Links: Research and Development

Nicholas Carr unearths a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon from the New York Times Book Review about the virtues of being a luddite. “If our world survives,” writes Pynchon, “the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.”

Coincidentally, a recent Pynchon symposium at Swarthmore discussed the author and his feelings about the Web: “Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.”

So, then, how well does literature adapt to changing technology?

Walking through Holden Caulfield’s New York.

“Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.”

Angela Jackson discusses her debut novel, Where I Must Go, which is about a young black student at an overwhelmingly white, Northwestern-ish university in the late 60s.

Greil Marcus discusses criticism as “the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.”

Did Mark Twain ever camp on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe? Why did the effort to save his home in New York City fall apart? How did his work become so influential around the world?

Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon has been pulled from a classroom again by an outraged school-board member.

[Victor] LaValle was asked if he’d drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through—a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.”

At a recent panel, London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers “praised blogs as being more relevant than newspapers because of their brevity and the diversity of opinions,” according to a New York Press report. “This point was undercut by her own admission that the only blog she reads regularly is the one written by The London Review of Books.”

On a somewhat related note, I’ve started a series at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, in which I toss a few questions to people who run literary Web sites (i.e. sites that have a strong focus on books and run reviews from a variety of contributors). The first Q&A, with the Rumpus, is up now; a second is in the can and will be online soon. I love to hear your recommendations of sites that ought to be featured, either in the comments or via e-mail.

The Next Paperbacks

Cheryl Reed, a former editor of mine at the Chicago Sun-Times, is the managing editor of TriQuarterly Online, a new, student-run iteration of the venerable print publication. (The change generated plenty of consternation when it was announced last fall.) TriQuarterly 2.0 had its soft launch yesterday*, and among the pieces is an essay she wrote about the experience of reading Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s story collection American Salvage on a Kindle. She has a few thoughtful things to say about the book itself, but it’s this comment that caught my attention:

What is missing in this big publishers’ debate is what electronic books can offer midlist authors, small presses, and even readers who might not be willing to gamble $24 for a hardcover or $14 for a paperback by an unknown author but who might risk $10 to read an electronic version.

Before the argument about charging $15 for electronic books by big publishers, I had started to think of electronic books as the next paperbacks. When I downloaded American Salvage, I knew that if I really liked the book, I’d buy the print original. People who read a lot often wait to buy the paperback version. If they discover a writer they really like, then they acquire the hardcover for their home libraries.

I don’t follow the debate over e-book pricing especially closely, but I’m not convinced even avid readers behave the way Reed suggests. Special-edition hardcovers of books exist to siphon money off of people who first fell in love with a book in paperback, true, and it may be that people who admire certain classics want to own more durable hardcovers of them. (That’s the only justification for the Library of America, come to think of it—you could probably build your own LoA for about 1/1,000th of the cost by trawling used bookstores. It’d be a less attractive collection, though, and probably moldier.) But, lacking any hard data on the matter, I don’t think people do this with contemporary books they just happen to like well enough—at least not in big enough numbers to compel publishers to alter their pricing models in response. At best, the enthusiasm that American Salvage has generated might translate into more purchases of her two other works of fiction, and more people buying her next book in hardcover. That is, assuming that book appears, assuming that book appears in hardcover, and assuming that the e-book environment hasn’t changed yet again by the time that book arrives.

* Cheryl’s a friend, but she didn’t ask me to blog, Tweet, or otherwise promote this.

The Best Bad Novelist

Having finished Galatea 2.2, Andrew Seal considers Richard Powers as a good novelist with a habit of writing bad prose:

And there is a fair bit of frustration to be had in this novel. As a sort of homeopathic effort to prevent myself from getting too angry at the extraordinary awfulness of many passages, I tattooed the margins of this book liberally with “ughs” and “wtfs.” (E.g., “We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture-bound” or “I was so far out on a narrative limb that I knew I was ripe for amputation.”) Very little, however, could diminish my irritation with Powers’s glib depictions of theory-mad English students and his winsome reduction of humanism to remembering famous lines from famous poems and a constant “can-you-identify-the-allusion” memory game.

