Picturing Welty

The new issue of Transatlantica, an American-studies journal based in France, seems to be thick with interesting reading. “Seems” is the operative word, because none of the six essays on Richard Powers appear to have functioning PDFs, despite the site’s suggestion to the contrary. (I’m particularly curious about Thomas B. Byers“The Crumbling Two-Story Architecture of Richard Powers’ Fictions,” since it addresses a theme that Powers gets dinged for a lot, not always fairly.) However, a collection of pieces relating to last year’s Eudora Welty centennial appear to have made their way online intact, including a handful of appreciations of her photography. As Alison Goeller notes in her commentary on the photo In the Bag, Welty had a relatively easy time being a documentarian of a tense subject:

“In the Bag” was one of dozens of photos of impoverished black women that Welty shot as a junior journalist for the WPA in the 1930’s. Although she was white and middle-class, she was not met with the hostility that some of her fellow journalists and photographers faced. In fact, Welty said her subjects seemed to trust her in ways that were unusual. “In taking…these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel—a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years.”

But Louis Mazzari, in paying tribute to Welty’s 1936 photo Tomato Pickers’ Recess, suggests that her WPA work was about more than just capturing working-class lives:

Welty’s sense of irony is always active. She was capturing the end of what Sean Wilentz calls the “old, weird America” and its pre-electric folk during the rise of the recording industry, national radio broadcasting, and mass-media entertainment. In the pose of the guitar player, is there not the slightest mimic of the star? Is his expression and attitude—in the exact center of this folk culture—also not the face of the pop-music future?

Links: If You Really Want to Hear About It

Even if it means I’m forced to change the name of this blog, I have no insights to offer regarding the news that J.D. Salinger has died. Scanning my shelves for copies of his books, I discovered something that may be true for you as well. The books aren’t with me; they’re probably tucked in the shelves of the basement of my parents’ house. Salinger was something that meant a lot to me as a teenager, but I didn’t carry him with me into adulthood, and I can no more articulate his literary worth than I can explain my tween affection for The A-Team and Oran “Juice” Jones. Scanning through the short-story archives that the New Yorker has placed online did jog a few memories, though—“For Esme—With Love and Squalor,” for instance, is a reminder of how far a writer can get by making cynicism and precocity collide.

“Oh my, here am I relegated to a classroom“: What happened when you told Salinger how much you enjoyed teaching his work to high-schoolers.

Before his death, the closest thing to a new Salinger book was an effort to put his final short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” between hard covers. The publisher is now free to explain why the plan fell apart.

The classist in me always found the WASP-y focus of Louis Auchincloss‘ work deeply unappealing, but Terry Teachout argues for the brilliance of the late author’s 1964 novel, The Rector of Justin.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archives of Andre Dubus.

Investigating Philip K. Dick‘s final years in Orange County.

Handicapping a literary Super Bowl between Louisiana (Truman Capote, Walker Percy) and Indiana (Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Dreiser).

American writers may be helping Indian literature fall into a rut.

But at least one Indian interviewer figures the country can learn from Raymond Carver. (via HTMLGiant)

A new biography on the final years of Mark Twain‘s life squashes rumors that he was a pedophile. Also: a close study of Twain’s politics. (via Reason magazine)

Ha Jin: “On the one hand, it is a miserable life, because there’s so much anxiety. But on the other hand, if I don’t write, I feel ill.”

Inspirational Verse

“May I inquire how you were employed before entering the Army?” Esme asked me.

I said I hadn’t been employed at all, that I’d only been out of college a year but that I liked to think of myself as a professional short-story writer.

She nodded politely. “Published?” she asked.

It was a familiar but always touchy question, and one that I didn’t answer just one, two, three. I explained how most editors in America were a bunch—

“My father wrote beautifully,” Esme interrupted. “I’m saving a number of his letters for posterity.”

I said that sounded like a very good idea….

