of buying a sports car or getting a face-lift?”

There’s a seminar on September 15 on whether Mark Twain would use Twitter. For some reason, Michael Buckley will be a part of this; frankly, I’d be more interested in reading a long essay by Twain about “What the Buck?”

It’s Labor Day weekend, so I likely won’t be around here until after the holiday. In the meantime, you can read the story about Studs Terkel, Labor Day, the yuppie couple, and the bus stop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—over and over again.

The Way of the Litblog

This week, literary bloggers D.G. Myers and Patrick Kurp are hosting an online symposium called “The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time.” (I suspect “Is What We’re Doing at All Useful?” might’ve come off as a little glum.) After I received the questions, I’d intended to dash off a few quick answers and be done with it, but it turned out that the questions had a way of keeping me typing—my answers are below. I don’t imagine that many people are willing to swim through 3,000 words on what I think about blogging, but if it helps direct attention to the work that Myers and Kurp do on their own blogs, I’m all for it.

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Funny: The first thing that popped into my head after I read this question was “the society column.” That’s unfair and inaccurate and diminishes what blog bloggers do, but it probably came to mind because book blogs a) occasionally speak to a small, somewhat esoteric group that shares many of the same opinions and social graces and b) because they play a largely supplemental role in the media landscape, and even within the book-reviewing landscape.

In the days before blogging, I worked as a reporter and critic at an alternative weekly that had a couple of popular “items columns”—slots for stories that were brief, perhaps good for a laugh or food for thought, but didn’t rise to the level of a full-fledged news story or feature. Plenty of newspapers have, or had, similar columns, or have recast them as blogs—think of the “news and notes” sidebars in the sports section next to the official gamers, or the “reporter’s notebook” pieces from whoever covered city hall or the statehouse. (My former employer, Washington City Paper, has transformed its news and notes column, City Desk, into a blog called City Desk—which in turn has fed the print version of the column.)

These columns are largely surplus information—interesting tidbits, but really only intended for the true aficionado of the particular subject. Book blogs often behave in a similar way. (Sorry, but I’ll be using “often” and “largely” and other self-insulating modifiers a lot in my responses. You’re asking questions about all book blogs, but that’s a big category, and they don’t all behave the same way.) Even ones that produce a lot of original content spend at least some time being responsive to stories and trends in the literary world that have been covered by the larger media outlets. If you’re dedicating yourself full-time to providing original literary content, you’re no longer running a book blog—you’re running an online literary magazine, which is a different creature.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Before I started my own book blog in January 2008, I read a lot of what I’d suppose you might call the usual suspects: The Elegant Variation, Maud Newton, the Millions, Blog of a Bookslut, the New York TimesPaper Cuts. But in terms of them being inspirations and models, I largely looked at them as models for what not to do. Not because I disliked them, but because I figured that they had already claimed their particular patches of turf, forcing me to avoid their most common habits. (No knee-jerk whining about the contents of the New York Times Book Review, I told myself; no dutiful mentions of the death of a Syrian poet I’d never read and never heard of until the obit popped up in my RSS feed.)

As I blog more, I inevitably read more blogs—partly because I learn of the bloggers who are reading me—and I’ve seen book blogs roughly break down into two types. There are those that are concerned with books as a consumer good (ie., blogs about the publishing industry, or publishing trends), and those that are concerned with books as literature, or that discuss particular books, or actually engage in criticism of them. I read and respect both, but my ambitions lean toward the latter. I got into this racket because I want to become a better reader, not because I want to better understand the publishing biz. (I got burned out on covering pop music in part because I was spending too much time learning how the sausage got made.) Though I don’t mind being aware of what’s happening with e-books and the upcoming Dan Brown novel, I really don’t have the energy or expertise to speculate on “why it matters.”

But to answer your question directly: I have a ton of admiration for Sarah Weinman, who can successfully navigate both worlds and is a sharp journalist besides. Otherwise, I tend to gravitate to the blogs that are going to teach me something I don’t know, and are engaged in thoughtful readings about books—Blographia Literaria, Conversational Reading, and A Commonplace Blog. (If that sounds obsequious, all I can say is that I wouldn’t spend time writing lengthy answers to questions from a blogger I didn’t admire.) And I still have plenty of admiration for what Sarvas, Newton, et al do as well.

