Remembering Robert Bingham

The Louisville Courier-Journal has a lengthy feature on the life of Robert Bingham, the fiction writer and founding editor of Open City magazine who died of a heroin overdose in 1999. There’s no strong time hook to the piece, except that his sole novel, Lightning on the Sun, was published ten years ago this month, and that he was born into a family that owned the Courier-Journal. Still, it’s a sad, interesting read, following up on the influence Bingham has had on writers working today, both financially (PEN American Center awards the Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers to debut works of fiction) and in terms of specific guidance to authors, among them Sam Lipsyte:

One of the writers Bingham helped launch was Lipsyte. Lipsyte’s recent novels have won significant awards, but his first break came when Open City published his story collection “Venus Drive.” They met as fellow students at Brown.

“He was really an early champion of my stuff,” said Lipsyte, whose latest novel is “The Ask.” “He was the guy who was calling me up saying, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Within his own fiction, Bingham was keen at being a provocateur. It served him persuasively.

“Rob Bingham’s work has lasted because he was great at the anti-hero, fascinated by failure, and failure is usually the most deeply personal and most difficult-to-satire aspect of storytelling,” said Sam Brumbaugh — whose debut novel “Goodbye, Goodness” was published by Open City — in an e-mail.

Q&A: David Lipsky

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace follows Wallace in conversation for five days with novelist and journalist David Lipsky, who was assigned to profile the Infinite Jest author at the height of the mania over the book. The piece never ran and the interview was shelved, though parts of it would emerge in a feature Lipsky wrote on Wallace for Rolling Stone in October 2008, shortly after his suicide.

There are plenty of reminders online of Wallace’s quick wit, his willingness to interrogate just about anything for its intellectual value, and his habit of turning questions back on an interviewer to calibrate his own responses. Although of Course is especially intimate, though, a function of the fact that Wallace and Lipsky are captive to each other in ways few interviewers and subjects are, sharing cars, restaurant booths, and planes. (Nobody has more fun flipping through a SkyMall catalog than Wallace.) It’s a fascinating, busy book that says a lot about where a famous novelist was at in 1996, and a lot too about where he thought art and culture were going—predictions that could be surprisingly spot-on. (Disclaimer: I think I come by my admiration for the book honestly, but Lipsky and I have had enough friendly exchanges that my recommendation isn’t entirely unbiased; I’d decline an assignment to review the book.)

Lipsky answered questions via email about his experience with Wallace, what got left out of the book, and how he felt looking back at a 14-year-old conversation.

The book’s title comes from a statement Wallace makes about parenting—the notion that children develop their own personalities regardless of how much direction they get from their parents. What appealed to you about that line so much that you used it as a title?

First, as parenting advice, it’s sharp and an energy-saver: kids will become who they’re going to become. Second, it felt like advice from David to the reader: you’ll have to deal, at a certain point, with who you do become. Last, I hope the book is a way for readers to spend time with David, hear him tell the story of how he became David Foster Wallace. In a sense literally. Growing up, he was David Wallace. Then, at 24, he was standing in an agent’s office. “And that’s when Fred decided my name would be ‘David Foster Wallace,’” he says. “Because ‘David Raines Wallace’ wrote for The New Yorker.”

So when I read it, that line seemed beautiful and very apt and like the title. This is his life in David’s words—from being a kid (“I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both loving something really fiercely”) to how he turned into the person who wrote the books: the essays, stories, Infinite Jest. What I love most is it’s also the sound—David calls this the “brain voice”—of his books: warm, incredibly alive, modest and funny about himself. “I didn’t know whether I really loved to write or whether I’d just gotten excited about having some early success,” David says. “It’s the only thing I’ve gotten, you know, food pellets from the universe for, to the extent that I wanted.” Infinite Jest was different. Other books, he’d engaged in some preemptive expectation-rigging: “Doing this, ‘All right, I’ll work at like three-quarter speed, and then I can always figure that if I just hadn’t been a fuckup, the book coulda been really good.’ You know that defense system? You write the night before, and if it doesn’t get a great grade, you know it could’ve been better.” The novel he went full-out. “I decided this is a little experiment. I was going to do it for the sake of the book. Fuck it. If I couldn’t even sell it, fuck it. . . And I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I feel like, ‘All right, I’m a writer now.’ Whether I’m a successful writer or not, I don’t know. But like this is who I am, this is what I do.”

The conversation in the book occasionally dissolves into ellipses and bracketed summaries. Why didn’t the material you trimmed/paraphrased quite rise to the level of full inclusion?

I scissored some of my dialog—stuff I squinted at as a reader, thinking what I’d want, which is: more from David.

In the book, we take a five-day trip as he finishes promoting his novel. (He’s been “sleepwalking through” the tour; he’s edgy about the impressions cycling back via delayed reaction. “There’s a difference between short-term, people-based anxiety. And sort of deep, existential, you know, fear, that you feel kind of all the way down to your butthole. And that’s…that’s what I’ll have when I’m alone.”)