“I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, “For Esme—With Love and Squalor”

Her Last Resort

Lionel Shriver‘s new novel gives substantial space to a resort on a remote island she once visited. During her trip, the same resort let her stay there for free. Is this a problem?

The London Times thinks so: A story notes that she visited Pemba Island for a Times travel story last year, and later used that trip as fodder for So Much for That, set to publish in March:

[Shriver] has broken new ground by getting a holiday company and a resort to fund her research for her new novel, So Much for That.

Those who turn to the acknowledgments section buried at the back of the book, which is published in March, will find her thank-you note for the hospitality at the resort.

As is often the case, the travel piece doesn’t mention that the Times covered her travel expenses or that she got her room gratis. (The more authoritative version of the story on Lexis-Nexis notes that she “travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours Travel,” but doesn’t make clear who covered what.) The acknowledgments page of So Much for That—which, being located at the back of the book, isn’t so very hard to find—is vague as well. She thanks the owners of Fundu Lagoon, a resort on Pemba Island, for “enabling me to be obscenely pampered with sundowners, coconut curries, and lemon-grass oil massages all under the hilariously respectable guise of ‘research.'”

“Pemba is mentioned every few pages while Fundu Lagoon gets eight direct mentions, even down to the price of the superior suite,” the Times writer notes. This is true enough, though it skews Shriver’s intentions. (What follows in the remainder of this paragraph likely qualifies as a spoiler, though this particular plot point isn’t hard to guess early on, the event is signaled well in advance, and it doesn’t qualify as the most shocking or provocative event to take place in the tail end of the novel. Not by a long shot.) To read the Times story is to think that Shriver has written a travel brochure for Pemba Island and its sole resort. But if her message were reduced to a slogan, it’d be something like: “Pemba: A pretty good place to take your loved ones to die, if they can handle the long, nerve-wracking effort to get there. And you’ll be busting your ass if you decide to stay.”

The resort is indeed described as sumptuous, but the role of the resort itself is minor compared to the main reason why the characters are there: Because it can be a torment to live in a country where corporations make it difficult to be a decent citizen and a decent person at the same. It can be easier to fulfill the American Dream in a third-world country, Shriver argues, than in the United States of America. And even then, living well means plenty of physical labor. Nobody’s getting lemon-grass oil massages by the novel’s end.

Shriver responded to the Times critique a few days later in the Guardian. She mostly reacts to the snippy tone of the piece, but the key point is this: “Fundu Lagoon allowed a free stay, as it does for any travel writer…. Fundu never offered me anything in ­exchange for a ­mention in my novel.” Those would have been excellent sentences to include in the acknowledgments, if only to defuse criticism like the Times‘ in advance. Given the option to disclose or not disclose such things, disclosure is always the better option; certainly, it would be disappointing to learn that she had arranged a pay-for-play deal with the resort. But then, the book she wrote probably would’ve been quite different; it would’ve been a story about a fantasy resort, when what she wrote is a story about what you have to do when the fantasy-resort life is something you can’t hope to afford.

(h/t Edward Champion, via Twitter)

Typical Tales

The creator of the litblog Years of BASS is preparing to read The Best American Short Stories 1981, which that year was guest-edited by Hortense Calisher. The collection includes 20 stories, a whopping nine of which were originally published in the New Yorker—a lopsidedness so pronounced that Calisher was moved to address it in her introduction:

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the “typical” New Yorker short story, since the proportion of my inclusions from that magazine will give pain to some. There is no typical one, really, but I can describe what people think it is: a story of suburbia or other middle-class to “upper” milieu, which exists to record the delicate observation of the small fauna, terrors, and fatuities of a domestic existence, sometimes leveled in with a larger terror—a death, say, or a mortal disease—so that we may respond to the seamlessness of life, and of the recorder’s style. To move on casually from these stories, as we often do, is a guilt, since they are as often, if subduedly, about the guilt of moving on. Muted response is the virtue. Never break out.