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

I don’t wind up reading a lot of book reviews on book blogs, mainly because I don’t wind up coming across too many of them. (In saying this, I’m making a distinction between Blog of a Bookslut and Bookslut proper, which includes reviews and interviews; and between Conversational Reading and its associated review site The Quarterly Conversation. For what it’s worth, I find the review sites interesting, and they often introduce me to books that aren’t getting covered otherwise, but they can be frustratingly erratic in terms of quality.) I think there’s a lot of thoughtful engagement with books on blogs—a lot of quick-hit riffing and expressions of enthusiasm, and I participate in some of that myself. That has its place—I wouldn’t do it if I think it didn’t—but it isn’t a replacement for the kind of considered reviewing that appears in newspapers, magazines, and the better-financed online publications. I still believe that, overall, more interesting writing about books is in the pages of Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books than in any one blog. But there’s writing about books on blogs that’s much more clever, engaged, and surprising than what you might find in a mediocre daily newspaper or most alternative weeklies. That’s why the print-versus-blog debate is frustrating and often silly; who “wins” depends entirely on the perspective from which you approach them.

Regardless, I think it’s true that blogs are filling in gaps that those mainstream publications won’t dedicate space to. I appreciate that a lot of book blogs concentrate on areas the more established publications ignore—romance, small-press books, works in translation, etc. My only complaint is that I could do with less of the keening on those sites about how the NYT or whoever isn’t dedicating enough space and attention to your particular enthusiasm. If you know you’re doing a good thing, bellyaching about how other people aren’t doing it either just makes you look unconfident.

Blogs are also much, much better at stoking conversations about books than print reviews, even the ones that appear on comment-enabled Web sites. To perhaps overgeneralize, book reviews are declarative statements; blog posts are questions. The former puts forth a line of argument; the latter invites others to help formulate lines of argument. Or at least the better blogs do that, leaving the door open for additional commentary. Both have their place, though—there’s something to be said for reading somebody who has produced a thoughtful interpretation on something, and it can be entertaining to read somebody trying to work it out as well.

How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.”

I’d say it’s just as true as this statement: “Book reviewing is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.” If we define “hobby” as an avocation pursued more out of passion than out of a need for money, book reviewing is a hobby for the overwhelming majority of people who do it. I can only imagine what would happen to the membership of an organization like the National Book Critics Circle if it included only those who make a living reviewing books. I work a day job unrelated to the book world or book reviewing, so I can’t get too outraged at this supposedly provocative statement; I’m a hobbyist myself.

Others are welcome to judge if that means I’m therefore unfit to review books. But I think the question buried underneath here is more like, “Do you feel diminished when somebody says blogging is just a hobby?” Nah. I’ve gotten lots of edification out of blogging and even a little bit of work; I feel more engaged with books, and feel better equipped to write and talk about about them. I feel it’s improved how I’ve written about books, and pointed me to ones I otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. I certainly know more about the things I don’t know. When I started doing this, I nursed a slight concern that it would peg me as “just a blogger.” Perhaps that’s the case—after all, the New Yorker still hasn’t rung me up. But I don’t think it’s lessened me in the eyes of the publications I do write for, and I’ve met more smart people than I would have if I’d never started my blog.

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

One thing blogging does is remind you that you have an audience—people will read what you have to say, comment on it, and call you on your errors, flaws in logic, etc. That’s a great improvement from years back, when a book review in a paper may have had more authority than a blog, but you didn’t get much of a sense of what readers were thinking. So blogging keeps me on my toes—I write now being much more mindful of the fact that there will be people scrutinizing it with a mind for logical gaps, cliches, and just plain bad writing. I’ve worked as a reporter and editor, so I had a lot of that beaten into me anyhow, but it never hurts to have a little extra downward pressure.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?–the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

Occasional viciousness is true of online conversation in general—I don’t think it’s limited to book blogs, or blogging in general. After all, in the early 90s we got Godwin’s Law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (It may speak to the level of our current national conversation about politics that Godwin’s Law has moved offline and into in-person conversations, where people apparently believe that putting brush mustaches on pictures of the president equates to thought and argument.) Something about online discussions just happen to spark this stuff—the stakes are low and the environment of one-upmanship is high.