So what’s to like? Seal figures that Powers’ appeal is in his skill at finding “an appropriate linguistic middle ground” between “scientific lingo and humanistic sentiment.” That sounds about right—it’s certainly a more charitable assessment than James Wood‘s characterization in the New Yorker of Powers’ work, which gave the impression that his books read like pages of Harlequin novels pasted inside advanced physics texts. True, Powers’ earliest novels made a fetish out of the split that Seal mentions—you can’t read Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance or The Gold Bug Variations without reckoning with their structure, designed to consider people as both products of scientific functioning and as, well, people.

It’s been years since I read Galatea 2.2, but I recall it as the moment where Powers stopped thinking about those two aspects of human existence as cleanly split and began to merge them. In time, I suspect Powers will wind up more admired for the novels where he more seamlessly merged those two halves. It might not be an accident that in his three best novels, 1998’s Gain, 2006’s The Echo Maker, and last year’s Generosity: An Enhancement, the central characters are confronting a medical condition. For Powers, that’s not an easy way to gain empathy for his characters, though it doesn’t hurt; mainly, it’s a way to embed his scientific concerns within characters, instead of making them ominous, ponderous outside forces as he has in other novels. Powers hasn’t given up on that strategy: The Time of Our Singing is his exhausting, important Novel About the Meaning of Race, and Plowing the Dark is his exhausting, important Novel About the Meaning of Imprisonment. But those other three novels are where the life in Powers’ writing is—they’re the places where the lingo and sentiment are free to tangle with each other.

Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

In a funny, thoughtful piece for the Smart Set, Nick Mamatas considers his obsession with literary biographies, and how he uses them as a benchmark for his own successes and failures as a writer. “Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties?” he writes. “Gee, me too. And if Lovecraft got a penny and a half per word out of Weird Tales, I managed five cents a word from that same magazine only 77 years later.” The piece isn’t just an exercise in self-deprecation, though: He uncovers a handful of common themes among the biographies he’s read, including alcoholism (of course), involvement in the Communist Party, and financial struggle.*

Mamatas is slightly less enchanted with writers’ memoirs, though that’s mainly because he seems to have lousy luck in choosing them: If Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry have trouble staying on point, there are plenty of other writers who are less prone to ramble. In the past few months I’ve enjoyed biographies of Raymond Carver, Evelyn Waugh, Pearl S. Buck, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West and Eileen Kenney (that last one would be Marion Meade‘s Lonelyhearts, which has taken a bit of a beating from critics, somewhat unfairly I think). But I don’t share Mamatas’ obsession with them, partly for the reasons he lays out: Those common themes can be so easily categorized because the books often feel like they’re more about those outside forces than the writer under discussion. Lonelyhearts is about the Great Depression, and how one might live well during it; Carver’s biography is about alcoholism and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry in the 70s and 80s; Buck’s is about Americans’ willful ignorance about China; Waugh’s is about the last gasp of Victorianism among its wealthy, freewheeling, homophobic classes. All worthy subjects, but they often obscure the more essential question of how the writer felt about being a writer.

That’s part of the appeal of David Lipsky‘s transcription of his 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: It’s as close as we’ll ever come to a memoir from Wallace. But because he’s so careful about how his words might be manipulated into a glowing or critical profile, he talks himself into a sincerity he might not have come by if he was free to manipulate the words on a computer. As Wallace tells Lipsky, “I got a serious investment in having a certain amount of detachment from this.” He’s stage-managing his persona, but to the end of avoiding hagiography or tragic narrative.

Of course, biographers can quote heavily from writers talking about their own writing. But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work. Whoever winds up writing Paul Auster‘s biography will quote heavily from his memoir, Hand to Mouth, but nothing will conjure up Auster’s absurd anxiety about selling his first book quite like the book itself. Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t strictly a memoir of her life as a writer, but it has plenty of moments that show the precision with which she approached it. Going over the first article she wrote after her husband’s death, “I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong…. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?”

The book doesn’t have to be a memoir, strictly speaking, to show something of the author. The charm of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer has as much to do with her personal remembrances as her close readings of stories and novels. On the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Prose suffered a long wait at a bus station, followed by a tedious bus ride. But then she sank into the copy of Anton Chekhov‘s stories she brought along:

I never had to read more than a page or two before I began to think that maybe things weren’t so bad. The stories were not only profound and beautiful, but also involving, so that I would finish one and find myself, miraculously, a half hour or so closer to home. And yet there was more than the distraction, the time so painlessly and pleasantly spent. A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own and aslo a world full of promise. It was if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen.