From there, Calisher proceeds to deny the existence of this magical, melancholy creature, but it’s a notion that gets around. Searching on the term “typical New Yorker short story” (or “typical New Yorker story”) offers a range of opinions and complaints:

“The typical New Yorker short story provides a good example of the writer who possesses craftsmanship without insight. These stories are not works of art; they are studies, exercises, etudes, ubungen—yet occasionally they manage to approach art through sheer competence of technique, as though insight were created by skill.” —Critic David Daiches, circa 1946

“You know, the absolutely typical New Yorker short story—which is a mood piece where you have 12 people at a cocktail party, and you go to the cocktail party with them, and at the end of the story you know that some of them don’t get along with the others, and that is about all.” —Novelist and poet Diana O’Hehir in the Washington Post, 1984

[David] Leavitt‘s work adds to the typical New Yorker short story of understated upper middle-class suburban life the theme of homosexuality, a theme that has always been implicit in this subgenre. —GLBTQ.com online encyclopedia

[T]wo stories, by Seamus Deane and Lorrie Moore, respectively, are also the only two not set in the usual New Yorker short-story stomping ground of New York—or that acceptable surrogate New York, London. —Keith Philipps, The Onion

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
: I’ve had some of my stories rejected by the New Yorker before one was finally accepted. Actually, I didn’t really like many of the stories I read [in the magazine], but then I started reading more and found some things I did like. But, of course, I wanted to be published in it, and it was really nice. Because “Cell One” is a story I especially liked, and one that took so long to write, I felt, I don’t know, a sense of satisfaction.

Interviewer: And they pay well!

CA: Yes, they do, but even if they didn’t, it has so much prestige. The second story [“The Headstrong Historian”] I did not think was at all New Yorker material, so when my agent said she’d sent it there, I thought, why?

Interviewer: Maybe it’s not a typical New Yorker story, so you’re part of what’s changing their landscape.

Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kenyon Review. 2009

This concern about the typicality of New Yorker short stories has a way of bringing out the inner sabremetrician in some, looking for trend lines in authors’ gender, country of origin, and so on. But this search for the typical short story has apparently been a source of amusement for the magazine’s keepers. In a 1994 story about life inside the New Yorker‘s fiction department, Roger Angell recalls an exchange with a reader:

“Are you looking for the typical New Yorker story?” someone else asks. “Sure lady,” I want to answer back. “The one that’s exactly like Borges and Brodkey and Edna O’Brien and John O’Hara and Susan Minot and Eudora Welty and Niccolo Tucci and Isaac Singer. That’s the one, except with more Keillor and Nabokov in it. Whenever we find one of those, we snap it right up.”

Sturdily middle-class, troubled but not too deeply, suburban but urban as well, waspily making the rounds of the cocktail parties—when people talk about the typical New Yorker story, they may in fact be indulging a fantasy about the typical New Yorker reader.

Writing Up Absurd

In the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham pays tribute to Saul Bellow‘s 1964 novel, Herzog, which he thanks for helping him to dig out of a rough time. One attribute of the novel’s healing power, Gooderham suggests, is its clear, firm prose. “It is so precise, so carefully constructed, with not a badly chosen word or comma out of place, that it demands your full attention and focuses your mind so that you are forced to concentrate completely on the novel (one cannot speed-read Herzog. Or at least I cannot),” he writes.

I read Herzog last fall feeling just fine about myself, so I can’t speak to its curative powers*, but it’s true that the novel’s precision is one of its charms; after finishing it, I figured there was nothing I could say about the book that couldn’t be said better just by quoting it at length. But precision isn’t enough by itself to be inspiring—if it were, our hearts would sing more often reading the news. (Of course, there are times when a work of journalism can do that.) It may be more that in Herzog, Bellow openly faces the messiness of what it’s like to be in the midst of an identity crisis—Moses Herzog is one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging neurotics in fiction. Yet writing can be a little sloppy to get neurosis across too. Part of the appeal of a messy cult novel like Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 novel, Nog (reissued last year), is the way it turns confusion into an asset. Jumbling up genres, questioning what’s true and what’s imaginary, clouding up the identity of its main character, shifting perspectives—all of it reflects Wurlitzer’s anxiety about a society straining to order things. “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join,” he writes.

