The BBC’s American Archive

Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:

One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.

Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.

All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:

I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.

Book Reviewers—Who Needs ‘Em?

Publishers Weekly‘s report from a panel last week on the future of book reviews includes a couple of interesting data points. According to panelist Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a survey his firm conducted reveals that only five percent of readers heard about the last book they bought through a review in a print publication. Your likelihood to use such reviews as a consumer guide is a function of age: 9.2 percent of shoppers over age 65 were guided to their last book purchase by a review, while only 0.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were.

Lacking any detailed information on the survey’s methodology, it’s hard to speak to its authority; for instance, though the survey argues that young book buyers today are more influenced by “online reviews” than print reviews, it’s not clear how “online review” was defined. Also, it’s worth noting that the Codex Group is in the business of helping publishers and authors promote their books through avenues that don’t involve print reviews. But let’s assume that the Codex Group’s data provide an accurate snapshot of book-buying habits. Time to panic?

Only, I suppose, if you figure this is something new—or if you figure that getting readers to buy books is the reviewer’s job. Googling doesn’t immediately pull up many examples of other surveys on the influence of print reviews; nearly half of those surveyed for a 2008 Zogby poll say that a book review makes them want to buy a book, but when asked to name the most important factor in their last book purchase, “book review” doesn’t even make the list. A Canadian survey conducted in the mid-’90s (arguably before “online reviews” had any real influence), in which buyers were interviewed as they were leaving the store, suggests that only about 10 percent of shoppers were guided to their purchase by a book review.

And even in 1947, when print reviews were the dominant medium for information on new books, publishers weren’t waiting on Edmund Wilson to drive readers to the booksellers’ doors. An article in Kiplinger’s Magazine titled “Books Are Business: And Business Ain’t What It Used to Be” notes that the industry was in a tailspin but pointed two ways to reverse course: book clubs and paperbacks. The article closes this way:

For if there is one lesson book publishers have learned from the post-war drop-off in book sales, it is this: the overwhelming majority of us will take to books more readily by being “exposed” to them than by getting a hundred sermons on the mental and moral values of reading.

So, no, book reviews can’t really sell a book, and perhaps never really could. That’s not what attracts book reviewers to the gig. That lack of power has a consequence, and you can see it in the vocal disconnect between those reviewers and bloggers who prize their role as recommenders, doing a version of handselling online. Consider the comment thread on a post at Life in the Thumb that addresses last week’s panel. The post’s author took the panel’s organizers to task for not including any bloggers on it, and the commenters weighed in on what makes for a good reviewer:

[P]eople find reviewers of their like mind in the blogosphere and stick with them. They don’t rely on professional reviews anymore because the reviewers seem out of touch with what most of the consumers actually like.

those “real” reviewers… I never get any of the answers I am looking for when I wanna know if the book is for me

a lot of assumption that “professionals” always give “reliable and consistent” reviews, which is questionable also. Ah well, I think they just feel threatened.

Professional reviewers tend to focus on literary merit. I’m more interested in enjoyment.

I want true reviews and through the blogging community I feel I get them.

A blogger with similiar tastes is much more reliable than a pro who spouts off about literary merit and influences of the 21st century!

If book bloggers are so unreliable, then why do authors and publishers/publicists still contact us to read and review their books?

Why indeed? It probably has something to do with the power of the “online review” that the Codex Group survey discusses.

I’m not sure how the gap gets bridged here, or even if it’s worth bridging. I’m pretty much incompetent at selling things, and though I’d like it if you liked the things I like, it’s fine by me if you don’t. And if lots of book bloggers reject the standard practices of book reviewers and find large, enthusiastic audiences in the process, who’s to say they should start behaving otherwise? Enthusiasm for books is always a virtue. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a distinction between discussing books and selling them.

DeLillo in Slow Motion

My review of Don DeLillo‘s new short novel, Point Omega, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Here’s the kicker:

Like much of DeLillo’s work, “Point Omega” is concerned with how much we’re doing to do ourselves in. But unlike the jagged existentialism of “Falling Man,” there’s an elegance to De-Lillo’s considerations here, an artfulness to the prose that softens the mood of despair without sugar-coating it. Nobody would call this bleached-out landscape a happy place to visit. But this slim, strong novel evokes the kind of patient, haiku-like quietude we ache for in the post-9/11 world.