We head to Chicago, Minneapolis, back to his house and his dogs. And spend the whole time talking—an incredible thing to be part of. David is such a natural writer he talks in prose: spitting chewing tobacco, finding the defrost, smoking with the car windows down (he calls it our hypothermia smoking tour of the Midwest), and what keeps coming out is prose. I wanted the book to give readers that experience, without me (David #2) getting too much in the way. So when a question of mine ran long, or I have a complicated point to make, I thought I’d spare readers the length and complication.

I’m there, mostly, to be the anti-nutritionist who orders a burger deluxe at the airport restaurant very early, so David can lift his eyebrows and say, “I’m not even going to start on the idea of eating a hamburger at 7:00 in the morning. The idea is you eat eggs, which are kind of a latent form, as your body is itself awakening. It makes a lot of sense. Because you are the food, and you’re supposed to eat stuff that’s nice to you.” To be the surprised and woozy guest in the kitchen—he talked very late the night before—as David speaks to his dogs about vitamins. “We’re going to give him some right now, because it looks like he’s starting to feel a little poorly.” “You give vitamins to your dogs?” “No, you. You can’t burn the candle at both ends, man. You’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not eating right, working too hard. On the go.”

(David, in addition to being a gracious, vitamin-providing host, is comically and charmingly self-conscious: “I’m just worried I’m going to look like one of those insane old women who talk to their dogs.”)

You decided to interject a fair amount of personal commentary, noting your observations about Wallace’s conversational tics, his tone, and especially your sense of how he’s trying to persuade your feelings toward him. Did you struggle with how much of that to include? I’m sure there are plenty of Wallace fans who would’ve just preferred the unadulterated text, and a more complete transcription.

I did struggle—I basically wanted just enough so there’d be scene-setting (we’re in his living room, we’re at the mall) and sound-setting (there’s ice under the wipers, here’s how David’s voice sounds), but not so much the action gets obstructed. I wanted it to feel immediate. This is pretty much everything David talked about for five days.

There are two or three spots where he asked me not to tape. The writing class he teaches (where he gives students two pieces of advice; one deadpan, “To have the narrator be funny and smart, have him say funny, smart things some of the time,” one absolutely solid: “What’s interesting to me may not be to you”); his friend’s house, where we watch TV. One great demonstration David’s work makes is the power of directness: asking yourself why you feel what you do, then saying it. With his friends, we watch a movie that stars a person David knew and disliked in college. One friend asks why. “He was just very cool and popular,” David says, “and I wasn’t, was the basic offense. To be honest.” (It’s like the thing Fitzgerald says—Fitzgerald is writing about himself in the third person—about his surprise at finding a wide readership “simply for telling people that he felt as they did.”) And then I took notes when David does an NPR appearance. He’s walking past the soundboard, the NPR guy says, “Were going to record digitally. I hope that’s OK.” David says, “So only yes and no answers?” It kind of stopped my breath; he was so amazingly fast.

During your (I believe) second morning with Wallace we read about you getting a bit of guidance from Rolling Stone HQ to bring up talk about his past use of drugs and alcohol, but overall the conversation seems pretty free-flowing. Did you have much in the way of marching orders from the magazine, specific questions that you needed to address? (I ask in part because the conversation you two have about contemporary music is a rare moment where the discussion feels a little stiff and dutiful.)

You’re right, that’s the second morning, and it became a rough conversation. I’ll just dispute one thing, because the music talk has one of my favorite moments. David’s talking about radio—and suddenly it becomes this brilliant spoken mini-essay about pop. Living in downstate Illinois, he says, you’re stuck listening to a lot of country music. “Because that’s like pretty much all there is, when you’re tired of listening to Green Day on the one college station. And these country musics that are just so—you know, ‘Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.’ And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable. . . But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?. . . That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.”

So you’re right, there wasn’t much from-New York direction. I wanted to talk about what he wanted to talk about. I also knew I wanted to ask about music and movies—because he was a writer I really loved, and it’s hard to imagine writers you love ducking the same bad songs or being thrilled by the same crap TV as you. He told me he’d loved some songs so much he taped them off the radio—a sly little economy from the pre-digital age I’d forgotten. And he was very funny about music (“I have the musical tastes of a thirteen year-old girl… I am a bonehead who listens to the radio”) and sharp about movies (“Tarantino is such a schmuck 90 percent of the time, but ten percent of the time, I’ve seen genius shining off the guy”), even about a pop star like Alanis Morissette: “She’s pretty, but she’s pretty in a sloppy, very human way. A lot of women in magazines are pretty in a way that isn’t erotic because they don’t look like anybody you know. You can’t imagine them putting a quarter in a parking meter or eating a bologna sandwich.”

