News Feed as Archive

Ruth Franklin, commenting on the New York Timesarticle on John Updike‘s papers, writes that such collections are inevitably disappointing:

[T]the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there.

And there’ll be plenty more not-there in future archives, she notes; after all, there’s no paper trail when writers draft their novels in Word. “What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art,” she writes. “And that process leaves no trace.” But it may be that the lack of evidence of excisions and changes may be replaced with a whole new set of data points relating to the writing process. Assuming people get smart about archiving, there’ll be plenty of blog posts, Tweets, and Facebook updates for literary biographers to trawl through in the future, and those updates will be more precise to boot. Where once Updike hung onto a Planters Peanut Bar wrapper for some reason at some point, we can now know that a future brilliant writer, at 2:15 a.m. on July 2, 2008, liked a Diet Coke-and-Mentos video.

That bit of information, in itself, isn’t very meaningful. (Unless, I suppose, this hypothetical brilliant writer’s most powerful work involves Diet Coke and Mentos.) But all that online activity, with the authority of timestamping, might make for a kind of a negative portrait—an image of the writer when he or she wasn’t writing that hints as much at the “alchemy” as any other assortment of writerly detritus. And if there’ll be less evidence of the careful revisions that Updike’s archive displays, there’ll probably be more commentary about the process than what Updike bothered to write down. The ephemera will be there; we just won’t have to find shelf space for it.

State of Independence

For the past few weeks the Kelly Writers House, a writers’ center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been uploading a host of videos featuring visiting authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Mary Gordon, Tad Friend, and more. It’s worth skipping around a bit, but I particularly liked a brief video from 2006 of Richard Ford talking about how fussy he is over words:

After arguing that the novel is an antidote to “a mindless, feckless, irresponsible use of language,” he adds: “A careful novel will try to say, ‘Oh, you think you know what this word means? Well, let me tell you what the consequences of this word is.’ Like ‘independence,’ for instance. You think you know what ‘independence’ means. But I’m going to write 478 pages to show you that something else is meant by ‘independence.'” The whole video is worth watching to hear him talk about how fixated he can be on finding exactly the right word.

Eight From Four Hundred

I’m an admirer of Vendela Vida‘s last two novels, 2007’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and her new The Lovers, for the same reasons—she writes concretely about the urge to escape, an emotion that often gets described with weak rhetorical handwaving, and she writes beautifully simple sentences. In an interview with the Rumpus, she talks about how she arrived at her spare style, which in part was a product of her first attempt at a novel, written without a support system. “I spent years writing this 400-page book and didn’t show anybody it in the process,” she says. “In the end, I was only interested in about eight pages of it, which I salvaged.”

More on how and why she pares down her prose:

I overwrite at first. Whenever I start a book, I think, This is going to be my long book, and by the time I take out all the extra words, I think, Well, the next one is definitely going to be my big book. But I think I’m finally at peace with the fact that I like writing shorter novels. Those are the kind of novels that I love reading….

I definitely sculpt all the extra words out of a sentence. I think every sentence I write starts with about 4 or 5 more words than end up in it.

I had a professor in college who used to talk about how you should keep a jar on your desk and put a quarter in it for every word you took out of your prose. I always think about that when I’m writing, how the words are actually worth something; it’s worth something to throw the extraneous words away.

The trouble with writers like Vida is that quoting them out of context feels pointless—a paragraph from The Lovers will inevitably seem unimpressive here. With books like hers, simplicity builds on simplicity. So when a sentence like, “She waited but no one came” arrives late in the book, it’s flat in itself but devastating in the wake of what’s come before.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Things That Are Older Are More Meaningful Than Things That Are Not So Old, or, Ten Things That Contemporary Fiction Must Be, Have, Do, Provide, or Resemble to Regain its Cultural Relevance, According to Lee Siegel

What I was able to extract from Siegel’s essay in the New York Observer:

1. “ineffable private and public clarity”

2. “really alive”

3. “vibrant experience”

4. “mischief”

5. “embracing more and more of the world with your will”

6. “urgently alive”

7. “existential urgency and intensity”

8. “illumined the ordinary events of ordinary lives”

9. “relevant and alive”

10. “Dreiser”

(via)

ABCD Memories

The web’s been around for 15 years or so—enough time to be nostalgic about its olden days. So the news that FEED magazine has placed its archives online was enough to trigger flashbacks to my web-worker stints in San Francisco in the mid-90s, when Suck was essential reading, the only thing Amazon sold was books, and the most exciting thing a magazine could do with its articles on the web was…put them on the web. The most interesting thing about the archives, at first glance, is how many familiar names are there, particularly in the books section: Keith Gessen and Sam Lipsyte discussing Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist; a pre-Talking Points Memo Joshua Micah Marshall laying into Maureen Dowd; Ana Marie Cox considering whether Stephen King‘s online-only short story was the future of literature (nah).

