Ursula K. Le Guin vs. the Shock of the New

The Oregonian recently profiled Ursula K. Le Guin, who at 80 is still writing (albeit more poetry than fiction) and has taken on a prominent role in protesting the Google book settlement. Her age keeps her from teaching like she used to, but she adds that her health isn’t the only thing that holds her back from leading a classroom:

“[T]here is also that gap between the young student and the old teacher, which all teachers, if they’re honest, worry about,” she says. “The language has begun to change, literally. You may be going along saying things that are perfectly clear to you and they don’t know what you’re saying, and vice versa.”

Given her concern about copyright, stories like “The Free-Appropriation Artist” in the New York Times may justify her wariness; she’s concerned about the sanctity of the author at a time when more attention is drawn toward people who are actively trying to undo it. The Times story revisits the much-discussed recent cases of German novelist Helene Hegemann and novelist-essayist David Shields, both of whom are getting attention for testing the boundaries of fair use and freely borrowing from other texts. Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, lobbies hard for a literary culture that does more heavy borrowing and mash-ups, and I’m a little skeptical about how pioneering or promising that idea is. (Though to be fair, Shields isn’t arguing he’s doing something brand-new—just that writers ought to be doing a lot more experimenting in this space then they have.)

Le Guin has reasons to resist; in recent years she’s expressed disappointment that she didn’t get enough credit as an influence on the Harry Potter series. But she may not be as far removed from the new enthusiasm for heavy borrowing as her complaints about J.K. Rowling suggest. In a 1982 interview with the Missouri Review, she discussed her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven in the context of how science fiction thrives on such mixing and matching:

You could almost call it, “Homage a Dick.” I was openly, I trust, acknowledging the influence. My approach was like saying, “This is one great way to write a novel, invented by Philip K. Dick.” That’s one thing about science fiction: writers in the genres are less uptight about imitation and emulation than “mainstream” people. Writing should really be more like music, with its healthy spirit of borrowing—as in the period of Bach, as in all healthy artistic periods. Everybody borrowing from each others’ tunes and ideas like crazy and nobody worrying. There’s plenty of music to go around.

But that quote is easily accessible on Google Books, so perhaps Le Guin might have a problem with it?

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

Radio Day

At a little after 10 a.m. EST today, I’ll be a guest on the Minnesota Public Radio program Midmorning, talking about the pleasures of rereading. As I’ve mentioned last week, rereading is something I don’t do as much as I’d like, though I swear my call for comments last week wasn’t an attempt to crowdsource my on-air patter. I imagine I may have a thing or two to say about Studs Terkel, Roger Ebert, Ward Just, and Nelson Algren, which may only mean I reread whenever I miss Chicago. Happily, I’ll be backstopped again by Janice Harayda, the segment’s other guest, creator of One-Minute Book Reviews. The MPR site appears to have a live stream, so please tune in if you’re able.

Update: The segment is now available for listening online.

G-Rated Reviewing

Daniel Green at the Reading Experience has taken notice of my blog post on Don DeLillo‘s new novel, Point Omega—a post that was intended as a sort of supplement to the DeLillo review I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Green is politely approving of the newspaper review, but he’s much kinder toward the blog post, concluding that “blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.”

Before going on, I want to say that I’m grateful for Green’s compliments—he doesn’t dispense them casually—and that I’d sooner shuck out my eyeballs with a rusty fork than revisit old squabbles about the virtues of bloggers versus newspaper book reviewers. But it might be useful to say a little bit about the “perceived ‘general’ audience” of a newspaper book review, and why it’s worth respecting.

As with most daily newspapers, the circulation of the Star-Tribune has been declining in recent years—the Sunday edition (where most of the book reviews run) has around half a million readers. This blog’s readership is smaller than that, to put it mildly; indeed, few Web outlets could compete with those single-day readership numbers. (The Canadian Newspaper Association launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stressed the disparity in audience size.) That doesn’t mean that litblogs are proportionally less important than newspapers—it certainly doesn’t mean they’re more poorly written—but it does mean that writing for a newspaper involves a different set of obligations toward an audience that’s still worth respecting.

