Links: Leftovers

What foreigners might read to better understand the “American character.”

An author gives up on writing criticism: “I know intimately that the worst novels ever written took more fearlessness, will and soul than the best book reviews ever written.”

To buy the time work on a play or another book, Richard Price is working on a screenplay for Lush Life.

Raymond Carver biographer Carol Sklenicka: “It boggles the mind how someone who is said to be gentle can hit his wife over the head with a wine bottle and sever her artery.” I have a review of Sklenicka’s book in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird keeping Southern writers from addressing race?

Colum McCann
‘s win at the National Book Awards somewhat redeems Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Rick Moody starts tweeting a story tomorrow at @BlackClockmag.

A visit to the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. And the guy who played Coach on Cheers.

The publication of Vladimir Nabokov‘s The Original of Laura is an opportunity to dump on living authors: “Richard Powers drones on in high, wooden prose about love, Philip Roth engages in bottomless carnal rumination, Foerian pornographers of tragedy eagerly show us their wares—and Nabokov’s fragments … reveal how hollow so much serious (a synonym, these days, for self-serious) contemporary literature is.”

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity for Roger Ebert to write about the film version of Lolita for Playboy. [NSFW]

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity to come up with some new covers for Nabokov’s backlist.

Jonathan Yardley likes Ben Yagoda‘s book on memoirs, though he’s not much for the recent spate of memoirs themselves.

Jonathan Lethem on the Kindle: “I like old, crapped-out books. For me, it’s an unapologetic fetish, and my house is loaded with them and I’ll always be in love with these things. I worked in used bookstores for a long time. But again, in the cause of not being the cranky old man, even though I can feel all kinds of intense sensory resistance to this thing I choose not to believe it’s the enemy. I’m just going to decide that the world has enough room for this innocuous little guy, too. Why not?”

Happy Thanksgiving

It was actually all Sergeant Knight’s fault that Yossarian busted Nately in the nose on Thanksgiving Day, after everyone in the squadron had given humble thanks to Milo for providing the fantastically opulent meal on which the officers and enlisted men had gorged themselves insatiably all afternoon and for dispensing like inexhaustible largess the unopened bottles of cheap whiskey he handed out unsparingly to every man who asked. Even before dark, young soldiers with pasty white faces were throwing up everywhere and passing out drunkenly on the ground. The air turned foul. Other men picked up steam as the hours passed, and the aimless, riotous celebration continued. It was a raw, violent, guzzling saturnalia that spilled obstreperously through the woods to the officers’ club and spread up into the hills toward the hospital and the antiaircraft-gun emplacements. There were fist fights in the squadron and one stabbing. Corporal Kolodny shot himself through the leg in the intelligence tent while playing with a loaded gun and had his gums and toes painted purple in the speeding ambulance as he lay on his back with the blood spurting from his wound. Men with cut fingers, bleeding heads, stomach cramps and broken ankles came limping penitently up to the medical tent to have their gums and toes painted purple by Gus and Wes and be given a laxative to throw into the bushes. The joyous celebration lasted long into the night, and the stillness was fractured often by wild, exultant shouts and by the cries of people who were merry or sick. There was the recurring sound of retching and moaning, of laughter, greetings, threats and swearing, and of bottles shattering against rock. There were dirty songs in the distance. It was worse than New Year’s Eve.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Here’s hoping for safe travels, warm homes, and good times with family and friends over the holiday.

What’s Best and What’s Sexist

A week or so back, Andrew Seal spent some time testing an argument by literary scholar Nina Baym that critics’ favorite works of American literature tends to adhere to a particular theme: Men struggling against a society whose rules and limits are defined by women. To celebrate such books, the argument goes, is to bolster a particular American myth. (At least, that’s how I understand the argument; I haven’t read the Baym essay that Seal discusses.) To investigate the matter, Seal picks a few consensus favorites from the past ten years—The Corrections, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland, The Road—as well as Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, I suppose just for the sake of slapping it around a bit more.

The whole post is worth reading, and intuitively it feels correct. Lists of the best books of 2009 are starting to make the rounds, and it wouldn’t be too hard to see this theory at play in some of the year’s critical favorites: Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin (man arrives from Ireland to make a better life for himself, only to be stuck in a house full of prostitutes); Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement (a happy woman is strange, a problem that demands investigation and repair); Philip Roth‘s The Humbling (look out—lesbians!); and Paul Auster‘s Invisible (young man tries to make his way in the world, but seductresses get in the way). Seal’s post discusses only male authors, but acclaimed female writers can play into the same themes; central to Joyce Carol OatesLittle Bird of Heaven are two men whose lives are made worse for their relationship with an almost prototypical “loose woman.”

