The Nonfiction Turn

A couple of days ago the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted on Twitter that she was preparing to teach a course in nonfiction writing and was looking for great examples of it. The list of responses she received is a long one, which is heartening, though the fact that so many of the examples come from previous generations isn’t—-much as I like Royko and Kidder and Didion and Mitchell (not to mention Orlean), it’s a familiar hit parade. (I contributed to the problem by recommending Norman Sims‘ two great anthologies, The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism, both a few decades old at this point.) All this may simply be a function of people being inclined to recommend books instead of individual pieces, and it takes forever for good nonfiction to earn its way into hardcover; when it comes to magazine articles, heaven knows there’s still lots of great, great, great stuff being published.

Orlean’s list also got me thinking about good examples of fiction writers who’ve successfully transitioned into nonfiction. It’s a dodgy category—Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold and Haruki Murakami‘s Underground both take on serious subjects but have a surprising lack of narrative thrust, swallowed as they are by the parade of details; though I’ve tried to crack both William T. Vollmann‘s The Atlas and Poor People, both felt so loosely formed that I couldn’t keep going (the latter mainly reminded me of how much I preferred Ted Conover‘s Rolling Nowhere).

Fiction writers seem to do better when they’re talking about themselves and their craft. First-person features are rarely as funny and thought-provoking as when David Foster Wallace stepped on a cruise ship or into a state fair; Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking both address transformative moment’s in a writer’s life, albeit at very different points on the spectrum.

All three of those writers are mentioned on Orlean’s list. In the interest of expanding that list and getting a few more suggestions, a handful more by writers better known for their fiction: Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying, an excellent piece of reportage about both her childhood and her uncle’s ill-fated attempt to escape Haiti’s turmoil; Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth, still one of the best portraits of the white-knuckle fear that comes along with trying to make it in publishing; Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, among the most thoughtful and analytical writer’s guides available (sharper than Stephen King‘s On Writing, less persnickety than James Wood‘s How Fiction Works); and Nelson Algren‘s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, a beautifully turned but brutal critique of his hometown.

“David Goodis is my favorite writer though I hardly know why.”

A nice thing to stumble over: For about a month now Lou Boxer has been keeping a blog dedicated to the life and work of crime novelist David Goodis. It’s a worthy project, and Boxer is the right person to do it (he helped put together Goodiscon, a festival dedicated to Goodis’ work, and his research was helpful when I was working on an a piece on some Goodis reissues a couple of years back). The Writer in the Gutter is a little all over the place, stuffed as it is with photos, pulp-magazine covers, essays, and some overly enthusiastic use of the highlight tag. But it seems determined to capture a lot of elements of Goodis’ life—personal, literary, and potboiling—and it includes Robert Polito‘s fine introduction to The Street of No Return reissue, which helps explain why he’s worth all this obsession:

David Goodis (1917-1967) appears to be the figure always most in need of reclamation, his books drifting out of print, his status shadowy, ever elusive…. [S]entence-by-sentence, I would argue, Goodis is our most crafty and elegant crime stylist. Noir is characteristically a language of objects, places, and names, an idiom that in a few bluff words summons worlds. Listen to the opening sentence of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.” William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley: “Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.” But noir language just as distinctively proceeds by chipping away at the world and itself until there’s only a vanishing distress signal from a void. Early on in Dark Passage (1946) Goodis advanced a vernacular prose of rococo repeated phrases that limn, then all but erase his characters.

When Jim Met Jack

In 1998 I spent about a half hour in the dressing room of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco interviewing the Jim Carroll, who died of a heart attack last Friday. It happened at the last minute, unsolicited, and I wasn’t very well schooled in his poetry. But I did admire his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, and loved “People Who Died.” So we talked about those things and about his years in the Bay Area, where he finished up that book, got clean, and started his punk band. My recollection of him is hazy—thin, smoking a lot, very engaged, with a voice that’s a strange mix of lilt and gravel. I recall encouraging him to talk more about his days in the town of Bolinas partly because I liked how he pronounced it, stretching the middle syllable out. Boh-leeeen-iss.

I’m not sure how trustworthy the factoids in the brief article that resulted are, though it would be nice if the Dalai Lama were indeed a fan of “People Who Died.” He certainly didn’t sound like he was bragging, and his discussions about his literary heroes generally seemed to be earthbound. Jack Kerouac blurbed The Basketball Diaries, writing that “at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today,” and in 1999 he told an interviewer how he scored that blurb. He wasn’t actually a big reader of Kerouac, but he was a great admirer of the beat poets who circled around him (h/t Steve Silberman):

I got to see him … in New York, between six and eight months before he died. He had to come into New York once in a while to see his agent. He was at Larry Rivers’ house, and of course he was surrounded by all his old friends. I went up to him, and he said he had gotten the manuscript. He said he would write me a letter of introduction. I didn’t want to publish the book then. I wanted to establish myself not as a street writer, but as a poet. What he was essentially doing was giving me a blurb. When I did decide to publish The Basketball Diaries, Anne Waldman solicited a blurb from Burroughs for the jacket of the original edition.

Kerouac sent me this letter, and said, if your publisher wants a blurb, here. I feel funny about blurbs. Myself, I don’t like to use them. But now, I get sent books from people who want blurbs, and I feel like I should reciprocate. Maybe it is bad form not to, but I usually don’t do it. I try to avoid it. Certainly, that quote from Kerouac has been wonderful for me. I feel he was being very generous. I know he wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t liked the work; I think he felt I was carrying on a certain spirit that was influenced by him. He thought I was carrying a torch, and in a spiritual sense, I was.

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.