Links: Boy Meets Tractor

Incoming Paris Review editor Lorin Stein: “Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.”

Even if Jeffrey Eugenides did teach his own books in class—a practice many students criticize—he says he wouldn’t enjoy much of a windfall from it. “Probably about $10 per semester, if you add it up.”

Reality Hunger‘s “assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s.”

Are vampire novels dead?

Lorrie Moore: “Right now, I’m writing stories about money. I’m very interested in what people will do for money. Money: it’s timeless.”

Debut fiction writer Adam Schuitema rightfully praises his teacher Stuart Dybek‘s The Coast of Chicago: “It’s like a really great album, where the first song makes sense as the first song, the last song makes sense as the last song, and each song gains strength as part of the collection.”

Online excerpts from the new book Letters of Sylvia Beach include the pioneering Paris bookseller’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, and others.

The case for thinking of Walter Mosley as a Jewish author.

How Mark Twain‘s death was covered by the media; and how one Brit spent his time in Hannibal, Missouri, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

Audio of John Updike reading Frank O’Hara‘s “The Day Lady Died.” (via)

Lionel Shriver: “You’re better off not waiting for inspiration. I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate.”

Excellent Typesetting

Yes, it does seem like Joyce Carol Oates is legally required to have something published in the Atlantic‘s annual fiction issue. But that doesn’t mean her curious essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” didn’t merit inclusion. In the piece, presumably an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, she addresses the death of her first husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008, though it might be more precise to say that the story is about how she evades it. While she bemoans the writers who robotically send submissions to the Ontario Review even after Smith’s death prompted its shuttering, she candidly describes her own robot-like behavior—her urge to see her husband’s death as a frustrating interruption and not a source of anguish. But eventually that grief emerges:

Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?

(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)

I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.

He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…

I am trying. Honey, I am trying!

That last line is where the dam starts to break, but the parenthetical before it may be the most heartbreaking line in the whole piece. Her husband is on his deathbed, so what better time is there to recall that there is an excellent typesetter located in Marquette, Michigan, with whom they work? It encapsulates just how deeply her personal life has collided with her work, which she has spent her career diligently keeping separate. “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing,” she writes. “[M]y own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.”

Charles Johnson’s Throwaway Pages

Fiction Writers Review’s interview with Charles Johnson covers a lot of ground: his Buddhism, his friendship with August Wilson, his feelings about the death of civility in American society, and more. What leapt out to me, though, was his discussion of his writing process. He wrote six “apprentice” novels before publishing his 1974 debut, Faith and the Good Thing, and though every writer talks about the importance of revision, Johnson seems especially committed to it, and he’s kept track of how much he’s cut:

My ratio of throwaway pages to keep pages is often twenty-to-one. For Faith (written in nine months), I tossed out 1200 pages; for Oxherding Tale (written in five years) I tossed out 2400 pages; for Middle Passage (a six-year project), it was 3000 pages; and for Dreamer, more than 3,000 over the seven years I worked on that book. However, as [John] Gardner mentioned to me in the early 70s, as the years—and decades—roll by, it becomes possible to write fast and with a high level of craft or professionalism because you no longer make the mistakes you made in your youth. Also because by the time I sit down to do a first draft of something, I’ve already composed in my head (or sketched out notes for) the opening sentence and thought a great deal about the movements in a piece. In other words, one of my cultivated, literary habits when I think is to revise a thought—playing with diction or word choice, and sentence structure—before I speak or put pen to paper. It’s just one of those habits you develop from writing for forty years and teaching for thirty-five.

(h/t National Book Foundation)

Renata Adler, David Shields, and the Panic Tone

One of my frustrations with David ShieldsReality Hunger, which I’ve expressed once or twice, is that the book is better at railing against conventional novels than defending unconventional ones. Figuring I might understand Shields better if I read one of the novels that transformed his thinking, I found a used copy of Renata Adler‘s 1976 novel, Speedboat. (It’s out of print.)

