Enter Ghost

Wyatt Mason‘s tribute to Philip Roth‘s 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, on Critical Mass is brief, but he clears enough room to challenge the idea that Roth is a writer of narrow range. “Despite a reputation for monomaniacal attention to fixed themes—sex; women; writers; writing; Jews; Israel—Roth has exhibited such formal variety from book to book that where you choose to jump in can create very different impressions of Roth’s novelistic nature,” he writes. “It would be difficult to gather three more different novels by a single author than Letting Go, The Breast, and The Counterlife.”

Mason calls The Ghost Writer “perfect,” an adjective he’s smart enough to know only to deploy in only the most worthy cases. Maybe it is: I gobbled down the Zuckerman novels about 10 years ago, in the Zuckerman Bound omnibus, so my memory is foggy. I read the three novels (including Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson too quickly, but the feel of Nathan’s neurosis and dark humor are hard to forget. Prompted by Mason’s essay, I dug out the old paperback and quickly sunk back in. The Anatomy Lesson is the most memorable one for me—it’s the anxious author in full flower, so oppressed by memories and failures he tries to pursue a medical career in middle age. A small bit shows Roth’s skill at inhabiting Zuckerman’s torment but finding humor in it too:

But he was not a sick man—he was fighting the idea of himself as sick. Every thought and feeling ensnared by the selfness of pain, pain endlessly circling back on itself, diminishing everything except isolation—first it’s the pain that empties the world, then it’s the effort to overcome it. He refused to endure one day more.

Other people. So busy diagnosing everybody else there’s no time to overdiagnose yourself. The unexamined life—the only one worth living.

And yet he can’t help but self-examine. Shortly after that fit of self-flagellation comes a single long paragraph, four dense pages in the paperback, that describe how the bright college boy became a serious writer. It’s a great feat—not just telling the reader how Zuckerman became who he was but, in its very telling, showing how adrift he is.

Freedom, Art, and the Infernal Machine

My review of Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel, Freedom, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s standard operating procedure to clip the beginning of the review, but I want to point to a few sentences a little lower in the piece, in order to get at one of the reasons why I think the novel doesn’t quite come off:

Throughout the novel are glimpses of people who are more coddled by art than inspired by it. A rock club is full of fans of a “gentler and more respectful way of being . . . more in harmony with consuming.” When Richard gives an interview saying rock “never had any subversive edge,” the provocation is subsumed into blogosphere noise. But writing can hurt, Franzen insists, and art can reshape us.

“Richard” is Richard Katz, a musician friend of the couple at the center of the novel, and something of a mouthpiece for the frustration/contempt/weltschmerz Franzen feels toward the way culture is made and consumed in America. There’s no question that Franzen is a firm believer in the power of storytelling—the whole novel is a study in how the stories we tell one another or ourselves can have a huge impact, sometimes literally wound us. Yet in nearly every scene in which Richard arrives, Franzen appears to be wringing his hands over the usefulness of pursuing art in a society that’s dead to it. It’s a valuable question, but Franzen pursues it awkwardly, and doesn’t resolve it in a satisfying way.

The problem is that, within the structure of Freedom, Richard can’t win regardless how much or little he succeeds. His first band, the Traumatics, is a poor-selling but critically acclaimed punk band that puts out grim-titled albums like Greetings From the Bottom of the Mine Shaft. He’s a smart guy who’s engaged in a pointless pursuit according to Patty Berglund, who narrates the bulk of the Traumatics’ history: The band is dedicated, she writes, “to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small-venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be.” Richard sings angry all-caps lyrics (“A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel/INSANELY HAPPY! INSANELY HAPPY!”) but not many are listening—though Walter, Patty’s husband and Richard’s friend, is among that enthusiastic 5,000.

When people are listening, the deadness of art-making is even worse. Richard later starts a new band that releases an album of polite folk-rock, and it becomes a hit, “the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households.” That mild sneering about popular art expands a few times in the course of the novel. First in an interview where Richard rails about the relationship between art and mass-consumption and iPods:

We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everything else. We’re about ridiculing people who have the bad manners not to want to be cool like us. We’re about giving ourselves a mindless feel-good treat every five minutes.