Arguments happen; smart people can choose to engage or disengage as they see fit. Hopefully, those same smart people can detect when somebody is trying to launch a discussion (perhaps through “harsh disagreement”) or just pushing a finger in somebody’s chest. Ultimately, there are only two ways a conversation can go—either people can find some common ground and room for compromise, or they can keep barking about the points on which they disagree. Both of which are fine (though the latter seems silly after a while). It only gets annoying when things degrade into taking-my-toys-and-going-home behavior: removing somebody’s blog from a blogroll, unfollowing them from Twitter, huffy posts about how you shall never speak of [Blogger X] again. A good rule of thumb regarding arguments, both online and in everyday life, is to ask yourself, “Will this matter six months from now?” I’d suggest that more than 90 percent of the time it won’t.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

No. At least, I don’t agree with the logic of the argument put forward by this “some.” Who said that the end goal of blogging is fame? And how might a book blogger become famous, anyhow? People magazine has a circulation of 3.7 million; the New York Review of Books has a circulation of only 130,000. Is the NYRB thus a failure? Conversations about books are esoteric in the larger world; within the Web world, we all might as well be in a cult.

I suspect that when somebody says that blogging had a “golden age,” the person means that there was a time (circa 2002) when it felt new and exciting, and the media wanted to do stories about it, and some people got a lot of attention really quickly (book deals! movie options!), and everybody got to have lively discussions and post pictures of puppies or argue about string theory, and it was a thrill because we all had a brand-new toy to play with and we knew who was reading us and we were finally, finally, getting some interesting e-mail. That moment has passed, so it’s easy for media folk to say blogging is old hat and move on to the new. But blogging remains a valid form, and Twitter is no replacement for it. (Twitter is more a supplemental form, I think—a supplement to a supplement.) What other online format besides blogging allows people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations? I suppose Facebook might qualify, but it’s a poor vehicle for lengthy, considered thought, and its system is designed to push your ideas only to your closest friends. If blogging is over, nobody’s created a suitable replacement for what blogging does.

(Aside: For the record, there are non-online formats that allow people to write at various lengths, distribute to a wide audience, and spark conversations. They’re called newspapers and magazines. Nobody’s invented a suitable real-world replacement for those, which is why I’m not in the hurry that some are to declare them dead.)

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

I’ll start by addressing the second question, which strikes me as presumptive—or, at least, doesn’t define its terms precisely. The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, is among the top 3,000 blogs around, according to Technorati; so is Whatever, a blog by science fiction author John Scalzi, who often discusses books and prompts plenty of lively discussion about them. The number one site on Technorati is run by an author, Arianna Huffington, who has provided a platform for dozens of authors to express their opinions. So who’s a “book blogger”? And what’s a “huge audience”? We are not starving for discussions of books online, and there are a few of those places that are attracting a sizable (perhaps even “huge”!) audience.

I imagine the second question is designed to prompt me to wring my hands about the matter addressed by the first question—that perhaps book bloggers are not being trustworthy enough, or entertaining enough, or reflect our collective consciousness enough, and therefore aren’t huge enough. To that, the only appropriate response I can think of is: Screw it. Even setting aside that all litbloggers, regardless of quality, are playing small-ball in an online space dominated by sex, politics, celebrity, and technology, building trust and regularly producing quality has never been a recipe for success. Newspapers, after all, have traded on their authority, quality, and ability to connect with readers for decades, and it hasn’t done a thing to help their rapidly diminishing circulation.

(Please indulge me a brief rant on this point. That same Malone article perpetuates the canard that newspapers are dying “because they violated readers’ trust that they would deliver timely, accurate and unbiased news.” Newspapers are dying because the advertising market collapsed and because in the past ten years people have been introduced to many more ways to receive information, all lobbying for the rapidly evaporating pool of advertising dollars that remain. Bias didn’t kill newspapers any more than poorly written reviews of Dan Brown novels killed newspaper book sections [though they certainly didn’t help]. “Newspapers are dying because they betrayed our trust!” is a lie that partisan types tell themselves when the New York Times doesn’t splash their hobby horse on A-1. I wish all the people who keep telling me that the papers are full of bias would follow through and cancel their subscriptions. Then I could get through the morning paper without reading letters to the editor about media bias.)