Speedboat, Shields writes, “tantalizes by being simultaneously daring and elusive. The book builds: images recur, ideas are interwoven, names reappear. Paragraphs are miniature stories. She’s always present, teasing things apart, but not from a distance. There’s very little that’s abstract.” All true. The novel is brief, less than 200 pages, but it feels weighty, like a collection of a few hundred very brief short stories. In fact, it resembles the writing of Lydia Davis (who specializes in brief, aphoristic storytelling), both in its tone (knowing, sarcastic, melancholy) and its characters (intellectual, worldly). The narrator, Jen Fein, is a longtime journalist who has covered everything from apartment fires to war to the race relations; she lives in New York, where she teaches and occasionally assists on a political campaign. Men enter and exit her life. She goes to parties but doesn’t much enjoy them; she may be an alcoholic. The story shifts wildly from past and present, as she recalls her childhood, old news stories, past lovers, and lousy parties. It’s messy, but not deliberately confusing.

Still, Speedboat insists that it be read slowly; processing its jumbled narrative like you might any other brief novel would be like trying to gulp down Davis’ complete works in one sitting. But though the book requires a little work, Adler makes her protagonist’s motivations clear: She’s a woman who’s in the business of writing conventional narrative but has grown frustrated with its limitations. She complains about the unrealistic plots of the thrillers she reads, and mocks a woman at party who tries keep a conversation meaningful and linear, not “all private bon mots spliced together.” This fails, of course:

A McLuhanite apostle, revered as a physics genius in these circles, spoke. He was in his seventies, extremely hard of hearing. He spoke long and loudly. He continued speaking. “I’m sorry to have to interrupt,” the lady moderator said, after geologic time spans passed. He did not hear her. He went on.

“I’m very sorry to have to interrupt,” she said, more loudly. He heard nothing. He continued speaking. She kept trying.

Throughout the novel, Adler embeds reminders of Jen’s feelings about the absurdity of straight-ahead storytelling, culminating in a phone conversation between Jen and a friend that turns into a farcical party-line mess:

“Jim, I think we better…”

“Is this Washington 225-8462?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Could I speak with Ramon.”

“… but the highest respect for him close quote, paragraph.”

“Iss no here.”

“Jim, I’ll try…”

“… and costly litigation. Moreover, there is nothing…”

“…on hold for twenty-two minutes. I don’t call that stepped out. I call that…”

Those bits might give the impression that Speedboat is a cynical novel, but plenty of emotion thrums through the book. Jen, it becomes clear, is telling the story this way because she’s burying her anxieties, cloaking them them in aphorisms and party anecdotes. The tension in the novel stems from the question of how well she’s going to keep it together. And her anxiety isn’t just an abstracted feeling she gets from living in a world that has a “polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist” or hosts “the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena”; she’s stalked by feelings of violation, a worry about being attacked in her home (she buys a rifle), which may stem in part from her being raped by an ex-boyfriend. (He confesses to having sex with her while she was passed out, which he weirdly describes as “necrophilia.”) Adler makes no big noise about the event, pointing to it as a critical moment in her character’s life, the way another novelist might. The novel is not a story about violation and recovery; it’s a portrait of how one woman’s world reshuffles and upends when she loses a lot of her trust in it.

David Shields nicely summarized what’s going on in Speedboat not in Reality Hunger but in an essay for Salon ten years ago: “the panic tone is beautifully modulated, under complete control, even occasionally mocked.” As a strategy for Speedboat, evoking panic by tangling the narrative thread makes perfect sense, and I can meet Shields halfway and agree that Adler found a way into her story that’s both powerful and unconventional. Adler’s novel is impressive, beguiling, sad, funny, and, in its own peculiar way, coherent. But it’s not a novel that can serve as a model for any other kind of novel. Speedboat is simply the best Speedboat it can possibly be, and it accomplishes that by exemplifying an old-fashioned notion: form follows function.

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

Every Saturday I update a page on this site listing upcoming readings and literary events in the Washington, D.C. area. I’ve rarely mentioned these updates on the blog proper, but now that more interesting events are coming up as spring moves into summer, I think it’s worthwhile to push out some of the more notable events once a week. First is a list of notable (not all) literary events within the next week; following that is a list of all events I’ve just added. Address and contact information for all venues are on the listings page.

I assemble these listings myself without the assistance of any databases, etc, so I value any suggestions, corrections, and (especially) information about events I may have missed.