Both Herzog and Nog are 60s novels, and perhaps the following decades have made novels about mental illness a little less interesting. That’s a point Marco Roth made in his recent essay in n+1 magazine, “The Rise of the Neuronovel”—now that we’re better able to identify and treat what’s malfunctioning in our heads, obsessive letter-writing campaigns and genre mashups may seem too frivolous for a writer who’s now more prone to study up on diagnoses and treatments. That, or writers have just sublimated those old neuroses into fake memoirs and stunt memoirs. That’s a notion Daniel Mendelsohn recently floated in the New Yorker:

[T]he trauma-and-redemption memoir, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture…. In a way, not only the spate of memoir hoaxes but the recent proliferation of what [Memoir: A History author Ben] Yagoda calls “stuntlike” memoirs—narratives that result from highly improbable stimuli (“One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States”)—arise from a deeper confusion about where reality ends and where make-believe begins.

So, just like Herzog, James Frey worked through a breakdown by getting it all down on paper. And just like Bellow, he knew it would be more appealing if he made it up.

* When I was having a rough go of it a while back, the only book I felt mentally capable of processing was Sidney Sheldon‘s 2000 novel, The Sky Is Falling, which is horrible in every conceivable way. Either I had it worse than Gooderham, or he’s more ambitious about his reading during his funks.

Links: Aisle Seats

Every so often, somebody online shows up to announce a surprising discovery: Roger Ebert is a pretty good writer! Such is the curse of being a TV celebrity, I suppose, where his closest peers have been Gene Shalit and Michael Medved—if you’re running with those clowns, small wonder people reduce to some kind of Fatty McThumb caricature. It may help to have grown up in a Chicago household that received the Sun-Times on weekends to contradict that reputation for shallowness. (The uninitiated or the unconvinced can pick up his 2006 collection, Awake in the Dark.) At any rate, HTMLGiant is the latest to bring the news, inspired by some of his recent personal essays on subjects like cancer and abstinence directives on college campuses. If it takes Ebert’s Twitter feed to get bloggers enthusing, so be it, but even given his emergence as a sharp cultural commentator in recent years, his skill and talent has always been there.

Case in point (and more directly relevant to this blog): The death of Erich Segal prompted Ebert to dig up his 1970 review of Love Story, which includes this gem of an opening:

I read Love Story one morning in about fourteen minutes flat, out of simple curiosity. I wanted to discover why five and a half million people had actually bought it. I wasn’t successful. I was so put off by Erich Segal’s writing style, in fact, that I hardly wanted to see the movie at all. Segal’s prose style is so revoltingly coy — sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can — that his story is fatally infected.

Mark Twain was similarly talented at writing a good lede for a newspaper.

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways is so despairing of the fate of literary magazines that he resorts to absolutisms and strange steams of thought: Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia.

Where, Wesley Morris asks, “are any of the promising films to be made from hundreds of years of black writing?”

Yiyun Li doesn’t feel her novel, The Vagrants, is entirely a downer: “There are actually some very funny moments. I was laughing, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Some of the reviewers picked up on the lightness. I’d say about one-sixth of reviewers picked that up, and I was very happy for them.”

Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis is behind a collection of short stories but writers in Spartansburg, South Carolina.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is working on short stories set in his native Wisconsin, as well as “a novel involving a love triangle, set in Pakistan in the early 1970s, involving a farmer who is married to an American.”

N. Scott Momaday, in a lengthy interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, on winning the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, 1969’s House Made of Dawn: “I was too young to receive it. It was a good thing, all in all. The benefits were very great and continue to be, but I don’t know, I think that if I had won it at 45 instead of 35 or whatever I was, it would have been somehow more appropriate.”