The feeling of contempt only deepens when Richard heads to Washington, DC, and attends a show by indie-rock cause celebre Conor Oberst at the 9:30 Club. Richard takes in the crowd:

…left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders. They seemed…to bear malice toward nobody. Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been a part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die.

So how to justify the effort of producing a brick of literature—art!—in 2010 when you’ve expended a lot of effort in its pages dismissing the utility of art, popular or not? A little strangely and unsatisfyingly, it turns out. Franzen has Patty, a woman not especially inclined to reading in his characterization, consume War and Peace, finding parallels in its pages with her own life. (In turn she’ll write her own set of pages that’ll have an impact on her family, pages written in an expert style that recalls a certain American novelist named Jonathan Franzen. Later, people will comment on how well-written those pages are.) And without giving too much of the plot away, it becomes clear that Walter internalized the Traumatics catalog deeply enough to go on an all-caps rant of his own, in a hokey, forced set piece. Awkwardly enough, Franzen is on better footing dismissing the value of art than he is asserting it. And if that’s the case, why bother?

It’s not as if Franzen hasn’t spent serious time trying to answer that question. In his excellent 1996 essay, “Perchance to Dream,” (subscription req’d), he argued that as a novelist he was obligated to look at the big picture, to defend the social novel, even as he was despairing over living in a time when there was no real audience for it. (The essay is a kind of defense of the novel that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand people in the world like.) So Franzen knew, going in, that writing a novel like Freedom would put him in a bind. He writes in the Harpers essay:

The American writer today faces a totalitarianism analogous to the one with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend. To ignore it is to court nostalgia. To engage with it, however, is to risk writing fiction that makes the same point over and over: technological consumerism is an infernal machine, technological consumerism is an infernal machine…

Freedom is no nostalgia piece, and there’s much to admire in it—it reads beautifully, has an admirable scope, and the extended parts about bird population and coal mining are less draggy than they have any right to be, even with one long scene literally taking place in a conference room. But it’s a novel with that persistent, irritating drumbeat in the background—technological consumerism is an infernal machine…—and while Franzen obviously threw his best effort into stifling that noise, to cover it up in singing prose and intimate characterizations, the platitude just keeps welling up.

Lishing vs. Copyright Law

There’s something amusingly through-the-rabbit-hole about reading a discussion of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that’s written in legalese, as Matthew J. Nelson does in a piece published last year in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal. (Apparently it’s only drifted online a few months ago.) “Publishing Raymond Carver’s “Original” Stories as “Fair Use” (click on “One-Click Download” for a PDF of the paper) covers the long-running effort led by Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, to publish the What We Talk About stories in their unadulterated form, before editor Gordon Lish reshaped them. (And, inarguably, improved them.)

Nelson’s article was apparently written and published before the matter was more or less settled—the pre-Lish stories were published last year as “Beginners” in the Library of America’s collection of Carver’s work. (Gary Fisketjon, who was Carver’s editor before his death and who has protested Gallagher’s efforts to publish “Beginners,” now seems content to agree to disagree.) Legal experts can make more of Nelson’s paper than I can, but he basically seems to argue that the publication of “Beginners” qualifies as fair use because it now serves as a resource for commentary on the original work:

With regard to the more interesting question of whether Carver’s estate could or should be able to publish his “original” stories, there is a convincing argument for fair use. It is vital to this claim, however, that any potential publication embody the spirit of comment or criticism, which would serve the public interest. Indeed, such a publication could easily be viewed as vital to the study of the relationship of editors and authors or valuable insight into Carver’s style, life and work. As noted above, such a publication would have to be carefully created in order not to supersede or devalue the Knopf version.