And then the music talk led to this ministerial surprise. “The Alanis Morissette obsession followed the Melanie Griffith obsession. It was preceded by something that I will tell you that I got teased a lot for, which was a terrible Margaret Thatcher obsession. All through college: posters of Margaret Thatcher, and ruminations on Margaret Thatcher.” I asked if it was sexual. “Sensuous, perhaps. It more involved—having tea with Margaret Thatcher. Having her really enjoy something I said, lean forward, and cover my hand with hers.” It was such an extraordinary conversation I was happy to follow anyplace he wanted to go.

Wallace seems very anxious about the interview early on, stepping out of himself regularly to analyze how his statements will appear in the magazine. (Disturbingly, he seems to have a nervous tic where he casually makes statements along the line of, “If I had to do this, I’d blow my brains out.”) He seems more relaxed with you by the end, but he’s still referring to how his statements will play in the magazine. What was your sense of his changing comfort levels as the days went on?

That was my sense of it too. It was nice, once the book was over, to read it and see us get more used to each other. It’s a tricky thing, touring for five days with a stranger. The book more or less follows a Henry Ford road trip equation: any two people will become comfortable with each other if they have to travel a distance in excess of forty miles.

In the beginning, I think he was sizing me up. We’re having gigantic slabs of pizza, he looks under the table where I’m jiggling my leg: “You’re a nervous fellow, aren’t you?” And he was shy. “I think being shy,” he says, “basically means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me. And I have elements of that shyness in me.”

But the first day, there’s a lot of arguing. He looks at me right before we finish up and says, “I don’t know whether you’re a very nice man or not.” Not the easiest thing to hear from someone you admire.

We didn’t get the “virtual reality pornography” that Wallace predicted we’d now have, but he makes some very observant statements about what role of the Internet would play, particularly in how it would become more adept at guiding us toward curated content, advertising, etc. In 1996, how sensible did his patter on that subject seem? Did he come off to you as insightful? Cynical?

You’re right, we didn’t get the first-person raunch stuff (David worries that when it arrives, “I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna to have to leave the planet”). But things like YouPorn are close—free porn piped into every internet home 24 hours a day, so now you have support groups for people who have the clammy misfortune of becoming addicted to that.

Reading the book, I’m shocked at how much he guesses right. He got our current politics right. He guessed how broadcast would fold itself into digital cable and then slip into on-demand and the web. And emailing or texting where everybody used to pick up the phone, because a text is so much more limited and easier to control. There’s a food delivery service where I live in New York called Seamless. If it feels slightly too rocky to place a call for take-out, this lets you handle the entire transaction by keyboard: you don’t have to interact with another human until the warm bag arrives at your door. David saw that coming too: “What has happened that I’m now willing—and I do this too—that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people. And that as the internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up. . . Like, at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.”

(At the time, he didn’t have email in his house. “If I can get out,” he says, “they can get in.”)

And he was very optimistic about the reading future; he knew books would need to change. “You’re talking about nobody will be trained to read the way we read. Which means that if people are reading in more short bursts or whatever, that art will find a way to form conversations with readers in the brain voice or vernacular that they’ve got. But I mean—Jesus, if the thing made the jump from oral, you know, jongleur ballad, to printed text, then I think it can…There’s stuff that really good fiction can do that other forms of art can’t do as well. And the big things seems to be, sort of leaping over that wall of self. And the trick is gonna be finding a way to do it at a time, and for a generation, whose relation to long sustained linear verbal communication is fundamentally different.”

And as you said, he guessed exactly right about the web—about aggregators like Huffington Post, about the really best web things getting collected and bumped to the top of the queue. “Because this idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. . .I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years.”

As the days go on, Wallace gets much more comfortable shutting off your tape recorder and going off the record. Without disclosing what exactly was discussed, were there differences in the tenor of those conversations? Is off-the-record Wallace substantially different than witty, hyperobservant on-the-record Wallace?

Mostly when he’s turning the recorder off, it’s because he wants to stop and draft out an answer. It’s also the way he says he worked. “I do six to eight drafts of everything that I do. I am probably not the smartest writer going. But I work really really hard.” He’d pause and say, “I gotta be clear on this.” So we’d talk, the thought and phrasing would come to him, he’d switch the machine back on. It was fascinating and exciting – like getting to watch him at the desk.

So no. It’d maybe be a relief (we’ve all got our internal anxieties, and nobody completely minds when the best quarterback slips) to say differently. I don’t think there was very much he could do about being witty and hyperobservant.

The climax of the book, for me, seems to come about two-thirds of the way through, when Wallace shuts off the tape recorder and asks you to stop talking—at a moment when you’re calling him on affecting a persona for the sake of the interview. (Even though he’d just confessed he was doing some of that.) It’s the only point when there appears to be a pointed silence between the two of you, and that he was actually mad at you. Can you characterize some of the discomfort there? Did it change the tenor of the rest of the interview?

It was a terrible moment; it’s the place in the book where I like myself least. David handled it very graciously.