Notable Events This Week

April 11
Laura Appelbaum, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City (Barnes & Noble Rockville)
Thomas E. Kennedy in conversation with Andre Dubus III, In the Company of Angels (Politics & Prose)
Bob Rogers, No Cartoon Left Behind! The Best of Rob Rogers (Newseum)

April 12
Harry Katz, Susan Reyburn, Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, and Wilson McBee, Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress (Library of Congress)
John McPhee, Silk Parachute (Politics & Prose)
Ruth Reichl, For You, Mom. Finally (Smithsonian Associates)
Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits (Folger Shakespeare Library)

April 14
Andre Aciman, Eight White Nights (Washington DC Jewish Community Center)
Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves (Smithsonian Associates)
Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue)
Bill McKibben, Eaarth (Politics & Prose)
Alice Walker, Overcoming Speechlessness (Busboys & Poets 14th & V)

April 15
Jennifer Gilmore, Something Red (Politics & Prose)
Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench (Busboys & Poets 14th & V)

April 16
Jennifer Gilmore, Something Red (Politics & Prose)
Eleanor Clift, Two Weeks of Life (Writer’s Center)
James Shapiro, Contested Will: The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Just Added

April 20
Steven V. Roberts, From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue)
Joel Sartore, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (National Geographic Society)

April 22
Anita Silvey, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book (Library of Congress)

April 26
Nicole Brun-Mercer, The Golden Ring (Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library)

April 28
Toby Jurovics, Carol Johnson and Will Stapp, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan (Library of Congress)

May 2
Carolyn Dungee Nicholas, Hilda (Busboys & Poets 5th & K)

May 3
Meredith and Sofie Jacobs, Just Between Us: A No-Stress, No-Rules Journal for Girls and Their Moms (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue)

May 6
Alan Orloff, Diamonds for the Dead (Barnes & Noble Reston)

May 12
Ayelet Waldman, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue)

May 13
Gwen Ifill, The Breakthrough (Ritz-Carleton Georgetown, 3100 South Street NW, 202-912-4110, via the Q&A Cafe)

May 19
Victoria Rowell, Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva (Borders Bowie)

May 23
Newt Gingrich, To Save America: Abolishing Obama’s Socialist State and Restoring Our Unique American Way (Barnes & Noble Reston)

May 25
Emily Gould, And the Heart Says Whatever (Sixth & I Historic Synagogue)

May 27
Joanna Slan, Photo, Snap, Shot (Barnes & Noble Reston)

June 1
Fred Thompson, Teaching the Pig to Dance (Borders L Street)

June 5
Robin Givhan, Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady (Newseum)

June 8
Susan Hasler, Intelligence (Borders Baileys Crossroads)

July 8
Brad Herzog, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-Be Hero’s American Odyssey (Barnes & Noble Bethesda)

Links: Sheepish

Elizabeth Strout: “My theory is that most people need to be told what to like because they haven’t been given the confidence from a young age to go ahead with their ideas. Everybody has instincts but they get muted at such a young age. So we get used to being told what to like, what to read, what to think.”

Lionel Shriver claims Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit.

Marilynne Robinson‘s 2009 Terry Lectures on man and religion, which seemed to generate some confusion about what she was on about, will be published next month in the book Absence of Mind. Andrew Sullivan has a quote.

Around for a while, but new to me: A gallery of smartly, provocatively designed book covers from the 1950s to the present. I’m not sure you could get away with that 1969 cover of Kurt Vonnegut‘s Mother Night anymore.

Amy Hempel is the guest editor of the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review, which contains an essay with the intriguing title of “How to Write a Good Sentence: A Manual for Writers Who Know How to Write Correct Sentences.”

On a perhaps related note: Michelle Kerns, who’s doing more than anybody to agitate against book reviewing cliches, is going to start quantifying the problem.

Iguana hunting with Ernest Hemingway.

A visit to Zora Neale Hurston‘s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.

Glenn Beck‘s forthcoming novel imagines America consumed by a civil war. It may not win awards or save publishing, but there’s a good chance it’ll generate a nationwide spike in comment threads full of crazy.

The Library of America: Too Frisky?

