Links: There’s a Fire

What does it take to make a debut novel successful? The Austin American-Statesman has a tick-tock on John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner, from writing to editing to publication to indie-bookstore hit.

James Salter looks back on his career.

Robert Olen Butler has written nine screenplays in the past twelve years, but not one of them has been produced. In completely unrelated news, Olen’s new novel is titled Hell.

Audio, video, and transcripts from PEN America’s recent “Reckoning With Torture” event are now online. Among the speakers were Nell Freudenberger, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, Jonathan Ames, and Paul Auster.

Don’t tell Auster his strategy of using nested stories makes him some kind of postmodernist: “There were certain kinds of books I was attracted to as a young person, two jump to mind. Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter. These fascinated me. You know full well these are fictions within fictions. The act of telling becomes part of the story.”

Poets & Writers has a list of the top creative writing MFA programs in the country.

Ben Greenman is a better speller than many of his peers.

And maybe it’s mean to make fun of Gore Vidal, but he does have a way of saying things that make such behavior understandable.

Q&A: Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue

Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, a professor of English at the University of Ghent, takes a close look at a handful of 9/11-themed works of fiction in his new book, Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it prompted me to rethink my reactions to the novels he discusses—I may never be a great admirer of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, but the book reveals how carefully DeLillo worked to mimic the ways that traumatic events unsettle our ability to tell stories. Dr. Versluys does much the same for the other books he covers in-depth, including Art Spiegelman‘s graphic memoir In the Shadow of No Towers, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Frédéric Beigbeder‘s Windows on the World. Out of the Blue is an academic book, but it’s low on jargon, and provides some useful context for the debates about 9/11 fiction that are bound to emerge in the future.

Dr. Versluys answered questions about Out of the Blue via e-mail.

Much of Out of the Blue discusses 9/11 fiction in relation to trauma studies. Did you have an interest in the relationship between trauma and literature before writing the essays in this book? What led you to look at trauma as one of the main prisms you use to study this literature—as opposed to, say, through the prism of politics?

When I spent a sabbatical year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in 2004-5, the idea was to write a book on recent New York fiction. I have taught many courses on that topic both at Ghent University, my home university in Belgium, and as a guest professor in the Columbia summer school program. The way I had planned it, the last chapter would be devoted to 9/11 fiction. For reasons too intricate to explain I started with the last chapter, only to realize that in the short time since the terrorist attacks had taken place, a body of work had come out that was substantial enough to be the subject of a separate book.

The first text I studied in depth was Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Spiegelman looks upon the events of September 11 through the conceptual screen of the Holocaust. That led me to take a closer look at trauma studies in general and Holocaust-studies in particular. I have always treated post-structuralist approaches to literature with a great deal of skepticism. But especially the writings of Dominick LaCapra (rather than the canonical Cathy Caruth) made me aware of the fact that in trauma studies post-structuralism – so often abstract and theoretical in its orientation – touches ground and provides a tool to talk with respect and deference about things that remain essentially unsayable. Nonetheless, I feel that, at bottom, I remain an old-fashioned humanist. I prefer to read novels in the grain, rather than against the grain. And while I am indebted to post-structuralism for its attention to language and though I take into account that language introduces fissures and ruptures, I also perceive it to be an instrument of healing and restoration.

You write that the 9/11-themed works you discuss “testify to the shattering of certainties and the laborious recovery of balance.” I imagine that novelists writing on subjects such as war, or totalitarianism, or even domestic abuse, might feel they’re doing the same kind of testifying. What, if anything, distinguishes 9/11 novels from fiction about those other kinds of traumatic experiences?

As a traumatic event, September 11 is comparable to other traumatic events. Paradoxically, though, one of the characteristics it shares with similar events, is that it is singular and irreducible. In the first place this is the case, of course, for the victims, their families and friends. No analogy is capable of capturing what it means to be trapped in a burning tower or to lose one’s parent, spouse or close friend.

In addition, 9/11 is arguably the first instance of what one could call global trauma. It was witnessed not only by the people in the direct vicinity of the WTC-towers on that bright Tuesday morning. It was also witnessed by millions and presumably hundreds of millions on TV, either live or in the many repetitions of the iconic images that everybody remembers. It is possible that in order to talk about this new kind of trauma, we will need a new vocabulary, a new or at least a modified conceptual framework. We know a lot already about indirect witnessing and secondary trauma, esp. with regard to second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. We also know that a whole culture can undergo a sense of shock so severe that its collective assumptions are profoundly disrupted and that a catastophe can “create ‘problems of identity’ for individuals and communities well beyond its circumference of material destruction” (Gray and Oliver). So there is a lot of theory to go on already. Yet it seems to me we are dealing here with something that is different from what preceded. Notions such as those of authenticy or inauthenticity, the traumatic sublime, postmemory, trauma transference, empty empathy etc. – all notions that are current in trauma theory – may have to be adapted or revised to fit the new category of global trauma. Televised indirect experience raises new questions as to what is genuine and what is hype and it establishes new conditions for making memorializing into an act of approximation and not an act of appropriation.