Seal’s post also raises the question of who’s got the problem here: The novelists for writing fiction that may simply be a realistic portrait (or critique of) gender roles in America, or critics for admiring them so long as they don’t test the status quo too much. There’s no way to answer that question with any real clarity; literary awards, positive reviews, and best-of lists are imperfect ways to quantify the degree of admiration critics feel for particular works. But is it arguable that Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel, Serena, didn’t win any major awards because its chief protagonist was (essentially) a hard-as-nails businesswoman, a counter to the notion that “there are very few women in American literature who have real power?” Is the reason Zoe Heller’s The Believers is absent from Amazon.com’s list of the best books of 2009 that it focuses on women, not men, who are going through this struggle?

Flannery O’Connor’s Missed Opportunity

PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly dedicated a healthy portion of its latest episode to Flannery O’Connor, interviewing biographer Brad Gooch, religious scholar Ralph Wood, and others about her Catholicism and how it manifested itself in her work. Or, to be more precise, whether it did. To its credit, the show invited Religion News Service’s David E. Anderson to question how much worth O’Connor’s work has five decades since it was first published. “It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince,” Anderson writes.

True enough, I wasn’t shocked by Wise Blood when I read it this year, but O’Connor would have written a different, more lurid novel if she simply intended to shock; and if Hazel Motes isn’t convincing as a realistic character, he succeeds as an outlet for O’Connor’s concerns about faith, outsiderness, and our expectations of preachers. Grotesques, practically by definition, aren’t meant to convince in any realistic sense. But Anderson is on sturdier ground when it comes to O’Connor going AWOL during the civil rights movement, and he closes his piece on a harshly (but not undeservedly) critical note:

“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.

Bad Awards

Last week the Literary Review announced its nominees for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which seems to have prompted some ritualistic mea culpas. John Banville, who’s been on the shortlist before, smirkingly suggested he ought never write about sex again; writing in the Telegraph, previous nominee Iain Hollingshead is candid about his own experience being on the list. “Writing about sex is generally more technical, and certainly a lot less fun, than having it,” he writes. “Either you descend into flowery metaphor or you indulge in the ‘naming of parts.'”

But that’s a concern with any kind of writing, no? Writers, especially fiction writers, constantly run the risk of either looking like they’re showing off or making their writing feel dead on the page. I’ve read only two of the books on the shortlist, Philip Roth‘s The Humbling and Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, enjoyed both, and didn’t feel either was a lesser work because of some howlingly bad sex scene. This may mean only that I have a tin ear for that sort of thing, but I’m comfortable figuring that the scenes worked just fine within their contexts. The Humbling is about an aging man in the midst of an unusual sexual reawakening—of course any sex scene is going to convey a feeling of awkwardness.

Among the problems with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is its implication that that sex is the worst thing a fiction writer could screw up. The ways a writer can screw up are legion; as I read, I tend to note badly written passages by scribbling the word “ugh.” Below, a few passages that made my heart sink from 2009 books:

Bad Attempt at Monologue Jokes by Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Award:

So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited…. It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread

Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

Bad Small Talk Award

“You know, ” Isabelle commented by way of introduction, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.”

Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients

Bad Union Caricature Award:

“I can get you all fixed up and install a proper system, but I can’t fix that old gal. I can even give you some heat while I’m doing it. It’ll take a little longer that way but I don’t charge union wages. And I don’t do union work neither—I do the job right.”

“How much?” Mrs. D asked.

“About sixteen grand. that’s for as sweet a boiler you ever seen included, and all the fittings. And all I charge is ten percent over cost for the materials. I don’t have my hand down everyone’s pockets, not like them union bosses with their diamond pinkie rings and their shivery smiles, all teeth.”

Marjorie Kernan, The Ballad of West Tenth Street

Bad Strategy to Build Dramatic Energy by Listing All the Ways One Might Die Award:

Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet would, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka, death by poison arrow, death by pipe bomb, death by piranha, death by food poisoning, death by Kalashnikov, death by RPG, death by best friend, death by syphilis, death by sorrow, death by hypothermia, death by quicksand, death by tracer, death by thrombosis, death by water torture, death by trip wire, death by pool cure, death by Russian roulette, death by punji trap, death by opiate….

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Bad Journalist Award:

Sarah looked into his eyes. He was a congressman. He was a source. But not that much of a source anymore. She had already gotten into trouble twice for sleeping with the wrong men. But he felt just right, at least for now.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Rules of the Game

—–

My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Invisible, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It starts this way:

Relatively early in Paul Auster’s new novel, one of its narrators says that “any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” True enough, Invisible (Henry Holt, $25) is a book whose value is a function of its riskiness.

Auster’s readers will be familiar with some of the chances he takes, like the deliberately confused identities and stories within stories, and here they’re so smoothly deployed they feel more like pulp-fiction reveals than metafictional gimmicks. But Auster’s real daring in Invisible is in his study of morality, which covers a lot of ugly, unsettling territory: murder, psychological abuse, physical exploitation and, not least, incest.

