A Word About Listings

People who read this blog via RSS won’t notice it, but for a little more than a year I’ve maintained a page on this site dedicated to book readings and signings in the Washington, D.C., area. The format is admittedly clumsy, but I’ve tried to make the listings fairly comprehensive, and the page is easily the site’s most-read individual page. However, these days I think more and more about sunsetting it.

I’d miss maintaining the page if I just stopped doing it. It’s a good way to keep up on who’s planning to come to town, and assembling it occasionally tips me to some important changes in the D.C. bookselling scene. If I hadn’t been updating the page this morning, for instance, I wouldn’t have come across the sad news that Lambda Rising, the District’s pioneering GLBT bookseller, is closing its two stores. But there’s no getting around the fact that doing this is fairly time-consuming, and that there are other places that do this sort of thing with a lot more tech-savvy.

So if you like the listings and would like to see them continue, now is the time to speak up and let me know. I’m not (just) fishing for encouragement—I’d like to hear thoughts about what would make the listings better and more useful. Fewer listings with more specific information? Comments and/or brief reviews? More outbound links? If the listings are meaningful to you in any way, please leave a note in the comments or send me an e-mail. Regardless, thank you for taking the time to read this site.

Links: What’s Good for the Country

Detroit receives little care and attention from anybody, including fiction writers. But Brad Leithauser and Susan Messer both have new historical novels set in the city.

Being a midlist author is no way to make money. (While we’re at it, neither is being a midlist rock band.)

Jack Pendarvis‘ always-entertaining blog advent calendar is up and running.

The Atlantic has assembled its literary interviews—with authors like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, and more—in one handy place.

Mark Twain‘s house smells like a haunted house, according to somebody who claims some expertise in these things.

Maybe the New York Times needs a reviewer dedicated to exclusively covering books from independent presses. Though that would imply that books from small presses are somehow inherently different from mainstream books—pursuing such a strategy would wreck the argument that the best small-press books deserve a seat at the adult table, yes?

In the meantime, the Times keeps on crushing the will of debut novelists.

“If [Walt] Whitman wore jeans, he wore them because they were the clothes of the rebellious, not because they were the affordable uniform of the pretty.”

But whatever. These days nobody knows who the hell Ernest Hemingway was anyhow.

The Day Ken Kesey Disappeared

The Village Voice, perhaps in an effort to figure out what the hell happened to the New Journalism it pioneered, trawls through its archives every day and pulls out an entertaining artifact or two. Today’s entry comes from the May 12, 1966 issue of the paper, which includes a fun piece on the disappearance of Ken Kesey, who skipped California for Mexico to avoid arrest on drug charges, hamfistedly faking his death in the process. At that point Kesey’s career had shifted; his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was met with middling reviews, but he was busier with the Merry Pranksters. The Voice story captures the transformation from establishment novelist to goddam hippie in three quick paragraphs:

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published Kesey’s first novel in 1962. “One Flew Over” was well received. Critics found in the plight of a ward of mental patients a parable of the whole human condition. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 performances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

“Sometimes a Great Notion,” published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — unable, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men…can get together and make a whole life.” Newsweek called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

By the end of the Voice story, Kesey was still on the lam, but he was only able to avoid the authorities for eight months. In 1968 he served five months for marijuana possession in the San Mateo County Jail, an experience he documented in a posthumous book, 2003’s Kesey’s Jail Journal. Apparently you can purchase a copy direct from Kesey’s son Zane.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Pen Pal

Brooks Peters has an fascinating piece on ways that the Leopold and Loeb case has been repurposed as fiction. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope is probably the best-known interpretation, but Peters notes that there were plenty of others. (F. Scott Fitzgerald considered writing a novel on the case.) Among Peters’ most surprising discoveries was a cache of correspondence between Nathan Leopold, who along with Richard Loeb was convicted for senselessly killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924, and crime novelist Erle Stanley Gardner. Leopold had a sympathetic ear in Gardner, who was a household name in the 50s thanks to the Perry Mason novels and TV series. He would eventually write an introduction to Leopold’s memoir, and make a case for Leopold’s release. Who was using whom here? Brooks figures that the correspondence (archived among Gardner’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center) makes it tough to say:

The symbiosis throughout the correspondence between Gardner and Leopold is revealing too of Leopold’s uncanny people skills. In all his letters, Leopold is a master at flattery and charm. He downplays his talents and paints Gardner as an extremely generous man who risked his reputation to take on Leopold’s case. Leopold constantly criticizes his own prose style and laughingly admits that he only wanted Gardner to write the introduction so that the reader wouldn’t be too disappointed in the final product. It’s a clever ploy to win over the immensely successful author (who never really achieved literary recognition for his immense output, and only won an Edgar award for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort). Leopold must have known that by stroking Gardner’s ego he was nudging the door open to his own freedom.