You note that there are about 30 literary novels available currently about 9/11. Were there other 9/11 books that you considered writing about at length? I suspect you’ve already heard from people wondering why the book doesn’t mention, say, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

In order to keep the study manageable, I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention, there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment. To study that phenomenon requires another book.

Your chapter on Falling Man ends with a provocative statement: Because the novel “allows for no proper mourning or working through,” you write, there’s a danger that “it can serve as a prelude to, or be used as an excuse for, wholesale, reactionary and even totalitarian movements of redress and moral restoration.” Can you elaborate on how these movements might manifest themselves?

I borrow this idea from Dominick LaCapra. The point he makes is that a condition of collective grief that is considered irredeemable might be the breeding ground for a revanchist logic. If the nation does not learn to deal with loss, it might be tempted to restore normalcy “through the elimination or victimization of those to whom blame is imputed” (LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 65). This line of reasoning is related to the distinction between true and false witnessing, made by the psycho-analysist R.J. Lifton. False witnessing, according to Lifton, occurs when death anxiety is converted directly into killing. The example he cites is the massacre at My Lai. But it could easily be applied to the way the Bush administration reacted to September 11 and in fact to the ultra-conservative backlash that lasted till the election of President Obama. The novels I discuss argue for an ethics of responsibility, in which the complexity of the situation is fully presented and the simple binary logic of “us versus them” – so cleverly exploited by the Bush administration – is avoided.

Critics have been largely (though not uniformly) unkind to the books you discuss, and you elaborate on some of the reasons why. Writing about Falling Man, you note that “the characters are so thin that their whole existence boils down to mere nomenclature” and that “no narrative momentum is allowed to develop.” You note the “flatness” of Grandpa’s character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the “soppy happy ending” of Terrorist. But you also point out many rewarding characteristics of these novels that you believe critics missed. Do you feel the negative critical reaction to these books is related more to their unconventional structures and approaches, or more to the way they are, as you write, “subversive of nationalistic imperatives”?

Let’s be clear about one point: the great September 11 novel has not been written yet and maybe it never will. To a point, the negative critical reactions are justified and understandable. No writer has yet been able to capture the magnitude of the event or the shock it produced. The unsayable remains unsaid. The negative critical reactions might, therefore, be understood as the result of disappointment. Here is an event that cries out for a definitive reading and it is not forthcoming. Nonetheless, there is much more to these books than some reviewers have spotted. My study is a tribute to the few writers who have been courageous enough to tackle an impossible topic. Even though they succeeded only partially, there is much insight to be gained from their efforts.

You note that nearly all the books under discussion have been written by white American men, and write that it’s an open question whether future 9/11 fiction will be “marked by more gender and ethic diversity or acquire a more outspoken international dimension.” What do think has made 9/11 the province of such a singular kind of writer thus far?

The answer to this question can only be pure guess work. Minority writers might have no need to deal with 9/11, as long as they are dealing with the traumas in their collective pasts. As to women, Anita Shreve and Claire Messud have been prominent in recording the dispersion of 9/11 in the culture at large as a spectral presence, a vestige, palpable but invisible.

The Leaden Feeling of the Cosmos

The New Yorker‘s litblog, the Book Bench, has posted a lengthy 1978 interview of John Updike by two professors of English at the University of Sarajevo. Updike covers Moby-Dick, his writing routine, authors he enjoys who live outside the United States, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize in literature. But he also expounds on the wave of postmodern authors who were coming into full flower at the time, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:

I really find it not easy to read him; I don’t like the funny names and I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us. I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too. Temperamentally, I just have not been able to read enough Pynchon to pronounce intelligently upon him. Clearly, the man is the darling of literary criticism in America now, especially of collegiate criticism. I am just no expert but all I can say is I have not much enjoyed the Pynchon I have tried to read…. I am not among those who has found much comfort in Pynchon. As to so-called black humor, which is maybe a passé phrase, it did seem to me at its best to be true enough and to correspond with a quality of, at least, American life in the sixties.