Writing at Newsweek‘s Web site, Malcolm Jones rants that the Library of America has become a “publishing venture increasingly dependent on the idea that great American writers just can’t die fast enough.” His piece is a variation of the complaint that the Criterion Collection gets when it hastily canonizes recent movies like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or Che, but in this case Jones’ evidence for the Library’s lapses is remarkably thin. He’s largely unhappy with a new collection of Shirley Jackson, whom he dismisses as being “mostly famous for one short story.” Is that a problem with Jackson, though, or with what kinds of writers gain notoriety? And if this is a truly a case where “financial concerns go to war with esthetics,” as Jones writes, publishing a collection of Jackson hardly seems like a way to chase big bucks. After all, remember, she’s mostly famous for one short story.

That’s not the only case where Jones seems uncertain about what he’s agitating against. He cites a Dawn Powell collection as both an interesting choice and an example of the Library’s haste, and recent collections by John Cheever, John Ashbery, and Raymond Carver are proof that the “LOA wasn’t going to wait any longer for time’s verdict.” Ashbery is in his 80s and Carver and Cheever died more than two decades ago, so how long must one’s body be moldering in the ground before it’s OK to collect their work in a prestige edition?

Actually, you needn’t die at all, so long as you’re Philip Roth. Given that Jones registers no loud complaints about the Library’s Roth collections but sees little value in its H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick books, it’s safe to say that what’s going on here is that Jones simply has a constricted view of what makes for a canon. But then, so does the Library of America: Besides the Jackson book, its 2010 list includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, John Marshall, Stephen Foster, and a collection of theater writing. If that’s the LOA getting impatient for time’s verdict, a little more impatience would actually be a virtue.

A Novel Simon

New York magazine’s profile of David Simon is one of the better ones, in part because it’s one of the few that isn’t an act of hagiography; like everybody else who gets assigned this story, Emily Nussbaum deeply admires Simon’s signature TV show, The Wire, but she doesn’t feel that obligates her to deeply admire Simon. At one point she presses Simon on why, if he’s such an advocate for journalism and getting the facts straight, he’s spent so much time making television dramas. Simon bats away the question at first (“Because I’m not a documentary-maker”), but later types out a more considered answer:

We know more about what Huey Long represented and the emptiness at the core of American political culture from reading Robert Penn Warren than from contemporary journalistic accounts of Long’s reign. We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book. And we know how much of an affront the Spanish Civil War was to the human spirit when we stare at Picasso’s Guernica than when we read a more deliberate, fact-based account.

And, to take his comment to its obvious conclusion, we know more about the physical and moral degradations that are spurred by the failure of civic institutions from The Wire than from, er, David Simon and Edward Burns’ nonfiction book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. But Simon is careful about how much authority he gives fiction. It is not a substitute for fact, and certainly not a home for the “larger truth” that memoirists bleat about when they’re caught out as liars; its just a way of delivering intangible emotional stuff (“emptiness,” “pride,” “obsession,” “affront”) that journalism (or most journalists, anyway) isn’t especially good at capturing.

But the most important word in Simon’s comment is probably “we”; the “we” that responds to fiction, he suggests, is much larger than the “we” that responds to journalism. A few years back I saw Simon speak on a panel about The Wire at Northwestern University, and he mentioned that he gave up pretty quickly on the idea that his journalism would actually change how civic institutions function; the job was just about bringing the best story you could to the campfire. With TV, he’s found a bigger crowd around the campfire. The New York feature has a sidebar Q&A with Simon’s late colleague David Mills, who figured he knew what Simon’s next move was: “I think eventually Simon will write novels or do another book and that will kind of suit him. He reads books, he’ll write books.” It’ll be interesting to see if Simon follows through, and how much his fiction might embrace the things his nonfiction can’t.

The Franco Method

The April issue of Esquire includes a short story by actor James Franco, “Just Before the Black,” which seems to have left commentators either ambivalent or hedging their bets—nobody seems to much like the story, but nobody’s saying it’s not very good, perhaps because doing so might imply that you just don’t like it just because Franco is a well-known movie actor.