If the real question here is, “How can we create better book blogs, and how can we get more attention drawn to them?” I’m not sure that can be done in any organized fashion. I certainly wouldn’t want to be charged with trying to make it happen. Book bloggers already exist in a competitive environment for their audiences: To get attention, they have to do things that other blogs aren’t doing, find their points of differentiation and run with with them. Sometimes you can get attention by stuffing your blog with linkbait like a top-ten list or a passing mention of a celebrity. But ultimately a blog’s success is going to have to be defined by how often you provide interesting commentary about books, without gimmicks. The online advertising landscape is so screwy at the moment that it’ll be some time before book bloggers enjoy any real financial rewards for their efforts. I do believe that moment will arrive, and I’m still a firm believer in the notion that the good stuff finds its audience. But as far as “huge audiences” go, I’m reminded of Daniel Clowes’ comment that being praised as the greatest living comic artist is a little like being called the world’s best badminton player. No matter how good you are, there’s only going to be a limited pool of people who care.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Bloggers are always wise to speak out on what they’re passionate about. This was perhaps the hardest hurdle for old-school newspaper journalists to clear when it came to blogging—they’re trained not to write in the first person, or to register political opinions, and their initial stuffy attitude toward the first-person led to all those accusations that newspapers don’t get it when it comes to online commentary. Online readers want to know who they’re dealing with, and they want some sense that person blogging is somebody with a life and relationships and enthusiasms. But book bloggers who post about their politics are a little like political bloggers who post pictures of their cats—-it’s not illegal, I suppose, and it won’t make me remove you from my RSS feed, but it does often feel ungainly and irritating.

On a personal note, I imagine that part of my aversion to deep political readings about books has to do with the fact that I was an English major at the University of Chicago in the early 90s, during the height of the PC wars in academia. Back then, my efforts to be a dutiful student were unsettled by the squabbling among cultural studies theorists who would pre-dismiss any thought in my head as a tool of oppression, by virtue of the fact that I’m a white middle-class male. That squabbling started for some good reasons, I know, but it’s made me averse to divisive, overstated political readings of books ever since. (It also put me off going to the graduate school in the humanities, which I’m confident was a good thing; I imagine it’s no fun spending a whole career feeling weaponized.)

All that said, not all political commentaries on blogs are created equal. Posts on the order of, “We Interrupt This Litblog For a Very Special Announcement of My Thoughts about Health-Care Reform” won’t do much for me. But though I’m not much of a socialist, I like reading Scott McLemee’s writings from that perspective on his (too rarely updated) blog, Quick Study. I just want to be convinced that politics are relevant to the argument. As we know from various books on online communities (Infotopia by Cass Sunstein [lefty!] being one of the better ones), political commentaries online tend to resolve into echo chambers. If you feel like finding fans who will applaud you for sharing the same political leanings you have, go for it. If you’re hoping to convince people with different leanings to agree with you, you’ve assigned yourself a hopeless task.

They Would Prefer Not To

I suspect that there are a few bright thoughts about books in the 160 comments to a post by Moby-Dick enthusiast Matthew Yglesias. But, because the very first line of the very first comment is “Fuck Moby Dick,” I’m dissuaded from exploring further. Yglesias’ post is inspired by a New York Times story in which a New York University professor suggests that no child is interested in reading Moby-Dick. The story as a whole is an interesting look at an experiment to let elementary and middle-school students pick their own reading assignments; though it’s not quite anything-goes, some are permitted to read Twilight novels and James Patterson thrillers.

Benjamin Dueholm talks a lot of sense about the matter in his post, “A Child Who Picks Up Moby Dick Won’t Actually Like It”:

[A] classic out of season is worthless to most anyone. You don’t learn to love reading because you were blown away by Moby-Dick; you learn to persevere through Moby-Dick because you learned to love reading from simpler, trendier, more instantly-gratifying stuff. Chase thrillers, Star Trek novelizations, Judy Blume, whatever–it’s the Pixie Stix of literary pleasure that get us hooked and in need of subtler, more thrilling highs.