In Reagan’s Debt

Writing in the Rumpus, Rick Moody takes an absurd approach toward answering a question long loved by music geeks: What’s the most awful pop song you can think of? Moody’s nominee is Steve Winwood‘s “Higher Love,”* and his essay ultimately becomes a heartfelt reminiscence of his sister, who died in 1995, and their shared passion for music. Before he gets there, though, there’s lots of willfully silly top-of-head riffing about Winwood and music, and one of the ideas that gurgles up is this:

And since I believe that the politics of an age affect the artistic productions of the age, I suppose I really do think that Ronald Reagan somehow forced Steve Winwood to make “Higher Love,” even though Winwood is a British subject (from Birmingham, I believe), and could theoretically make any recording he wanted to. On first blush, the theology of “Higher Love” is morning-in-America theology, theology of the kind that leads people to believe that Jesus wants them to make lots of money. Or that Jesus will somehow protect them from death, disease, poverty, bad luck, traffic accidents, and so on.

If it’s silly to apply all this to Steve Winwood, is it silly to apply it to books? It certainly seems like a no-brainer to say that politics has a strong influence on art—back in 2007 it was hard not to notice that a few literary novelists seemed to be commenting on American interventionism by writing stories about oppressive regimes and disappeared citizens. Life since 9/11 has made it easy to leverage politics into art; was it as easy to do it during the Reagan go-go years?

The 80s were the years of my childhood and adolescence—nerdy as I was at the time, I didn’t follow contemporary literature (or politics) very closely. But looking at the bestsellers for that decade, it’s not hard to detect some of the themes that Moody is concerned about—there’s scads of Cold War thrillers (Clancy, Ludlum, Le Carre), American verities (Jakes, L’Amour, Keillor), and high-fashion glitz and romance (Steel, Collins, Krantz). But I’m not sure what, if anything, the epic bricks by Clavell, Michener, Auel, and Uris have to say about the Reagan years. (Did we stop liking massive historical novels, or did people just stop writing them?) And the same question goes for all those Stephen King books—though The Tommyknockers is infamously a product of, and commentary on, cocaine addiction, and some smart graduate student could probably spin an argument about Reagan-era South American misadventures out of it.

It’s not as easy to tease out these influences when you look at the kind of literary fiction that was embraced by critics through the decade. Looking at the New York Times Book Review‘s selections for best books during those years—imperfect benchmarking to be sure—what sticks out is an almost deliberate avoidance of political themes and messages. There was plenty of affection for Raymond Carver (in 1988), Philip Roth (1981, 1983, and 1987), and John Updike (1981, 1982, and 1986), none of whom seemed especially interested in morning-in-America themes. (Rabbit Is Rich talks a lot about the economy, but given when it was written and the time in which it’s set it’s probably best considered the Great Carter-era Novel.) Same goes for the interior stories by Marilynne Robinson (1981), Peter Taylor (1985), Louise Erdrich (1985), William Kennedy (1983), and others. With the notable exception of Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was met with both critical and commercial acclaim, looking at the Times‘ selections you’d think American fiction writers spent the decade unaware that the country had a president, or politics, at all.

Conspicuous in their absence from either set of lists are the “brat pack” authors like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis, but those authors may wind up best reflecting the era in which they emerged—certainly Ellis’ American Psycho is a potent satire of 80s consumerism, greed, and selfishness. That book came out in 1991, so perhaps it took getting out of the 80s for those writers to effectively approach it. While they were in the midst of it, they produced threadbare works like McInerney’s Story of My Life, stories that were hollow and went down easy—the “Higher Love” of American literature.

* Moody’s wrong. “Higher Love” is just innocuous. As I suggested on Twitter, the song that ought to get this prize is Europe’s “Cherokee,” which has a number of fatal flaws: It’s reminiscent of (but not as good as) the band’s biggest hit, has a hilariously insincere “social justice” lyric, and includes a keytar solo. None of which, unfortunately, keeps the song from appearing in regular rotation on XM’s otherwise unimpeachable “Hair Nation” channel.

The McSweeney’s Effect

Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National has a lengthy appreciation of McSweeney’s that isn’t as well-sourced as one might like: Managing editor Eli Horowitz gets a lot of room to expound on the amazingness of the journal, and only one author is cited as an example of a quality writer who got his first break there. Then again, the writer is Philipp Meyer, author of the excellent novel American Rust, and he describes the publication of one of his first short-stories there as a “life-changing thing”:

[I]t does this incredible thing for people like me, or people like me five years ago if that makes sense. Because a lot of publishers, for reasons of legitimacy, feel the need to include big writers. Or maybe it’s not even for legitimacy, maybe it’s just to put names on the front cover that will sell. And usually, to be honest, it’s the crummier work from those writers. They rarely, if ever, take risks on folk who they’ve never heard of. You might not have heard of them as the reader, but it’s almost always someone on the magazine who knew someone, someone’s old professor makes a call and gets the story in.

I think the standard complaints about McSweeney’s still apply, and though in my old age I can’t work up the same attitude toward the publication I used to, I’m still skeptical about their offerings, especially their books. Of course, I’m also still going to buy that newspaper issue, but you’ll notice that the PR page doesn’t stress the amazing-unknown-writers angle; the issue’s innovation is its design, not its corralling of lesser-known writers.