The Library of America edition would seem to satisfy that need not to “supersede or devalue the Knopf version,” but, again, I’m not a lawyer. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, who blogged about Nelson’s paper today, points out that a judge could see it differently: “[As long] as the work is published specifically to comment on the editorial differences between the two — rather than setting itself up as a “competitor,” there’s a much stronger fair use claim,” he writes. “But, as with many fair use claims, it really comes down to a judge deciding how much weight to give the various four factors.”

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

The Death of the Revision?

Big Think’s interview with Rick Moody covers a lot of ground—the problems with writing workshops, writers and antidepressants, the damage the recession has done to writers (especially experimental ones), and the effect of the internet has had on our attention spans. Those thoughts aren’t new ones, but Moody comes at them from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. And I hadn’t heard one idea that Moody puts forth in the interview, which is that writers aren’t revising the way they used to:

How it affects writers of literary fiction is sort of coming into view, but one way that I notice it is that books that were written primarily on a screen and never printed out and worked with by hand are now more numerous than they used to be. And I imagine sometimes that I can kind of tell. There are certain writers who work really quickly and the project goes straight from their screen to the editor to the copy editor to the printer—and it never got dealt with the way people used to deal with prose, which was to patiently revise. And that period of time in which one patiently revises is a period of time in which you can make important decisions about whether that particular passage, or that entire idea, or even the book itself is really worthy or not. And if you’re just sort of working fast and hitting “send,” you miss out on that opportunity to think about what you’re doing.

This is an occupational hazard with journalists, especially bloggier ones—and don’t think Moody won’t call you out for sloppy bloggy argumentation—but lacking specific evidence, it’s hard to say that revision is a lost art, or that the internet is helping to kill it. The fact that copy editors at publishers have disappeared at publishing houses has been well-documented, but if anything that seems to have prompted writers to take even more care with their own work, and forced agents to push their writers to rework more in order to get their work seen in a crowded marketplace. Whether the books are getting refined and polished to appeal to a certain set of tastes is worth discussing, but I’ve never gotten the impression that self-respecting authors at any serious major or indie press go from rough draft to published book with minimal fuss.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

Stuck in the Middle(brow)

If we must endure essays that make broad generalizations about the state of American literature—and if David Shields and the Huffington Post have their way, we must, we must—I’d sooner it take it in the form of Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Letter to Norway.” Asked by the Norwegian literary magazine Bokvennen to deliver some thoughts about American fiction since 2000, Kunkel argues that the stuff has been defined by a kind of slackening of postmodern gamesmanship, replaced by a resurgence of a more formal kind of realism that’s interested in acquiring elements of other genres while not actually becoming genre fiction.

In other words, so long to the “hysterical realism” that James Wood criticized in 2000, and hello to way-we-live-now novels like Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections (and the forthcoming Freedom, which is no departure from that sensibility); the “neuronovel” that the n+1 set is trying to get some traction on, in which mental disorders are stand-ins for way-we-live-now ruminations (let’s say Richard PowersThe Echo Maker); and a postmodernism-lite that’s subsumed by old-fashioned plotting (let’s say The Echo Maker again). Kunkel at least twists the knife slowly: “[I]n spite of some postmodern or genre-bending refurbishing, we have witnessed at once a practical and an ideological return to ‘realism.’ … The disappearance of the term ‘middlebrow’ over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world.”

Resistance to such statements is futile, since it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right. (Only the authors’ names will change; two decades ago there was probably a similiar essay arguing that American literature was infected with male novelists like John Updike and Richard Ford who suffered from an overabundance of masculinity, instead of “moral and sexual innocence” male writers allegedly suffer from today.) So, point taken, though Kunkel’s critique does seem to ignore the notion that last decade was in some ways a heyday for the hysterical realists, if only thanks to Dave Eggers, who was able to publish and support all manner of arch, effortful, occasionally successful fiction; if not him, then David Foster Wallace‘s inheritors, Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem. Love it or hate it, the path to the success of book like Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Lydia Davis‘ recent collections was paved by that work earlier in the decade. Kunkel may be right that realism is winning the day, but it hasn’t all been easygoing sentimentality.