That moment finishes something you mentioned earlier—the discussion about David trying to manage his listeners’ impressions. “Part of the shyness for me,” he says, “is it’s very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you? You know? It’s this kind of mental chess. Which in personal intercourse? Makes things very difficult. But in writing…” We’re on the highway, and he’s decided to explain why he does that—and, to show I’m keeping up, I point out that he’s still doing it. I think him just switching off the machine was right, the most eloquent thing. So for the last half-hour of the trip, we just sat in the dark, mumble-singing to the radio. It felt hot and bad. On top of everything else, he’d been so kind. (“My spare blanket is your spare blanket,” he says, “my Pop-tart es su Pop-tart.”) Years later, I can remember the exact feeling—that smarting, why fullness in the chest—plus a surprise at my ungenerosity. When I read it, I wanted to lodge a protest against myself.

Then we parked at his house, walked his dogs, and I think David put it out of his mind. The next, last day is when he tells me how he worked, about the tiny, snowed-in house in Syracuse (“when I would want to write, I would have to put all the stuff from the desk on the bed. And when I would want to sleep…”), the great story about the Auburndale health club, the lovely thing on the back of the book about how people ought to treat each other and themselves. Which is part of what I mean about his level of kindness.

How did you react to some of the other interviews with Wallace that made the rounds after you had to abandon your piece? I’m specifically curious what you thought of the New York Times Magazine profile, which seemed to take a lot of what you and Wallace discussed but shaped Wallace into a caricature.

I don’t know—David says he feels he’s hard to interview. So I’m sure the writer of that piece did the best job he could with the material he had. I also think that profile gives a good idea of the shock of David: when his novel came out, all over the city, everyone was talking about him. And New York, in a way, prefers being an exporter to an importer of culture—and David had crashed in from outside, from the Midwest, which compounded the impact. I think what the piece shows is the city getting used to him.

What I’ve responded to more is stuff since David died. It’s in the opening of the book. Suicide has an event gravity; eventually everybody’s impressions get tugged in its direction. It’s such a hard end it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. The way I understand his last year and a half is as a medical error. (At the last meeting of his fiction class, he choked up. Students assumed he was joking. “Go ahead and laugh—here I am crying—but I really am going to miss all of you.”) I talked with David’s friends and family, and he was about the liveliest person they’d ever known. He was the voice you hear in the books—as brilliant, teasing, charming and kind a person as you could imagine. When the writer Mary Karr talks about him, he has the sound of a man on an information safari. “Data went into his mind, and it would just shoot off sparks. Wildly funny, unbelievable wattage, such a massive interest in and curiosity about his place in the world…He was just constantly devouring the universe.” I wanted the book to have that—to be about what he was like when he was alive.

Links: Plain Dealing

“Let’s keep it simple and clear prose-wise shall we?”: How David Foster Wallace marked up one student’s paper.

A similar point by David Mamet, though in a different context: “IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.” (The aggressive use of all-caps suggests to me that Mamet might actually be on the side of the always-be-closing jerk in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Jonathan Dee describes how reading the interviews published by his one-time employer, The Paris Review, helped him as a writer: “I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.”

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Levi Asher at David Shieldsreading in D.C. Tuesday night. (He is, in fact, the person who tipped me off to it.) He delivers his own assessment of the reading, along with a defense of Reality Hunger.

Not unrelated to Shields’ comments about the Internet and book length, Charlie Stross offers some insights into the reasons why books are as long as they are, and what the future might mean for the bulky novel. (via The Rumpus)

Brooks Peters revisits Hubert Creekmore‘s 1948 novel, The Welcome, a curious novel about homosexuality that dares not speak the name of its central theme.

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his list of ten favorite books, which includes Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Junot Diaz‘s Drown. Funny kicker: “I really need to read some books about white people. My canon is culturally biased and reflects the perspective of sheltered African-American who is embarrassingly ignorant of the White Experience.”

The Clifton Fadiman Medal, which goes to an older work of fiction that merits more attention, has been awarded to Jamaica Kincaid‘s 1985 novel, Annie John.

Jim Shepard on writing outlines for stories, even if you don’t trust them: “That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I’d be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that’s evidence that the thing is dead.”

Earlier this month I spoke on a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle about the next ten years in book culture, though it quickly became a session on what the next ten years means for book reviewers. Video of that panel is now up; I can’t bear to watch, though HTMLGiant’s summary suggests my points got over well enough. What the video probably doesn’t capture is the sight of the audience collectively fishing for pens when I mentioned the Millions and the Rumpus. There’s work to do.

Narrative Shimmers In

David Shields‘ appearance in D.C. last night didn’t make me more of an admirer of his new book, Reality Hunger, but it did clarify where he’s coming from, and his enthusiasm is palpable—he has the courage of his convictions, which is a big reason why people are so interested in the book.