Passages like that make me think that not only is a biography of Prose unnecessary, but that Prose herself needn’t write a formal memoir. Sometimes the only thing we’re really hunting for when we read about writers is what it’s like to be consumed in the business of reading and writing—the moment when all those allegedly important outside forces are pushed out. Those are the only moments when Prose thinks a writer is interesting, and she can convince you that she’s right.

* Mamatas’ piece also mentions Harry Mark Petrakis, who represents one of the more embarrassing gaps in my reading. Like me, he was raised in the Chicago area and is a Greek-American; moreover, as a kid, my parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with copies of Petrakis’ books. I never cracked the spines of a single one of them. Growing up, you never care about the things your parents care about.

D.C.-Area Readings: Coming Up and Just Added

The listings below are adapted from my page of upcoming D.C.-area readings; please see that page for addresses, contact information, and full event listings.

Notable Events During the Coming Week

April 25
Sarah Blake, The Postmistress; Dominique Paul, The Possibility of Fireflies (Writer’s Center)

April 26
Anne E. Kornblut, Notes From the Cracked Ceiling (Friendship Heights Village Center, 4433 S. Park Avenue, Chevy Chase; RSVP 301-656-2797)

April 29
Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk (National Geographic Society)
Kitty Kelley, Oprah: A Biography (Barnes & Noble Tysons Corner)

April 30
Isabel Allende, Island Beneath the Sea (Washington National Cathedral)
Maria Bartiromo, The 10 Laws of Enduring Success (The Liaison Capitol Hill, 415 New Jersey Avenue NW, via Hooks Book Events)

May 1
David Baldacci, Deliver Us from Evil (Barnes & Noble Tysons Corner)
David Goodwillie, American Subversive (Politics & Prose)

Just Added

May 1
Meredith and Sofie Jacobs, Just Between Us (Borders Rockville)

May 4
Thomas Kaufman, Drink the Tea (Borders Rockville)

May 5
Jeffrey Kaye, Moving Millions (Borders L Street)

May 7
Stephen C. Neff, Justice in Blue and Gray (National Archives)
Nataki Suggs, A Life Beyond Limits (Borders Largo)

May 8
Ernest Burley, Jr., Money Management: Easy as 1, 2, 3 (Borders Largo)

May 11
William Sample, Prelude to Danger (Arlington Public Library)

May 13
Keith Donaldson, Rude Awakenings (Barnes & Noble Arlington)

May 14
Harrine Freeman, How To Get Out of Debt (Borders Largo)

May 15
Austin Camacho, Russian Roulette (Borders Largo)

May 17
Barry Ozeroff, The Dying of Mortimer Post; and Mark Ozeroff, Days of Smoke (Borders Baileys Crossroads)

May 18
Ben Bradlee and Quinn Bradlee, A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons (National Press Club)

May 20
William Nagy, Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution (Arlington Public Library)

May 22
Valencia Campbell, Advice From the Top (Borders Largo)
Roy Howard, April: Confusion in the Aftermath of Aggression (Borders Largo)

May 26
Brian McGinty, John Brown’s Trial (National Archives)

May 27
Ruth Baja Williams, Detour Berlin (Arlington Public Library)

May 28
Rique Johnson, A Dangerous Return (Borders Largo)

May 29
Tessa LaRock, Spidey Legs Lana: Black Widow (Borders Largo)
Irean Shumpert, A Water Way Overflowing With Blessing (Borders Largo)

June 3
Susan Coll, Beach Week (Barnes & Noble Bethesda)

June 5
Samantha Bee, I Know I Am But What Are You? (Borders L Street)

June 12
David Dosa, Making Rounds with Oscar (Borders Tysons Corner)

June 27
Tania James, Atlas of Unknowns; Elisabeth Murawski, Zorba’s Daughter (Writer’s Center)

July 7
Venus Williams, Come to Win: How Sports Can Help You Ace Your Goals and Top Your Profession (Barnes & Noble Downtown)