To the extent that it’s doubtful a middle school ever assigned Moby-Dick anyhow, it’s a moot point. But what I wish the Times story were clearer about—and this is tough to quantify, I know—is whether the choose-your-own-adventure approach increased an overall interest in reading, or if being force-fed Huck Finn actually decreases it. (The story mentions one study that says choice improved performance on comprehension exams, but doesn’t say by how much, or if those cases involved a mix of choice and assignments.)

Like Yglesias and Dueholm, I’m a big fan of Moby-Dick; like Dueholm, I didn’t read it until I was out of college. Maybe it’s ambitious reading in high school that makes you a lifelong reader, though I sometimes wish I had a do-over for the classics I read then that I didn’t have an especially good grip on: Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury. What I do know is that the comic books and Star Trek novelizations I also read back then didn’t adequately prepare me for those books; what I needed (and sometimes got) was a smart teacher who could speak about how thoughtful literature works. Which is why I’m a little skeptical of the idea of a curriculum designed to support pretty much whatever the student feels like. It smacks of everybody-gets-a-trophy-ism, and risks avoiding a cold fact of adult life that school ostensibly prepares you for: We’re often charged with reading things that are complicated but which we are obligated to understand anyway. Classics can be difficult, but isn’t that why we teach them?

How to Fight Loneliness

There isn’t much online about the author Don Carpenter, who started his career in the mid-60s and died in 1995 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An online bio says he spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he befriended Anne Lamott and Richard Brautigan, and wrote a series of well-liked but generally poor-selling novels. His first novel, Hard Rain Falling, is enjoying a reissue through NYRB Classics, with a new introduction by George Pelecanos. (If you’re in the D.C. area, Pelecanos discusses the book September 10 at the Busboys & Poets off U Street.)

To discover the book now, as I have, is to feel a little like you’ve uncovered a sort of Swiss army knife of contemporary fiction, encompassing noir, crime fiction, prison fiction, gay fiction, and the domestic novel. Carpenter appears to be the only novelist who aspired to connect all these ideas, and certainly the only one who connected them in a way that felt at all coherent. Jack Levitt, the book’s protagonist, is a pool hustler with a short temper who spends time in Portland, San Quentin, and San Francisco. His adventures generally involve some mix of sex, alcohol, and bloodshed, held together by a sense of loneliness pervades nearly every moment of his existence. (It’s no accident that Beckett and Algren get mentioned in passing.) It’s a sort of ur-Corrections, a catalog of all the efforts one man makes to shake off his feeling of isolation, and how he fails at it pretty much every time.

What the book isn’t is an existential novel—though Carpenter’s narration is deeply interior, it’s not especially philosophical. Also, it’s bitterly funny at times, or at least reflects a certain kind of gallows humor that I don’t recall in the French existentialists. This bit, in which a fellow prisoner talks to Jack about one of the worst places he’s been incarcerated, captures some of Carpenter’s tone:

“When I came in here, I was a mild socialist. I suppose I dreamed of a world in which all men received equal treatment before the law, and the function of the law was to see that everyone received equal treatment. Perhaps I even dreamed that in a mildly socialist world, we might even stop murdering each other’s children, since there would be nothing to gain from it. I have been in here two weeks now, and when I get out I’m going to make a very formal ceremony of going down and registering as a Republican. I have been in here two weeks, and like all the rest of us I have been stripped, absolutely stripped, of every single emotional and intellectual value, every basic urge, every desire; everything that distinguishes me as a human being from other human beings, or even from other animals. My privacy is gone, my pride is gone, I have no status, nor is there any way to get any status in here. My sexual urges, as weak as they are, have no possibility of satisfaction. My other appetites have been reduced to the point where I eat, drink, sleep, crap, piss, scratch, and yawn all for the same thing—the mere satisfaction or rather, reduction, of a primal itch I’d be better off without.”

Carpenter wrote nine other novels, and a few story collections as well; recommendations about where to go next are welcome.