I’m a Corrections Fan But I’m Beginning to Understand Why I Shouldn’t Be

Scott Esposito was for Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections before he was against it:

You know, right when I read The Corrections, I really, really liked it too. (And then I read Strong Motion and had a similarly positive reaction.) Both books gave me one of those visceral reactions that I suppose you could compare to falling in love, or perhaps being powerfully smitten after a night of intense conversation.

And then what happened? I got a little perspective. Franzen started looking less and less impressive to me. Other books and authors more so. In other words, I began to embrace that more active part of discernment and taste…

Esposito’s comments follow some earlier comments by Andrew Seal about the Millions’ list of the best fiction of the new millennium. (I haven’t followed the discussion closely, but I gather Seal believes the list is constricted by design—a product of a poll of people with too-alike sensibilities.) The line of thought here is initially a little off-putting, mainly because it reminds me of the kind of arguments you hear poseurs make when they talk about about music. (“You like them? Hey, 2006 called—they want their taste back.”) Nick Hornby explicitly riffed on this notion in his novel High Fidelity. “Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” one of the record-store nerds laments as he introduces his new girlfriend to his buddies. “But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be.”

Esposito isn’t that shallow. But his argument seems to dismiss as fraudulent the pleasure one gets as a reader—as if falling in love with a book makes you a sucker, and you need to fight against that feeling. Critics can interrogate books they like just as easily as ones they don’t. There’s no reason why you can’t study the feelings you get while reading a book, figure out whether that pleasure is a result of some explicit manipulation by the author or something deeper in the text. Indeed, that’s the most basic of divisions between the endless parade of Amazon reviewers (“I loved this book so mcuh!”) and a critic who wants to explain not just what a novel makes him or her feel but how the novel generated that feeling.

Intentionally or not, Esposito argues that pleasure resists discernment, that it can’t be a product of discernment—he once loved The Corrections, he writes, but after his first read he acquired the “more active part of discernment and taste.” Taste evolves, and nobody’s under any obligation to keep on loving the books they loved years back—if I went back to the books I loved 10 years ago, including The Corrections, I’m sure I’ll find reasons to scratch my head over my initial responses and convictions about the book. But our reasons for loving a book can be articulated, even during that first read—we don’t have to be struck dumb by that love.

Big, in England

Clearly the Brits are still enchanted by big-name American literary authors—no fewer than three sizable pieces on them populate their Sunday papers. The Times has features on John Irving and Philip Roth, with the Irving piece serving as both a good backgrounder on his career and a fun read as well (he describes his dog’s near-miss with his catheter after he had surgery for prostate cancer). Like the other pieces, it’s marked by its length–few, if any, American newspapers dedicate so much real estate to writers, even known quantities like Irving. And like the others, it also seems framed around the idea that the main job of the American novelist is to sum up America, much in the same way Americans want foreign-born authors to be spokespersons for their native countries. Irving is afforded space to expound on his frustrations with his homeland:

“I am not at all at peace, or even comfortable, living in the United States,” he writes. “Both as an artist and as a liberal, I would not choose to live in the United States, but I am from here, and I have ties here. Yet I would say that the absence of any reconciliation between myself and my own country indicates a much deeper rift than any that exists between my mother and me; this lack of reconciliation, my sense of being deeply alienated from my own country, is one I find very difficult to live with. I am often embarrassed by, sickened by, my own country; I detest bully patriotism; yet I am an American, and I’m not going anywhere.”

While Roth is queried about his opinions on the new president:

“You know, if McCain were President, there would be no health bill to debate; there would be no policy in Afghanistan to reconsider; no economic stimulus package; there would be a deep Depression. So whatever happens is the best that can happen, given the circumstances, you know. So I am still rather high on [Obama]. He’s done remarkably, really. He’s fighting an entrenched army of ignoramuses. He’s not a magician.”

(Me, I’d be curious if he feels validated in his assertion that “if anybody can lose 50 states for the Democrats, I think [Hillary Clinton] can.”)