But there’s no denying that the friendship was genuine. Leopold may have seen the advantages of his connection to a famous writer who went out on a limb to help him achieve parole. But the affection seems completely real and definitely mutual. In one letter Leopold offers to put up Gardner in his tiny apartment in Puerto Rico (after his parole) if Gardner were to visit. The idea of Gardner shacking up with this notorious killer is too good to be true. It’s not clear from the correspondence if Gardner ever took him up on his offer.

The Exclamatory Mood

New York magazine’s profile of Ha Jin closes with this comment from him:

I don’t want to write standard American-English idioms. I want something that sounds slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Try harder, seemed to be the message from many of the major review outlets following the publication of his 2007 novel, A Free Life; the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker all delivered polite but firmly negative reviews. That last review, written by John Updike, makes a particular point of Jin’s foreign-but-accessible language, suggesting that its squareness is a detriment. “Some expressions feel translated from the Mandarin,” Updike writes, then adds that “the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.”

I’ve defended A Free Life a few times before, and my basic argument is that a) the book’s momentum is in the small, sometime pyrrhic victories that come along with succeeding as an immigrant family in the United States, not in explosive dramas that the critics seemed to expect (perhaps thanks to weaker assimilation novels), and b) Jin’s language bolsters this momentum. His new collection, A Good Fall, will likely meet the same criticism as the novel, since its focus again is on the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States. But it’s just as strong in many ways. A lot of that, I think, has to do with exclamation points.

Most writers are trained to avoid exclamations—it suggests that you’re an adolescent, or that you’re using an easy way to emphasize the drama of a particular scene without thinking it through. It’s generally bad form in journalism—even in opinion pieces it looks like over-editorializing, like you’ve lost your grip—and as an editor I was trained to strike it out unless it’s absolutely necessary. (It rarely is.) But for Jin, exclamations are ways to stress the awkwardness that his characters feel with the culture they navigate. “Heavens, they would never stop fighting!” thinks the narrator of “In the Crossfire,” who is referreeing a squabble between his wife and his mother, who’s visiting from China. The exclamation mirrors the dialogue of many of Jin’s characters, who often strain to make their voices heard, so they’re prone to blurting things: “Baloney!” “Nuts!” “I don’t want to live anymore!” “How worried I was!”

Unquestionably, the style can be a little square. But they also serve Jin’s conflicts well, because they stress how clear-cut the conflicts are in the eyes of his characters, and how irrational that perspective can be sometimes. In “An English Professor,” a Chinese-born English teacher, Rusheng, sends off materials for his tenure evaluation, then realizes his cover letter ends with a typo: “Respectly.” “Oh, how silly the error looked on paper!” he thinks, and no sentence could better encompass his panic over being mocked as a dumb foreigner who has no right to teach English; it’s a retreat into the stiff language of school-primer stories in which kids learn how to talk to each other over minor problems. Except in this case, in the mind of the story’s protagonist, the potential for embarrassment is enormous.

At the end of the story, it turns out there’s nothing to worry about, and Rusheng’s tenure application is approved. Realistically, it was ridiculous for him to think a typo could ruin his entire academic career. (Oh, how silly!) But the panic Jin describes is genuine, and so is the release Rusheng feels afterward. He celebrates with his wife by bowderizing the words to “Born to Be Wild”: “Born to be happy! Born to succeed!” he sings. “Born to be tenured! Born to stand out!” It’s cringe-worthy behavior, but it neatly exposes at once his discomfort with language and his joy at having proof he’s mastered it. It is, as Jin intended, slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. It’s a feeling of exultation, something to shout about, and any feat of writerly indirection in that moment would be a lie.