My issue with Reality Hunger, still, is that Shields is better at explaining why conventional novels let him down than showing why the unconventional ones excite him; it’s clear why he thinks Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections represents literature as a spent force but not as clear why, for him, Renata Adler‘s Speedboat points the way to the future. So I appreciated that he took some time to walk through Maggie Nelson‘s 2009 book, Bluets—one of Shields’ 122 favorite bookscultural works*—and explained how he admired the way it foregrounded its theme instead of buried it. Shields isn’t against narrative; he just dislikes writing that suggests the writer is a slave to it. I wasn’t a very good notetaker, but Nelson herself nicely summarized the strategy in an interview with Bomb: “Narrative often shimmers in as a by-product of working with length and sequence. But mostly it’s a formal interest that pushes me out, an abiding interest in—and bewilderment about—how thoughts hold together, how they push against each other.”

Somebody in the audience asked Shields if he thought that bookstores were conditioning us to adhere to conventional narratives and clear splits between fact and fiction. Shields suggested that it may be more systemic than the publishing or bookselling industries. Perhaps it’s a reflection of “the Ben Franklin part of us that’s always terribly practical,” he said, though when I chatted him up about this a little later he stressed that it wasn’t a uniquely American condition. “We like the slumber,” he said, and approaching art that way is a global condition. (Shields, a fan of romantic comedies, isn’t immune to it.) I don’t agree, though, that all conventional narratives are highways to slumberland—if they’re treated that way, isn’t the flaw more the reader’s than the writer’s?

Update: Thinking on the question above for a bit today, I think I’ve sorted out what strikes me as arrogant in Shields’ assertions. During his talk last night he discussed how literature ought to better respond to the streams of information and media in which we currently swim—the tweets, e-mails, blogs, TV shows, video streams, and all the rest of the things that tend to yank us away from whatever we’re reading. To that end, Shields tends to favor short books. (Just cherry-picking from the novels on his list, Amy Fusselman‘s The Pharmacist’s Mate is 86 pages; Elizabeth Hardwick‘s Sleepless Nights is 144 pages; J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello is a comparatively epic 240 pages.) There’s nothing inherently problematic with short novels—except, perhaps, in leveraging them as models for where we ought to look for ideas because (unlike fat, Corrections-y novels) they’re not so full of—Shields’ word—“furniture.” But if allowing ourselves to be slaves to plot is such a foolish way to behave, allowing ourselves to be slaves to our own impatience isn’t much of an improvement, in terms of a system for reading fiction. Furniture isn’t useless.

Bad-Faith Criticism

Writing in the Boston Globe, Steve Almond regrets his callow youth spent as a music critic. After expending energy muchwriting snarky reviews, he attends an MC Hammer concert, sees people enjoying themselves, and the scales fall from his eyes:

The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

From there, he tees off on music criticism as a “pointless enterprise” that’s engineered to neglect the joys of music, proceeds to extend this alleged pointlessness to all criticism—and not for a second does Almond consider that the problem might, in fact, be Steve Almond. ARTicles’ Glenn Kenny pretty thoroughly skewers the article, calling it out as further evidence of an increasingly “reflexive notion of criticism as a bad-faith enterprise.”

Of course, you don’t have to actively dislike criticism to feel that critics are often dealing in bad faith. That’s something book blogger Michelle Kerns wrestl s with in her post “What is the purpose of a book review? And are book reviewers writing anything useful?” After reading numerous book reviews, Kerns figures that they generally fall into one of two types—the unsatisfying and the snarky.

Unlike Almond, Kerns is invested in book reviewing, and her list of most popular book-review cliches is a must-read for anybody thinking about entering this deeply gratifying, poorly paid industry. But I suspect that Kerns is vigorously bayoneting strawmen—or at least provides little evidence that the reviews that displease her actually exist. She does call out one review in the Christian Science Monitor for using the word “unputdownable”—a crime to be sure, but not proof of book reviewing’s thoroughgoing uselessness.

It may be that Kerns avoided linking to or naming these failed reviews to spare their authors some embarrassment. But part of the critic’s job is to back up one’s assertions, so let the unsatisfying and the snarky be called out by name—draw attention to them so they can be part of a conversation about books. Kerns instead proposes a new template for a book review—a list of questions a critic ought to answer in order for a review to be in some way complete. (“What feel does the book have?” “What worked magnificently?” “What books are most similar to this book?”) As a list of things a reviewer might consider when sitting down to write, it’s decent enough (though some of the questions imply that the critic’s job is to sell books, which it isn’t). But the fill-in-the-blanks method won’t make criticism any better or more useful; those blanks could easily be filled with answers that are unsatisfying, or snarky. Just try to satisfying, try to write in ways that avoid the easy crutch of snark—or recognizing that, like Steve Almond, you’re incapable of doing that, get out of the business.