If you’ve paid any attention to coverage of the novel, you know that many reviewers see the book as yet another well-intentioned failure by a major author whose best work is behind him. In Bookforum, an exasperated Aleksandar Hemon writes that “whenever the reader reaches some level of understanding [of the novel], and meaning appears to be within grasp, the narrative slips away to a new level of intricacy.” In the National, Giles Harvey argues that “What’s missing from DeLillo’s presentation of human beings…is emotional depth.” Plenty of people have pretty much had it with DeLillo delivering another slim novel full of ghostly characters and abstracted musings on geopolitics. “While I’ll always admire DeLillo, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading him since the rightly famous opening of 1997’s Underworld,” Benjamin Alsup writes in Esquire, summarizing the prevailing sentiment.

I’ve counted myself among that number: “Who needs Don DeLillo?” I wrote in the opening of my review of 2007’s Falling Man. But I tried to meet Point Omega on its own terms, and I think it’s rewarding for that. In fact, part of me believes that if Point Omega were the novel that DeLillo delivered immediately after Underworld, the critical response would be very different—instead of voicing frustration with his knotty abstractions, he’d be praised for expressing concerns about war, loss, and time with such concision.

Yes, Point Omega could not exist without 9/11 and the second Iraq war, but its concerns aren’t exclusively present-day. War, loss, and time are immortal themes, after all, and I’m not the first to notice that the novel’s central character, a retired war strategist named Richard Elster, echoes Robert McNamara. To that end, the passage describing Elster’s role in the war complex has a timelessness to it that could’ve appeared in a DeLillo novel from 1997 or 1987 or 1977:

News and Traffic. Sports and Weather. These were his acid terms for the life he’d left behind, more than two years of living with the tight minds that made the war…. He was there to conceptualize, his word, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency. He was cleared to read classified cables and restricted transcripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

The third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon. Bulk and swagger, he said.

But Point Omega doesn’t succeed simply because DeLillo still has a command of the kind of language of authority and control that surrounded the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise; DeLillo’s tone and pacing are similarly assured. Good novels have a way of signaling early on how they ought to be consumed, which is why the opening and closing chapters, featuring the video art piece 24 Hour Psycho, are so effective; evoking the slowed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock‘s film sets the book’s metronome, and what follows will direct the reader toward Elster’s idea of time (he can wait forever), or that of the filmmaker who’s arrived to shoot him (he’s in a hurry to make his documentary).

And in a way, the novel’s central tension isn’t between war and peace or American empire and the rapidly approaching apocalypse (though DeLillo hasn’t neglected those concerns), but between differing notions of what it means to be patient. How soon do you perceive somebody’s disappearance as a loss? How long does it take to come around to somebody else’s way of thinking? How much time is required to shift from being concerned about humanity to being concerned about a single human being? DeLillo shows how those questions rattle the impatient filmmaker in simple, rhythmic language:

I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, the indifference of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

“Conceptualize” is a useless term for Elster, and it is for DeLillo as well. That’s an unusual thing to say about a novelist whose chief skill is an ability to look at the big picture, but he’s found a way to gracefully study individual emotion without letting larger themes make too much noise. Point Omega is the first time when his exchanging big ambitions to study interior lives seems like a fair trade. If we still prefer bulk and swagger, that’s our problem, not his.

Links: New Deal

Guest editor Claire Messud dedicates the new issue of Guernica to women writers, including Holly Goddard Jones, Porochista Khakpour, and Elliott Holt. In her introductory essay, Messud writes: “Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men…. Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.”

Aleksandar Hemon (also in Guernica): “I think the short story has been revived by these so-called immigrant writers; they do not know what the common lore is so they don’t care about it.”

John Updike never reviewed T.C. Boyle‘s books, and don’t think Boyle didn’t notice. But that that doesn’t mean Updike did him no favors.

This Side of Paradise will be a musical.

So will American Psycho.

Daniel Green has assembled an impressive list of major author interviews (i.e., non newspaper-phoners) that are available online. HTMLGiant wants suggestions for worthy additions to it. (I have one!)

Myla Goldberg: “Writing—it’s sort of the opposite of blogging and tweeting because I’m trying to conceal. I don’t want you to see me.”

Job Description

Yesterday I wrote that “fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction.” That’s a lot simplistic (and completely tautological), and since I scribbled it I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make the point that fiction that serves a larger purpose always feels compromised, a little less true to itself. If fiction doesn’t have a job, what’s its purpose?

In an entertaining interview with Levi Asher, Up in the Air and Thumbsucker novelist Walter Kirn offers the kind of summary response I was looking for:

My job—my only job, the way I see it—is to dedicate myself, with my whole being, to reflecting, animating, and discovering that in the world (and in my myself) that speaks most energetically of our remarkable situation here as beings who get just one shot—so far as we know—of accommodating a reality that we encounter through no act of will, must abide in without the assistance of a rule book, and are granted no clear vision of our progress through, or any guarantee that progress is possible, measurable, or what it would constitute assuming it were.