For one thing, I can’t assume that the reader of a newspaper review is somebody like Daniel Green, who has a strong interest in books and the critical conversations that surround them. I can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books, let alone books written by Don DeLillo. The person flipping through the Sunday paper generally has little idea what he or she is interested in; it could be healthcare, or last night’s game, or Hi and Lois. The best I can hope for is a reader who’s perhaps heard of DeLillo, and who might know that he’s a much-decorated novelist concerned with contemporary American life. Assuming anything else is assuming way too much. After all, any journalist who covers healthcare reform can’t even assume that Americans know how many senators it takes to break a filibuster.

Writing in the face of such ignorance is, understandably, an unappealing prospect for a lot of people, particularly book reviewers. But ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. If I can’t assume much baseline knowledge in a newspaper’s readership, I can at least assume a degree of interest in being told about something they haven’t heard about before. Which is why I think of compressing a statement about Point Omega into 450 words is an interesting challenge and not an exercise in futility; how can I convince somebody to find DeLillo as interesting as I do? If newspaper book reviews often fall into the category of lazy “lifestyle reporting,” as Green puts it, I can at least do my own bit to avoid the most egregious problems with daily newspaper reviews. Those are legion, but the majority could be avoided by simply policing for cliches like “stunning,” “dazzling,” and the like. And I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d write a newspaper book review in the first person. As a journalism professor once put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it,” and I think asking a reader to care about both a book they haven’t read and a person they haven’t met is outright idiocy. Some people are clever enough to pull off that trick. I don’t believe I am.

All that said, writing shorter and shorter reviews is damned frustrating. When I began reviewing regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003, my average assignment was 1,200 words. Now 500 words is a luxury. Newspaper reviewers now typically toil at what George Orwell considered pointless labor: “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful,” he once wrote, “but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.” I genuinely want to write it, but I’m genuinely frustrated with it, which is why I’ve started getting into the habit of writing supplementary posts to my reviews. That’s something I’ve done before with Joshua FerrisThe Unnamed and hope to do more of in the future. They’re fun to write, and they help me write down a few thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze into the review proper. But I don’t write off the value of the original review versus the blog post, even if I disregard which article got me a paycheck and which one didn’t.


For reasons that’ll be clear in a few days, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my rereading habits—or lack thereof. If I’m not reading something I’m reviewing (which is how I spend about half my reading time), I tend to reach for something brand-new to me. Seems like the responsible thing to do. Better I consume the mediocre-but-buzzed-about new novel I’m plodding through now than take another pass at, oh, Light in August. At least the new novel is teaching me something, even if what it’s mostly teaching me is what sort of things get buzz these days; going back to William Faulkner means actively closing myself off from something new, and (worse) it also means I run the risk of coming away from the book less impressed than I was with it at 25.

I’m not alone in feeling this particular low-level anxiety. David Gates summed up the rereader’s mindset pretty well last year in Newsweek. But his enthusiasm for rereading largely involves an eagerness to experience particular characters again, an attitude I find a little baffling—it sounds a little too much like you’re all excited about hanging out with your imaginary friend. Rereading mainly seems appealing to me if it offers some kind of window into a writer’s process. About a year and a half ago I spent some time reading or rereading George Pelecanos‘ novels with the intention of locating some of his tics when it comes to writing about Washington, D.C.. The piece is a little tongue-in-cheek, and it’s probably not the way he’d prefer his books be read, but it didn’t make me any less of a fan of his; he’s not a worse writer for having a few habits, and I wasn’t worse off for discovering a few of them.

I don’t tend to throw questions directly to readers—I don’t have the “online community manager” gene, and I fear that such appeals come off as a little needy and manipulative. But there’s a first time for everything, and seeing as I’m not sure when I’ll have another opportunity to post at length, now is as good a time as any to invite the commentariat to weigh in. What prompts you to reread, and what do you tend to reach for when you do?

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-“realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.

Technical Difficulties

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to entirely escape the ill effects of the winter weather that has been punishing the Washington, D.C., region for most of the past week. My home phone and Internet connections are currently down, and the prognosis for when they might return is somewhere between a few days and few weeks. I’ll likely be able to post on occasion until my Internet access is restored—if, for instance, I can plant myself for a little while at a Wi-Fi-enabled cafe like the one where I’m writing this. But whatever it is you come here expecting, expect less of it for a bit. Thanks.