More on The Surrendered

D.G. Myers is challenging my rationale for feeling disappointed in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered.* I mostly dinged the book for its simplistic characterizations; Myers suggests that perhaps I’m too eager to expect psychological realism and might be better off turning my attention to the book’s plot. When I glibly dismissed the book’s deep supply of lost and damaged limbs as serving an argument for a world without legs, Myers proposes that Lee is “more interested in the world that wants to cut them off.”

In other words (if I’m reading Myers correctly), Lee should get credit for some of the more allegorical work he’s done in the book. Which I’d be happy to give, had he done it more consistently. Stripped of any demand for psychological realism—the demand that Myers finds so irritating—at least one character remains an interesting case: Hector, the Korean War GI who fathers a son with June, who was orphaned by the war. Hector doesn’t just represent the kind of indomitable spirit that Lee wants to somberly honor, he is in fact superhuman—an alcoholic incapable of feeling truly drunk and a warrior who can’t entirely feel pain:

It was amazing but, through all the battles and firefights and skirmishes, he’d never been seriously injured; he’d been knifed and shot, even hit by shrapnel, but they were always superficial strikes, glancing off him as if he were shielded by the harder steel of some mysterious fortune, the only drafts of his blood drawn by the nurses for the blood and plasma reserves, or else come from his bloodied noses after the tussles outside bars and whorehouses. Then his wounds always healed with miraculous swiftness, as if his corporal self existed apart from everything else in a bounding, lapsing time. And in the same way that he could not feel true drunkenness he felt no true pain either, just the cold report of impact, his nerves disconnected from the necessary region of his mind, if never quite his heart.

Hector is both a moral and structural tentpole for The Surrendered. He most strongly represents Lee’s argument that we’re tethered to the past despite our best efforts to resist it, and he supports the two other lead characters in the novel: June, the orphan, and Sylvie, a missionary. He provides that support both in terms of the novel’s plot (emotionally for June, sexually for Sylvie) and in terms of its structure, bridging the chapters that chronicle Sylvie’s early miseries in Manchuria and June’s late miseries as her cancer progresses. If The Surrendered is about how the world that wants to cut your legs off, Hector sees the most of the cutting, or is at least most directly affected by it.** If we can’t take him seriously as a “realistic” character, we can at least admire him as a type, the man who’s doing much of Lee’s metaphorical heavily lifting. (Literally: He builds the orphanage’s chapel.)

So far, so appealingly disinterested in psychological realism. What I can’t see is how such a reading does more for the characters of June and Sylvie, who occupy two-thirds of the novel. What are their “superpowers” to match Hector’s, and what purpose do they serve without them? June is a headstrong orphan who grows up to become a headstrong woman; Sylvie is an addict trying to blank out the brutality she witnessed years before in Manchuria. The emotional resonances of those experiences are clear, but there’s no broader thematic value in them. Sylvie’s habit, for instance, seems to do little more than set up a somewhat interesting tension (a missionary with a drug habit!) for Hector to reckon with. And Sylvie’s justification of her habit is a familiar one:

Each time she’d take a little more [of an opium tincture], Jim warning her to be careful and that it was not meant for a healthy young woman, but she knew she wasn’t a tenth as sturdy as she appeared to Jim or to her aunt or to everyone else who saw her as a beautiful, somewhat aloof, scholarly girl who had so quickly righted herself after such a lamentable family tragedy…. [A]s she went to her classes at the college, attended church with Aunt Lizzie, a part of her couldn’t help but wish to run to Jim and the pitch-black room at the factory, drink in the potion and transmogrify, be anything but her mortal self.

The story is much the same for June. She, too, has lost her family to an atrocity, and she responds by spending her life shutting herself off emotionally, an effort that has made her wealthy but separated her from the people close to her—a worn-out theme if there ever was one. When Myers argues that The Surrendered is better read without the filter of psychological realism, only about a third of the book improves; Lee is still committed to making familiar emotional overtures, and to introducing yet another accident, another busted leg or arm, when he needs to keep the novel’s temperature up. Lee is indeed interested in the world that wants to cut your legs off, but he rarely seems interested in doing more than showing you all the bloodshed that results.

* It requires real effort for me not to refer to Lee’s novel as The Unnamed. Perhaps ambitious but flawed novels are starting to run together for me.

** Somebody could probably get a thesis out of the notion that Hector is a symbol for American imperialism since World War II, surrounded by violence but never critically wounded by it. But Lee isn’t especially engaged in the politics of war in The Surrendered, and looking at the novel that way would make it lamer than it is.

Links: The Hoover Institution

“[Joyce Carol Oates] says she often has to bribe herself to write — dangling an hour or two of gardening as her reward — and gets her best ideas while vacuuming.”

C-SPAN’s new online video library is stuffed full of literary material from the past 20-odd years, including awards programs, conferences, readings and more. Among the videos is a 2004 PEN American Center event featuring Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Francine Prose, and Russell Banks.

Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav are the three finalists for the teaching position at Pomona College once held by David Foster Wallace.

On the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain‘s death, let us remember that he was a pipe aficionado, an early baseball enthusiast, a tourist magnet.