Among the gems is Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “To Heaven Without Dying,” a funny, occasionally defensive consideration of the attention her debut story collection received, and of what she owes her Bengali heritage as a result of it. Lahiri read her press, and though she was mainly bemused by the way Indian critics nitpicked her descriptions of Calcutta and its residents, she took it seriously enough to turn it into an essay on why fiction, not America or India, is “the foreign land of my choosing.” As much as she wants to define herself strictly as a fiction writer, though, she realizes others were going to decide who she was for her:

Once made public, both my book and myself were immediately and copiously categorized. Take, for instance, the various ways I am described: as an American author, as an Indian-American author, as a British-born author, as an Anglo-Indian author, as an NRI (non-resident Indian) author, as an ABCD author (ABCD stands for American born confused “desi” — “desi” meaning Indian — and is an acronym coined by Indian nationals to describe culturally challenged second-generation Indians raised in the U.S.). According to Indian academics, I’ve written something known as “Diaspora fiction”; in the U.S., it’s “immigrant fiction.” In a way, all of this amuses me. The book is what it is, and has been received in ways I have no desire or ability to control. The fact that I am described in two ways or twenty is of no consequence; as it turns out, each of those labels is accurate.

In some ways the piece feels like a rehearsal for her 2003 novel, The Namesake, whose protagonist was also deemed an ABCD and generally had to weather others’ ideas about what category he fell into. The stories in 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth suggest she’s still working it out, but earlier this year she expressed a hope to spare her children the same anxiety, telling an audience at Babson College, “I think the U.S. is made up almost entirely of layers of immigrants…. [T]o be honest, the project of raising children is daunting and you just want your children to be good people, loving people, caring people.”

Different From You and Me

The last thing New York needs is a book commemorating how important it is, but I’ve had more fun than I expected flipping through The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, a collection of historical essays published by Cambridge University Press last May. (A similar collection on Los Angeles comes out later this month; nothing on Chicago or Washington, D.C., is in the works, unfortunately, according to a CUP publicist.) Martha Nadell delivers a brief survey of Brooklyn literature that’s useful for people like me, who know the borough only as an abstraction; Daniel Kaye‘s essay on the intersection of New York punk musicians and poets makes clear that Patti Smith‘s and Richard Hell‘s literary pretensions didn’t come out of nowhere. My favorite piece so far, though, is Caleb Crain‘s “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” an entertaining and too-brief look at what the impossibly wealthy wrote about in the 1850s.

What were their concerns? Among other things, fashion; the unfortunate narrowness of the average New York townhouse; and the corrosive effects of polka dancing on young women. In the case of Charles Astor Bristed (grandson of John Jacob Astor), the right way to mix a drink was high on the agenda too. He fictionalized the lives of himself and his peers in his 1852 book, The Upper Ten Thousand, but unlike most novels about the upper class there’s no Wolfe-ian satire involved. Crain explains:

It does not seem to have occurred to Bristed that readers who happened to lack a trust fund might find his tone off-putting. “There is something peculiarly disagreeable in an American crowd,” he complained, when Masters and Ashburner visited a racetrack, “from the fact that no class had any distinctive dress. The gentleman and the workingman, or the ‘loafer,’ wear clothes of the same kind, only in one case they are new and clean, and in the other, old and dirty.” It is so vexing of the poor to resist wearing something nicely distinctive, like sackcloth.

Best as I can tell, The Upper Ten Thousand is more a collection of fictionalized sketches than a proper novel, which makes sense—what kind of conflict could somebody with such a friction-free existence come up with? Writing about money without writing about the class distinctions it inevitably generates isn’t just unusual, it’s practically un-American. (This may explain why Louis Auchincloss‘ death last January was dutifully noted by obituary writers but not dwelled on much by essayists. Who could relate?) And strictly for the purposes of fiction, writing about the wealthy out of any larger context may make a reader wonder why you’re bothering. That’s a point William Skidelsky makes in the Guardian discussing Jonathan Dee‘s new novel, The Privileges, which is set among New York’s moneyed class. Dee tells Skidlesky that The Privileges wasn’t meant to be social commentary. But if it isn’t that, then what is it? “As Dee says, conventional tales about the greedy rich getting their comeuppances are boring,” Skidelsky writes. “But his book does have a slightly high-handed feel, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to get into the mucky business of deciding what to admire and what to dislike.” I haven’t read The Privileges, so I’m not sure how valid that assessment is, but it seems sensible. It may be more an issue with our culture than our fiction, but stories about the non-wealthy can afford to avoid discussing class; fiction about the rich doesn’t have that luxury.