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is still in the habit of giving books to his players. Among the authors he’s selected are Larry Watson, Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie, and Roberto Bolano.

Lastly, the National Book Critics Circle recently announced eight new board members. I’m honored to be among them.

Trademark Taste

John Matthew Fox, discussing the diminishing clout of the standard-issue newspaper and magazine book review, writes:

[W]hen James Wood reviewed “Atmospheric Disturbances” in the New Yorker, I listened to his complaints about the book’s postmodern elements, recognized them for his trademark taste, and his argument backfired—instead of avoiding the book, I knew I’d love it (it ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2009).

From there, Fox makes some good points about how the proliferation of word-of-mouth outlets online practically demand that newspaper reviewers do better than just deliver yeas or nays about a book. To survive, he argues, reviews need “more critical interpretation, less personal opinion.” But his complaint about James Wood reveals a common bit of bad logic, a close cousin to the line “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”: “I hate that critic, I disagree with everything he says.” A good critic isn’t necessarily one whose opinions you agree with, just a person with a set of beliefs and attitudes stable enough that you can bounce your own off them.

Like Fox, I tend to tune out when Wood begins keening about postmodern writing. But there’s a reason why Fox has instant recall on Wood’s name (and Michiko Kakutani‘s), as well as his “trademark taste”: They write consistently enough, and at length enough, to make their biases familiar to readers. If the value of print reviewers has diminished for committed readers like Fox, it’s due at least in part to the fact that thinned arts sections jettisoned their regular staff critics (a problem more pronounced in film than in other arts). That any arts coverage is left at all is something to be thankful for, but anybody looking for a consistent voice to argue with today will have a hard time doing so amid the crazy quilts of freelancers, wire copy, and somebody yanked off the statehouse beat to review a book on politics.

Small wonder, then, that recommendation engines like GoodReads and Amazon are appealing—I use both, and while I know I won’t find a Wood or Kakutani there, at least there’s a vibe of consistency there, a particular kind of noise all the chatter makes. I’d like to think that this supplements more formal reviews instead of replaces them, though. Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

(via Electric Literature)

“Some of it’s indelicate.”

The Detroit Free Press recently headed to Arizona to catch up with novelist and Michigan native Jim Harrison, who’s become much more prolific in recent years. According to the story, much of his newfound productivity comes thanks to some (relatively) clean living, but it’s also due to an impulse to get closer to his roots:

“I miss the U.P. terribly,” Harrison says. “It became a retreat for me from the real world. … It was like, after a disgusting two weeks of movie meetings, and then a day later you’re at the Dunes Saloon in Grand Marais after taking a 4-hour walk with your dogs and never seeing anybody, because I’d say 99% of my hiking, I never saw another human being. Which is the way I liked it.

“I know I’ve written about Michigan a lot lately, and I wonder if the origin isn’t homesickness. Which is a very deep feeling, what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s that longing for a place.”

Harrison spent much of his career with fellow Michigander Thomas McGuane as his closest peer and friend, making for a literary orbit I confess I don’t have much feel for. I didn’t much care for books like Harrison’s 1990 story collection, The Women Lit By Fireflies, and early McGuane novels like Ninety-Two in the Shade can be obnoxiously showy, products of the worst of the Beat era and the New Journalism combined. (Sometimes he verged into the just plain nonsensical: According to Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, McGuane once wrote liner notes to a Jimmy Buffett album that praised him for being “one of the last of the sucking chest wound singers to sleep on the yellow line.”)

McGuane has transformed his prose style beautifully in recent years, though, and perhaps Harrison has as well. Maybe they even spent time commiserating over the matter, though we won’t know that for a while yet. The Free Press story mentions that while Harrison’s papers reside at Grand Valley State University, his correspondence with McGuane is strictly off-limits until 2015 (PDF). “Some of it’s indelicate,” Harrison tells the paper. “It contains actresses’ names and dirty stuff. Stacks of it. He writes beautiful letters.”