On the first anniversary of John Updike‘s death, let us remember that not everybody is impressed with his work. “He’s a fine realist,” says Yale professor Amy Hungerford. “But he doesn’t push the envelope of the novel. He is simply not on the vanguard of what fiction has to say.”

James Mulholland, who along with a few of his students answered some of my questions about his 9/11 novel course last year, defends the honor of graduate studies in the humanities: “[W]e must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.”

Kurt Vonnegut draws a few charts to explain how narrative works.

The next F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will honor Alice McDermott.

On the evidence of this assortment of photographs, you’re not required to be a smoker to be a Hero of American Literature, but it helps.

Inspirational Verse

The difference between the America of films, magazines, and packaged goods, and the America of Faulkner, Hawthorne, Saul Bellow, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Melville—I stab the names with a pin, hitting on past as well as present, because the then in every country is contained in its now—is extraordinary. (It is interesting that that marvelous American invention, sick humor, is based on this very difference: life as you’ve been told to want it, and life as it is.) One can’t explain away the gap in terms of the difference between art and commercialism. For though shamelessly used by commerce, the American image is also held up by Americans in high and serious places, political ones, for example. The image exalts youth, success, unquestioning patriotism, the love of a good man/woman, the confidence of freedom and of being right. The best of American writers are concerned with the difficulty of fulfillment; the corruption of integrity; the struggle for moral standards in public as well as private life; the truth of love, whatever its form, hetero- or homosexual, the battle of the individual against the might of society; and the doubt that one is right.

Nadine Gordimer, 1963

Chang-rae Lee’s Characterization Flaw

Talking to the Guardian, novelist Amy Bloom discusses her previous career as a psychotherapist and how she creates characters:

It is more the case, she explains, “that you say to [patients], ‘you seem to be carrying this little tin can left over from 1964 with you everywhere you go; maybe you’d like to put it down?’ And sometimes they go, no, it’s way too hard to put it down, I would like to ruin my relationships for the rest of my life, thank you very much. And you go OK, see you around.” In terms of her fiction, the approach translates into: “if you’ve done a good job of presenting the character, people can hear him and see him and you don’t have to go into a lot of blah blah blah about how he came to be. It’s mostly misleading and pointless.”

Bloom sounds like a terrible psychotherapist but a perfectly reasonable fiction writer: The best writers reveal character instead of explain it, and even good writers fall into the easy trap of giving their characters depth by making them products of a Deeply Transformative Moment. (To be fair, newspaper feature writers are more guilty of this flaw than novelists.) Bloom’s comment helped clarify my feelings about what doesn’t work in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered, which ambitiously attempts to capture the lives of three people deeply affected by the Korean War: Sylvie, a missionary; June, an orphan; Hector, a U.S. soldier booted from the army for “a pattern of discreditable conduct.”

There’s plenty to admire in Lee’s novel. Though a few critics have picked on its purpler passages, the writing is more often forceful and straightforward, especially when it comes to Hector, where Lee infuses the character’s humdrum life with a rare dignity, akin to Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates. James Wood collects some of Lee’s more unfortunate sentences, but he’d be disinclined to do so if the characters weren’t such simple expressions of simple motivations. Hector is a brawler shellshocked by the brutality of war; June is an orphan shellshocked by the brutality of war; Sylvie is a morphine addict shellshocked by the brutality of war.

Lee can afford to carry the story for a while on the sheer intensity of three people reckoning with that brutality; the Transformative Moments for June and Sylvie in particular are so intensely detailed and gruesome that you’re willing to accept them as indeed singularly transformative. For a while, anyway. In a smaller novel this approach might work start-to-finish, but in a novel pushing 500 pages everybody is left with simple demons to conquer or succumb to, and Lee’s worst tic is that he pads the book not so much with humid writing but with violent scenes, as if to suggest that bloody brokenness is our essential way of being. Rare is the limb in The Surrendered that doesn’t wind up snapped, torn, broken, or amputated. But to what end? “She was off her feet, alive,” is the last line of the novel; Lee wants to conjure up a feeling of weightlessness and deliverance, but given all the simplistic noises he’s made before that moment if just feels like he’s arguing for a world without legs.

Adam Haslett, Lionel Shriver, and the Bygone Age of Order

Much of the praise directed toward Adam Haslett‘s debut novel, Union Atlantic, is focused on how timely it is. One of its lead characters, Doug Fanning, is an investment banker who takes advantage of increasingly slack government financial regulation to make greedy, high-risk bets on the foreign market. It’s not a novel about credit default swaps, which would actually be “timely.” But a work of fiction about investment banks published when investment banks are undergoing a public scourging has been enough to qualify it as on-the-news. “Union Atlantic pulls us into our very own societal and financial nightmare,” as USA Today put it.