July 15
Jennifer Weiner, Fly Away Home (Borders Baileys Crossroads)

July 21
Pamela Meyer, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (Barnes & Noble Downtown)

August 9
Justin Kramon, Finny (Politics & Prose)

Links: Stay on Target

Sven Birkerts makes a lovely statement in the American Scholar about why he reads novels: “I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.” Unfortunately, that statement is swaddled in much keening about how the Internet has destroyed our powers of concentration, with little evidence of whether that’s actually the case. He concludes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for.” I’m as susceptible as anyone to online distractions, but isn’t concentration something we’ve always fought for?

Hilary Spurling‘s new Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth, is an interesting biography, even if, like me, you were raised with the notion that Buck wasn’t truly Nobel timber. The book speeds through her later, potboiling years, and Spurling tells the Guardian why: “[W]hat we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.”

Willy Vlautin, author of two admirably spare road-trip novels, The Motel Life and Northline, on his inspirations: “I drive around and listen to ‘Ironweed’ on tape and listen to Tom Waits all day.”

Ruth Franklin takes a close look at the J.D. Salinger letters currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.

There’s a Mark Twain impersonator in Hannibal, Missouri, who doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Mark Twain.

Chasing Beat writers’ history in Mexico City.

Deborah Eisenberg: “One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that you do get to be other people.”

The Chicago Sun-Times asked me to participate in a poll of sorts on which authors belong in the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Ernest Hemingway didn’t get my vote, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Papa doesn’t count as a Chicago author.

Belle Boggs‘ forthcoming story collection, Mattaponi Queen, was a random pull from my to-be-read pile, an activity that usually doesn’t end well. Happily, this time it worked out: Boggs’ stories, mostly set in southern Virginia, are grim, funny, plainspoken, and are unusually attentive to race and class conflicts. Her short story about man pursuing a sex change, “Jonas,” ran a week back at Five Chapters. Her “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” an even better story, is in the latest issue of the Paris Review.

Displeased with a negative review of the new Yann Martel book, a couple of booksellers take to the Huffington Post to complain. “I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste,” they write, then proceed to defend the book based on their own personal tastes.

A Thing About Ideas

The selection of Saul Bellow‘s letters published in this week’s New Yorker (not online)—a book of his correspondence is slated for the fall—is a sort of greatest hits of the Bellow myth. Among numerous other personas, the letters showcase the nervy free spirit, dismissing critics to Alfred Kazin; the Jew defending his kinsmen, slapping William Faulkner for supporting Ezra Pound; the mentor, passing his agent’s name on to a young Philip Roth; the convivial but tough colleague, trying to explain his love of John Cheever to Cheever himself; and the casual misogynist, grousing about the “crooked little slut” who interviewed him for People.

But though this particular clutch of letters seems largely chosen to emphasize star power and provocative statements, they also make up a chronology of how Bellow felt about his work, shifting from arrogance to Herzogian anxiety to, in his last years, a kind of ruefulness about what he avoided even in his most expansive novels. The passage most likely to be quoted (and which Bellow’s widow, Janis Bellow, reads on this week’s New Yorker books podcast), comes from a 1957 letter to Roth responding to his story “Expect the Vandals”:

A company of Japanese committing hari-kari, though, I wasn’t sure about. A great idea, but palpably Idea. I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’s “The Plague” was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.

Being so deliberately anti-idea freed him to write stemwinders like Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. But in his later years, he seemed concerned about what those novels didn’t address, particularly the Holocaust. As he put it in a 1987 letter to Cynthia Ozick: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene…with anything except the terrible events in Poland.” In Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors‘ 2009 book A New Literary History of America—a massive, inventive, entertaining, Bellovian book—Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse expands on that point, writing that, for better or for worse, that kind of denial was critical to Augie March‘s success. “To have taken any greater note of Hitler’s war against the Jews in that novel would have changed the entire balance of its American project,” she writes. “That insouciance is part of Augie’s charm.”

The letters in the New Yorker don’t track how Bellow shifted away from being an anti-ideas man, just how heavily the shift seemed to weigh on him. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that he addressed head-on in his correspondence.