Roth’s American-ness is the larger theme of the feature—it dwells surprisingly little on Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, ostensibly the reason he consented to an interview in the first place. Indeed, the piece spends more time on the binge of classic American authors Roth went on shortly after returning to the United States from England in 1989, and how it fed into the creative resurgence that started with Sabbath’s Theater:

“When I got back here I had a great rush of enthusiasm, and a great sense that I was at home. I tell you, I was driving over to New Jersey to see my father, about a week after I got back. I must have been daydreaming in the car, and I cut somebody off. And the guy rolled down his window, and said, ‘You f***in’ asshole, you f***in’ son of a bitch!’ — and I said, pour it on! I can’t get enough. I was back in the American stuff. I got re-interested in this place. And then quite consciously I read about 20 American novels, books I’d read in the past. I reread Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, lesser-known writers, too, just to get my American juices flowing again. Then I began writing Sabbath’s Theater. And though it doesn’t seem perhaps like an American book, it is. Very much so.”

Julian Barnesappreciation of John Updike‘s Rabbit novels in the Guardian reveals more about how those expectations of American authors are conceived outside the U.S. Barnes writes of first plowing through the books while touring the country in 1991, and rereading them now in advance of his next U.S. book tour—as if they were Fodor’s guides, just with more sex scenes and Toyota dealerships. A little condescendingly, he writes that conking out in front of the hotel television on that first tour, he felt just like know-nothing Rabbit Angstrom; when I watch the football game this afternoon, I suppose I’ll congratulate myself for feeling a little like Julian Barnes.

Still, Barnes’ heart is in the right place, and his essay reveals some of the pleasures that come out of rereading a writer you thought you already knew well:

Whereas in my first reading I was overwhelmed by Updike’s joy of description, his passionate attentiveness to such things as “the clunky suck of the refrigerator door opening and shutting” – by what he called, in the preface to his The Early Stories, “giving the mundane its beautiful due” – in my second I was increasingly aware of this underlying sense of things being already over, of the tug of dying and death. Thus the whole trajectory of Janice’s life is an attempt to expiate the sin of having accidentally, drunkenly, drowned her baby. And while Harry imagines himself a genial and harmless life-enhancer, others see him quite differently. “Boy, you really have the touch of death, don’t you?” his sort-of-whore girlfriend Ruth says at the end of Rabbit, Run. “Hold still. Just sit there. I see you very clear all of a sudden. You’re Mr Death himself.”

Barnes also writes admiringly of the big questions that the Rabbit novels ask: “What is American power if it can be defeated by the Vietcong; what is American inventiveness if it can be out-invented by the Japanese; what is American wealth when national debt piles up?” Barnes is careful to stress that he doesn’t admire the Rabbit novels solely for their sociological value. But they’re fresh meat for anybody looking for a great summing-up of the country, and that’s a big reason why he picked them up in the first place.


Dept. of Self-Promotion: I wonder what the Brits would make of Pete Dexter, who isn’t a major author of Roth or Updike’s rank, but who’s important all the same. My review of his new novel, Spooner, is in the Chicago Sun-Times. It starts out like this:

About midway through Pete Dexter’s sprawling, funny, deeply frustrating novel, Spooner (Grand Central, $26.99), things take an awful turn for the book’s hero. Warren Spooner, a Philadelphia newspaper columnist, visits a bar to meet a man who feels Spooner mischaracterized his dead brother in print. Up to this point the novel has been largely a comedy of errors, and the bum column is just one more. But the fun stops quick: “[T]en minutes later, he came out of the place with most of his upper teeth sheared off at the gum.”

That teeth-bashing has its basis in fact: Dexter suffered a similar beating in 1981, while working as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Scared off of newspapering, Spooner retreats to an island in Puget Sound to become a writer — much as Dexter has. But brutal truth is no guarantee of coherent fiction. Spooner never sorts out whether it’s a comedy about the writing life, a tender story about the relationship between a man and his stepfather, or a farce about newspapers. It’s equal parts John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, David Goodis and John Kennedy Toole, but little of the Dexter who wrote trim, tough-minded novels like Paris Trout and Brotherly Love.

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

“Gatekeeper”: Still Not a Dirty Word

One of my first gigs as a freelance writer was covering concerts for the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in Berkeley, California. Mostly I attended folk shows or enormo-dome concerts nobody else wanted to write about, but every so often I’d get assigned to go to 924 Gilman, the warehouse space at the center of the East Bay punk scene that spawned Green Day and the like. I had fun at the shows and got a lot out of the music, but I was still there more as a reporter than a fan. So I took it a little personally when I showed up one evening and noticed that somebody had spray-painted something on the wall behind the stage:


The message definitely wasn’t meant for me and my 450-word squibs in the back of the Express arts pages; it’s just that it was 1996, 1997, and the scene was still sensitive at how it had been commodified. (And somebody was probably mad at Gina Arnold, the paper’s lead rock critic at the time; back then, somebody always seemed to be.) Still, I was sensitive to the accusation, so I brought the graffiti up with a friend, voicing some youthful anxiety about being an interloper, cultural appropriation, etc. She cut me off: “Punk rock is a medium.”