But Franco is serious about fiction writing—he was in Columbia’s MFA program and was recently accepted into Yale’s English department—so there’s no reason not to hold him to the same standard of any other serious fiction writer. Neither of the two Franco stories I’ve read are very good, but they fail interestingly, for different reasons. In “The Actor Prepares,” published in the Panorama edition of McSweeney’s, Franco sets up a love triangle between a male acting student and two of his classmates, one an attractive single mother and the other a man who a bad actor but who “is good with women.” That binary arrangement is the engine of the story—the more emotion you have, the worse an actor you are—and Franco writes on this theme tentatively, with terse sentences that go ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk. The protagonist jealously considers his rival while rehearsing Death of a Salesman:

Vince can get women, just like Happy. He is slick and empty, just like Happy. But Vince doesn’t know he is like Happy. Vince thinks he is a great guy that can get women because he is charming and nice. He could have just played himself and he would have been the perfect Happy. But Vince doesn’t know who he is.

Emotions thus appropriately logged in their proper ledger columns, the climax of the story puts the protagonist in the position of actually feeling something and then acting poorly. Which would be tolerable enough if the acting teacher didn’t show up to explain it all, making the story an exemplar of the tell-don’t-show school of writing: “That was your worst scene… You were just sitting there, isolated. You need to be connected so that you feel something.”

“Just Before the Black” is different stylistically—it’s a first-person story with more dialogue and more figurative language—but makes a similarly awkward effort to shuttle between states of feeling and not-feeling. The narrator is a bored but bright young stoner who’s eager to feel and witness pain—he rams a car into a wall, injuring his friend, who he’ll later taunt with a knife. Franco’s chief task here is to make his narrator empathetic instead of pathological, and on that front he pretty much succeeds (at least until the final paragraph)—the narrator isn’t nuts, just lost, which justifies his enthusiasm for bonghits, chatter about Aztecs and pharaohs, and conversations about violence. Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk wouldn’t work here—it’d make the narrator sound like a street-corner crazy, hectoring people. But Franco overcompensates in the other direction, attempting to build up a head of steam with a run-on sentence (268 words—somebody counted):

… and I think it is like life, because I am racing, and time is pushing me forward and it’s not going to stop and I will have a few passengers in the vehicle with me, and it’s either enjoy the scenery together, or listen to some music we both like, or maybe just have a little poking knife game because you want to know if the other person is really there.

This is supposed to be the climax before the climax, the window into the absurdity that the narrator sees in the world, a glimpse into his quasi-madness. In context, though, it’s just a restatement of the narrator’s confusion. In the middle of the story, Franco is trying to play his song in a different key, which draws more attention to the writer than the narrative—a bit of stylistic flash that gets used only when the storytelling is weak.

Links: Post-Colonialism

About a year ago I posted about Michael Fauver, a novelist who was blogging about his experience at writers’ retreats. A few people in the comments to that post expressed their dislike for such places. Fauver has read those comments, and he responds in “In Defense of Colonies and Workshops.”

Samuel R. Delany‘s epic dystopian novel Dhalgren has been adapted for the stage as Bellona, Destroyer of Cities.

Walter Mosley: “Through my veins run 10,000 years of history that touches every continent, deity, and crime known to humanity.”

Lewis Lapham on how the recession might affect writers: “It might make them see more clearly what kind of society that they’re living in. A lot of the writing for the last 20-odd years has been very self-absorbed — the memoir instead of the portrait of the society. It might encourage writers to engage more with the society as a whole. It might force them to look more carefully at other people.”

The Web site of Canada’s National Post is hosting a roundtable on Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin.

American fiction about the Vietnam War doesn’t attract much interest in Vietnam.

Ray Bradbury figures the idea that new technologies distance us from ourselves isn’t anything new: “I grew up with radio, I saw what radio did to a people. I saw that it was beginning to disconnect us in society.”

Years of BASS uses Nicholson Baker‘s story “K. 590” as an opportunity to discuss archiving techniques at newspapers.

A Smithsonian article on the early history of the paperback shares a great anecdote about a wounded soldier biding his time in a foxhole reading Willa Cather‘s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “He grabbed it the day before under the delusion that it was a murder mystery, but he discovered, to his amazement, that he liked it anyway.”

A few metalheads are disputing whether Metallica‘s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has anything to do with the Ernest Hemingway novel. Which is besides the point; as I’ve pointed out before, Cormac McCarthy is the truly metal American novelist.