Don’t try to be clever and attempt to get at the sordid details from the other side: McGuane’s papers reside at Michigan State University, but Harrison’s letters to him are accessible only with his written permission.

The Un-manned

My review of Joshua Ferris‘ second novel, The Unnamed, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The opening:

Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed” is a hero’s journey tale with the heroism scoured clean off it. Its protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, suffers from an affliction in which he walks involuntarily for miles on end, and his constant motion wreaks havoc on his body and, in a way, conventional storytelling. Instead of adventure there is only movement. Instead of revelation there’s only unknowing.

This strategy isn’t automatically a bad thing, but Ferris bungles it; The Unnamed continuously hints that it might have a coherent point about marriage, or illness, or modern life, but the author moves on as soon as something begins to come together. “Must be a metaphor—otherwise just a cheap device,” I scribbled in the margin of one of the opening pages following another one of Farnsworth’s involuntary walks.

It’s ultimately worse than that—the walking is so persistent and so divorced from meaning that if it’s a device, it’s just a device to fill pages. As I mention in the review, Ferris does have a thing or two to say about what it means to fulfill the cultural definition of “manliness,” and how much shaming can be involved when a man doesn’t. His exhausted wife, Jane, thinks “he was a baby and not her husband”; his sullen daughter, Becka, describes life with him as “more or less like she was babysitting him”; and his (exclusively) alpha-male coworkers at a high-powered law firm engage in games of one-upmanship designed to humiliate whoever fails to step up. Tim, feeling punished for his affliction, has a nightmare about having his pants pulled down by a coworker in court, and in one of the novel’s more brutal scenes he’s mocked over the phone by two coworkers determined to stifle his role at the firm. They do childishly, hinting that Tim has recovered his previous reputation and then yanking their kindness away:

“And where did you get the genius—”

Tim thought he heard the start of a guffaw just as Masserly’s voice cut out. His end had gone mute again. Or so it seemed. Sometimes lawyers made phone calls with one finger poised over mute so they could bad-mouth the opposition.

“Did you just hit mute again? Is someone in the office with you?”

“Mute? Look, I was asking where you got the insight to write a motion for summary judgment in Keibler when there’s Horvath. It’s genius. But you know Horvath chapter and verse the way you make implicit the differ—”

There might have been another guffaw, but the line went dead.

And yet, like so much of the novel, the power of the scene is sapped by a lack of clarity and consistency. Ferris never makes clear whether Tim’s idea about a summary judgment is or isn’t worth mocking. (Either way, that scene would’ve been more effective.) And soon enough, Ferris is on to something else that he never quite works through—a murder-mystery subplot, some business about bees that probably should’ve been cut in the final edits, a schizophrenia that afflicts Tim in the closing chapters.

The humiliated man isn’t a character who gets a lot of traction in fiction. There are plenty of wusses, sure, but not as many guys who work through the shame of failing to measure up, the way that the sadly declining George Hurstwood did in Theodore Dreiser‘s Sister Carrie. It’s not so much that I hoped Ferris would write a humiliated-man novel that it seemed like the most promising of the weak options he introduced.

In the February issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason argues [sub req’d] that The Unnamed is largely a failure at the sentence level, that its impact is blunted by language that’s at once showy and imprecise. There’s some of that—“Overcast was riveted to the sky as gray to a battleship” may be the most forced line I’ve read in a novel recently. But the novel’s problems are more structural than rhetorical. The isolation that Tim both suffers and chooses speaks little to the work and family issues that Ferris introduces, and eventually they’re simply abandoned. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, in his admiring review of the novel, writes that “Ferris is interested in the blast radius around the sickness.” If only. The sickness, by novel’s end, is limited exclusively to the guy doing the walking. An implosion doesn’t have a blast radius.