By 1978, Gravity’s Rainbow was only five years old—that book, combined with the wave of postmodernists, might have made feel like his own fictional enterprise was on the wane. But even if Updike wasn’t being defensive, he is voicing a fairly common complaint about Pynchon. For all his dark humor, wisdom, and gamesmanship, the line goes, he’s a product of the 60s who doesn’t have much to say about contemporary life—the postmodernist as nostalgist. “For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it,” Robert Goolrick told me a few months back in a conversation about his attempt to track down Pynchon. “I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse…. [B]ut there was a moment when he was completely in sync with the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius.”

No more, perhaps? Is it that his reputation now runs on the dying fumes of the enthusiasm of once-hip boomer critics and readers? Much as I find Pynchon’s persona fascinating, I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it, though I’m an admirer of The Crying of Lot 49. I suspect that Inherent Vice goes down more smoothly, but, being set in the 60s, would only help support the complaint. He’s under no obligation to write a novel set in the present day, of course, but what is it about his work that makes him meaningful and relevant today?

Genuinely Good and Genuinely Political

Writing at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, asks if there are any “genuinely good, genuinely political novels” available. He sets the baseline for a genuinely bad political novel by mentioning Ralph Nader‘s new book, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!. But lacking any strict definitions of what “good” and “political” mean, the commenters were free to run rampant. And so they have—as I write this, there are 202 comments.

I’m responsible for one of them comments, pitching Ward Just, though I’m pretty sure he’s not the writer Farrell is looking for. Just is a keen observer of political personalities and of what public service does to a person’s (OK, a man’s) sense of ethics, but I haven’t read anything he’s written that forwarded a political argument. That’s a difficult, if not impossible thing to do in a way that isn’t awkward: Caleb Crain quotes Stendahl in the New York Review of Books as saying, “politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.” Crain breaks out the quote in the context of his review of Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The short-story collection isn’t overtly political when it comes to its setting, Pakistan, but does suggest that the wealthiest classes there have grown only more hubristic as time goes by. Is that still a political work?

Two-hundred-odd comments aren’t going to resolve the matter, but the discussion did take an interesting turn into whether science fiction is the best available source in fiction for political ideas, for better or for worse. The author who seems to come up most often on that front is Ursula K. Le Guin, who apparently wouldn’t disagree with the commenters’ claims about her work. As she told an interviewer last year:

The world is so weird that (as the Magical Realists showed us) the only way to describe it is by accepting its weirdness – we begin to understand it by accepting the fact that we can’t understand it. … And fantasy and sf are good tools, the best tools, for getting perspective on the big social and political stuff (think of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”), and for figuring out what might be changed in our society – for better or worse – and what change might involve (think of “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

In any event, the thread is worth a look, especially given that it appears to still be going strong after three days.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

Inspirational Verse

[H]e was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers with made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against some foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.

— Saul Bellow, Herzog

Field Report: Zoe Heller

I’m not sure if Zoe Heller‘s The Believers is an American novel or not—I figured it fits well enough into this blog’s chosen niche to write about it, but frankly I set the bar for qualifying as “American” fairly low around here. Matters of citizenship and homelands have a way of complicating what “American writer” means, exactly, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me to set guidelines about who fits. (For the record, Heller is a British citizen who’s been living in America since 1994, and The Believers is set in New York. American enough for me.)

Heller, for her part, doesn’t seem especially interested in discussing what nation her books represent. Speaking last night at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Literary Festival, she laughed off a question about why critics overseas made a point of calling The Believers an American novel. “They mean it’s really, really good,” she said. Slightly more seriously, she guessed that the statement reflected “a strange ambiguousness about people who’ve gone away and never came back.”

Much of the conversation about the book focused on two of its characters: Audrey, the novel’s vicious matriarch, and her daughter Rosa, who grows increasingly involved in Orthodox Judaism. Heller is an atheist, but she went to pains to make sure that Rosa’s conversion didn’t come off as satirical. (Creating Rosa was “the biggest vault of the imagination I had to make.”) As for research, she said, “I spent a lot of time at the 92nd Street Y,” but she also said that some of her thinking about religion was influenced by the recent batch of books about atheism by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. It’s just that the books didn’t influence her in the way the authors intended. “I expected to be approving of these books,” she said. “But there was a kind of aggressiveness to their tone, and a readiness to criticize only the crudest fundamentalist beliefs…. That’s not very truthful or brave.”

As for Audrey, Heller has grown impatient with people who ask her how she could write a character so cruel. “It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, ” she said, “this demand for characters who inspire you.” If that’s what you’re looking for, “you’d knock out just about all of Philip Roth’s work and most of Shakespeare.”