In other words, the bands at 924 Gilman were trying to make a coherent statement about the world as much my newspaper was. We could debate whose worldview was more informed and legitimate, but one didn’t automatically earn the high ground over the other. That sentence popped into my head reading a post by Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, describing a recent panel about the future of book reviewing that included Stothard, Michael Dirda, Jessa Crispin, Steve Wasserman, and Sam Tanenhaus. At some point the conversation turned to the role that Web sites, blogs, and/or newspapers have as gatekeepers:

Another issue was whether we should we be ‘gate-keepers’ for the literary culture that we like, letting in what we considered of quality and worth and excluding what we did not? Jessa Crispin does not want Bookslut to be a gatekeeper or anyone else to be one either. It seemed desirable to me that another word for the principle of gate-keeping might be desirable for the rest of the afternoon.

The question baffles me a little, because whether Crispin, Stothard, or anybody else wants to be a gatekeeper or not, it’s the gig they’ve signed up for: Bookslut, like any book publication, online or otherwise, is in the business of picking and choosing what stories it feels are most important to the audience it would most like to cultivate. To behave otherwise is madness—letting any old thing in and deeming it worthy of attention. When people get mad at the word “gatekeeper,” I suspect it’s because they imagine a cranky troll minding a very narrow gate. Or the troll is easily paid off by some minion of the publishing industry. In an essay published on the Washington Post‘s Web site last year, Crispin dismissed newspaper book reviews as echo chambers, talking about the same damn five or six big books every week: “But most of the reviews are dead weight anyway, creating nationwide echo effect: ‘That Junot Diaz book sure is good, don’t you think so?’ ‘Oh yes, certainly.’ ‘And I absolutely think the world needs more superhero-derivative adolescent-boy sagas, alongside the occasional magical realism written by white male Ivy League graduates, don’t you?’ ‘Oh yes, yes. Quite right.'”

Note the prissy, tea-at-two tone of the conversation that Crispin imagines: Her complaint isn’t so much about “gatekeeping” but with thoughtless cultural elitism and a reflexive embrace of what’s new and popular. Those are reasonable complaints to have about literary culture and book reviews, but framing the discussion around the word “gatekeeper” doesn’t get a debate started about those issues. The bookers at 924 Gilman did just as much selective picking and choosing as the booking agents for those enormo-dome shows; they just took a smaller fee, if they took a fee at all. And Bookslut does just as much gatekeeping as the Washington Post, which is what Bookslut’s readers prize about it. Stothard writes that he’s looking for a different word than “gatekeeper” to define the issue, but even if he landed on one that’s more polite and agreeable (“curator”?), it wouldn’t address the bigger issues that Crispin addresses.

This Old House

A few years ago I spent a long weekend in San Antonio, which I quickly learned is a difficult city in which to spend a long weekend without a car. I visited the Alamo, twice, and did the river-boat tour, twice; eventually I broke down, violated the tourist’s code, and went to go see a movie. (March of the Penguins, I think; it was miserably hot in San Antonio too.) One evening, on the way to dinner, I happened past a shed-like building that turned out to be the home of O. Henry from 1895 to 1896. Various signs marked the spot as the Henry home, but either due to its tiny size or lack of interest, nobody staffs the site for visitors. Stephen J. Gertz, who had a similar experience in the city, writes in Book Patrol about a recent visit to the Henry house:

There is welcome sign inviting visitors but in a strange plot twist I discovered that when you push the buzzer, ostensibly to gain entry, one is instead treated to a recording, a disembodied voice narrating the story of the house and O. Henry’s occupancy. In a further plot twist, no online biography of O. Henry makes any mention whatsoever of his residence in San Antonio; the only information on O. Henry in San Antonio is found on San Antonio-related sites and there are factual conflicts. Houston, Austin, and San Antonio appear to be locked in a struggle for bragging rights.