That makes it seem a little like Haslett is trying to work up some populist outrage in the book, which he isn’t. The tone of Union Atlantic is too detached for that, and while Haslett makes the folly of Fanning’s enterprise abundantly clear, his prose is mainly concerned with capturing the sheer inevitability of bankers’ greed. Haslett does offer more than a few potent sentences about how corporations have abused the American citizenry. The best one arrives early on: “What had the government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?” But the curious thing about Union Atlantic is that it’s structured not just to sap the power of rallying cries like that, but shades toward arguing against them.

The main reason for that is embodied in the character who ponders that “fire sale” line: Charlotte Graves, the woman angry at the McMansion that Fanning has built next to hers. Charlotte is an aging former teacher, pushed out of her job for agitating about the government a little too fervently, and she’s retreated into a solitary life with her two dogs. When a high-school student appears at her door for some tutoring in American history, Haslett looks at Charlotte from the boy’s point of view, and what she looks like is a poor woman snowed in by stacks of papers and books, rambling about the public trust and taxation law—the civics teacher as Miss Havisham:

From an ancient wingback chair losing feathers through the frayed fabric of its cushion, Nate took in the remarkable state of the room. Every surface from the side tables to the mantlepiece and a good portion of the floor was covered in paper: journals, newspapers, magazines, manila folders overflowing with yellowed documents, the piles adorned with everything from coffee mugs to used plates to stray articles of clothing—red wool gloves, a knitted scarf. And everywhere he looked, books: hardbacks, paperbacks, reference volumes, ancient leather-bound spines with peeling gold lettering, atlases, books of art and photography, biographies, novels, histories, some splayed open, others shut over smaller volumes, the overstuffed bookcases themselves standing against the walls like sagging monuments to some bygone age of order, entirely insufficient now to contain this sea of printed matter.

In time, Charlotte’s increasing separation from contemporary attitudes about government—which are unconcerned with her fusty notions of government’s responsibility to the people—will make her increasingly unhinged. Her two dogs speak to her in the increasingly oppressive voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather, and though her investment-banker neighbor doesn’t come off especially well, Charlotte comes off as worse. To be a greedy banker is to be a fool, Haslett argues, but to be a good citizen is to be a nutjob.

Haslett isn’t alone in pursuing this line of thinking. Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, So Much for That, is also “timely”: It centers on Shep Knacker, a well-meaning working stiff whose hopes to retire early on a remote island are wrecked when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, the treatments for which rapidly drain his savings. To provide a sounding board for Shep (and comic relief for the reader), Shriver introduces Shep’s friend Jackson, who’s keeping a running list of funny titles for books that would expose just how thoroughly the U.S. government is taking advantage of the people (CHUMPS: How Behind Our Backs a Bunch of Bums and Bamboozlers Turned America Into a Country Where We Can’t Do Anything or Earn Anything or Say Anything When It Use to Be a Damned Nice Place to Live). “Citizenship as an aspiration was pathetic,” Jackson thinks, but he recognizes that there was once a time when it wasn’t.

Not unlike Union Atlantic‘s Charlotte, Jackson is punished for clinging to the notion that institutions are treating people worse. As the novel moves on, he shifts from conjuring up clever book titles to browbeating his children about America’s formerly rigorous education system and exasperating his wife by rattling off a laundry list of tax abuses:

“Federal unemployment tax, fishing license tax, food license tax, fuel permit tax, gasoline tax, hunting license tax, inheritance tax, inventory tax, IRS interest charges tax (that’s tax on tax), IRS penalties tax (more tax on tax), liquor tax, luxury tax—”

“Honey, that’s enough,” said Carol.

“Marriage license tax, Medicare tax, property tax—”

“Sweetie, we get the picture. Would you please give it a rest?”

“Road usage tax, recreational vehicle tax, sales tax, state income tax—”

“If you don’t shut up right now—!”

“School tax, service charge tax, Social Security tax—”

“—I swear I will drive right out of here without you!”

“Look, pumpkin, hang on one minute, would you? State unemployment tax, telephone federal excise tax—”

This time it was Carol who hit the table, with the full flat of her hand, and it was loud. “What are you so mad about, Jackson? Really? What is so terrible about your life?”

Underlying all this is Jackson’s disastrous decision to undergo penis enlargement surgery. That tactic not only makes for some bracing, difficult scenes—Shriver isn’t the best novelist working today, but she’s among the nerviest—but tidily suggests that caring about government not only saps your sense of virility but makes you a moron to boot.

Yes, Union Atlantic and So Much for That are “timely,” and at a time when fiction has a tough time in the marketplace it’s understandable that their publishers would push that angle. But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant. I suspect that what readers will gravitate to in these novels 10, 20, 50 years from now aren’t how they captured investment banking and healthcare as it existed in the early 21st century, but how they reflected a time when people were deeply anxious about what it meant to be a responsible citizen. And they’ll notice that novelists avoided addressing that anxiety head-on by making responsible citizens residents not so much of America but of crazytown.