That’s a mouthful, and all those rhetorical switchbacks means it likely won’t make it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But it’s as good a description of the fiction writer’s purpose as I’ve come across.

The entire interview, by the way, covers plenty of interesting ground about Kirn’s dual duties as a novelist and critic, as well as the process of transforming a novel into film. As bloggers used to say a lot more often, read the whole thing.

Kids’ Stuff

Writing in Forbes, Trevor Butterworth parses the responses to the deaths of J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, and Louis Auchincloss and concludes that America is a nation obsessed with adolescence—or, more precisely, obsessed with skewering “phoniness” the way adolescents do. Zinn’s and Salinger’s dismissals of mainstream groupthink, he writes were:

…like adolescence, a state of illusion. What is the upshot of exposing fakery except the belief that a morally unassailable authenticity is possible? What is Zinn’s account of an evil ruling class and an honest, oppressed people other than adolescent historiography—a point driven home with an excruciating lack of self-awareness in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon tells his shrink, played by Robin Williams, that A People’s History will “knock you on your ass”?

You might be knocked on your ass, but to what end? What was there to believe in when marriage and family, society and country, and liberty and equality were all revealed to be messy constructs and not the simple renderings of childhood? Why even risk disillusionment when adolescence, and the guilt-free role of minor inquisitor, can be maintained as a cultural ideal?

Fair enough—nobody wants to be constantly surrounded by the person who’s poking you in the chest and telling you It’s all a big scam and You’re all a bunch of sheep, and I suppose that both Zinn and Salinger at times evoked (even created) that person. Still, that doesn’t mean that challenging authority, in fiction or otherwise, is always an adolescent act—or that writing about boardrooms, law firms, and prep schools, as Auchincloss did, might be a more noble goal.

If Auchincloss (who I haven’t read) successfully considered weighty matters of philosophy and financial corruption, as Butterworth argues, more power to him. But to say he’s a more valuable author for that is to get behind a dubious argument that some subjects are more important than others—that novels about money mean more than novels about childhood, in the same way that journalism about lawyers means more than journalism about education. It’s an argument that fiction’s job is somehow to do something—change the world, rally the citizenry—when fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction. If people turned Holden Caulfield’s story into a manual for living, that’s not Salinger’s fault—or somehow Auchincloss’ problem to fix.

Saunders Out Loud

As a rule, I don’t consume audiobooks or listen to podcasts of authors reading their work. But I’ll pay money for a recording of George Saunders reading his story “Victory Lap” last night at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. On the page, the story asks the reader to spend a little time puzzling out how it ought to be read. It concerns two awkward teens and a sinister adult, shifting perspectives from character to character, with various other voices rattling inside their heads; brackets, italics, and interruptions abound, and quotation marks are absent.

Sorting all that out involves a little work. But he trick to the story, Saunders made clear last night, isn’t to fuss with it but to go through it fast. As his rapid delivery made clear, “Victory Lap” is largely about what it means to be an adolescent sorting out your own moral code while being mindful of others’—you’re processing, processing, processing. Add the facts that one character’s life is in danger and that another is on the track team, and the rushed pace captures the kind of anxiety Saunders is concerned with. Of course, it helps that Saunders is a tremendous ventriloquist for his characters; the opening section of the story introduces a host of voices, from Mom to a teacher to a baby deer, and he captures all of them as distinct, comic, and slightly strange, like Disney voice artists who were just a little too off-kilter for Uncle Walt’s purposes.

Saunders wasn’t slickly performing the story, the way some writers do when they read their work. He’d just found a way to fully inhabit the characters he’d imagined; if the audience happened to be entertained at the same time, so much the better. Fiction always tends to come off as funnier when it’s read in front of a crowd—you don’t take wit, even subtle wit, for granted in the everyday world, so it catches you short when you hear it out loud. But it’s still hard to be entertaining. Case in point: George Saunders. In a 2007 New Yorker podcast, he gives an engaged but flat reading of Isaac Babel‘s story “You Must Know Everything.” It may be that Babel’s work doesn’t quite lend itself to the kind of extroverted style that can make a story sound good, but Joshua Ferris didn’t have an easier time of it reading Saunders’ “Adams” for the same podcast last fall. It’s easy enough to sound colloquial as Saunders does, but hard to sound like the characters are living through you. That’s a gift.