From there Gertz calls to have the Henry home moved from its perch on downtown’s outskirts to Alamo Plaza. Good idea: It would precisely double the number of interesting things to see there. For what it’s worth, Henry (born William Sydney Porter) didn’t seem to think too much of the place either. His short story “The Higher Abdication” describes Curly, a drifter stuck in the city for a while:

San Antonio puzzled and disturbed him. Three days he had been a non- paying guest of the town, having dropped off there from a box car of an I. & G.N. freight, because Greaser Johnny had told him in Des Moines that the Alamo City was manna fallen, gathered, cooked, and served free with cream and sugar. Curly had found the tip partly a good one. There was hospitality in plenty of a careless, liberal, irregular sort. But the town itself was a weight upon his spirits after his experience with the rushing, business-like, systematised cities of the North and East. Here he was often flung a dollar, but too frequently a good-natured kick would follow it. Once a band of hilarious cowboys had roped him on Military Plaza and dragged him across the black soil until no respectable rag-bag would have stood sponsor for his clothes. The winding, doubling streets, leading nowhere, bewildered him. And then there was a little river, crooked as a pot-hook, that crawled through the middle of the town, crossed by a hundred little bridges so nearly alike that they got on Curly’s nerves. And the last bartender wore a number nine shoe.

Links: Brought to You by Dell and Folgers Coffee

Earlier this week the FTC released new guidelines on how bloggers must disclose their relationships with commercial entities. I haven’t spent much time thinking about this—unlike smart people who have—mainly because I suspect any battle between the gummint and bloggers will attack women and children first. Relatively speaking, me and my modest stack of advance reader’s copies aren’t worth anybody’s attention and trouble. I’ve always considered ARCs as a tool to do my job, not some great prize; I receive them, but, like editors at newspaper book reviews, I feel no particular obligation to review them, acknowledge their existence, or announce their provenance if I do get around to mentioning them.

George Saunders reports from a homeless tent city in Fresno, California.

Jane Smiley discusses her first novel for young adults, The Georges and the Jewels.

Sherman Alexie
: “If I had been talking about drowning polar bears [instead of the Kindle], people would have been weeping with me. But nobody recognizes that a bookstore or library can also be a drowning polar bear. And right now in this country, magazines, newspapers, and bookstores are drowning polar bears.

Paul Auster laments the death of independent bookstores in New York: “In my own city of New York, so many superb bookstores have gone out of business in the past years that the epidemic has reached tragic proportions. The Eighth Street Bookstore, the grand literary emporium of my youth, has been a shoe store for more than two decades now. The Gotham Book Mart (‘Wise Men Fish Here’), the home of the James Joyce Society, the home in exile for André Breton and other French Surrealists during World War II, closed its doors recently. Books and Company is gone. Endicott Books is gone. Coliseum Books is gone.”

A personal consideration of Raymond Carver along with some thoughts on Lishification, and a profile of his widow, Tess Gallagher.

A cache of Mark Twain‘s papers, including letters he wrote during the last months of his life, goes up for auction later this month.

Jonathan Lethem on his new novel, Chronic City: “I had to figure out, ok what should I be writing? I thought, the answer is always, I should write the thing that if I don’t write it, it wouldn’t exist… Maybe I could write a realistic social epic of the Upper East Side; it’s possible that I could do that. I feel that I’ve acquired a lot of those tools and inclinations, but to merge it with the dream-life material, I feel that’s my special task.”

Chicago gets a literary hall of fame.

Bad Bet

Narrative magazine’s Web site has an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on her literary mentors—a lengthy piece, considering her argument is that she’s had few such people in her life. (Even her first husband, Raymond Smith, read almost none of her fiction.) She’s had childhood guides, yes, like her grandmother; and she’s had sparring partners like John Gardner, with whom she had extended debates in the 70s about whether writing fiction is or should be moral. But people who guided her writing and career with a mind to support and improve it? Nary a one—and though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, such is the fate of many writers who grow up in hardscrabble communities, where literary support systems are hard to come by. You’re not sui generis because you’re arrogant; you’re that way because there’s nobody around to set a path for you.

To that end Oates gets in an interesting story about her relationship with Donald Barthelme, who appears in this anecdote to eagerly flay himself over sales. The suggestion being that this is what you get when you care too much about what others think:

No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment—no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs —than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet—for $100—and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet—no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment—Ray’s, mine, his wife’s—Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor—he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus—whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life—if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, “He hasn’t? Not ever? I thought . . .”

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, “No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him.”

(h/t Edan Lepucki)