Dale Peck Regrets

A few weeks back I attended an event in New York called “Revise and Recant,” where a few critics confessed to writing reviews that were too harsh, kind, misconceived, and so forth. The most interesting speaker was Dale Peck, who hadn’t arrived to retract one of his infamous self-declared “hatchet jobs,” but to voice regret that his praise for Thomas Pynchon‘s 2006 novel, Against the Day, never wound up in print. He’d been assigned to review the book for the Atlantic, but by the time he’d filed the review the book had been out for something like a year, and the magazine understandably passed.

So instead Peck published the review on his website, though at the time of the New York event the site appeared to be stricken with some sort of malware that cautioned visitors to avoid it at all costs. Those troubles appear to be cleared up now, so “Heresy of Truth” can now be experienced without fear. The piece opens by delivering some decidedly Peckian spankings to what he calls Pynchon’s “early fiction” (“by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon“), but he ultimately cheers Against the Day, in part because it rejects the need to make a grand statement about the world and instead just revels in it:

Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying.

Peck’s praise isn’t quite strong enough to convince me to tackle the 1,000-plus-page beast—his shots at the book’s critics toward the end of the essay make me wonder how much more he enjoyed the book than he enjoyed dismissing the people who didn’t like it much. But the piece does show a charitable, enthusiastic side to Peck that belies his reputation.

Back in the Hole

If you’ve already seen The Wire, Lorrie Moore‘s excellent essay on the show in the New York Review of Books won’t tell you much you haven’t already heard or read about it. The essay’s appeal is solely that of a smart, top-shelf writer giving her attention to a show that does a lot to get a smart writer’s brain working, and she gets a few great lines in: “Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore” nails it. (The only apparent reason for the NYRB to take on The Wire now, even though it ended its run in 2008, is the appearance late last year of a collection of scholarly essays about the show, though there’s little evidence in the essay that Moore read more than the table of contents.) But if there’s anybody’s left who needs convincing of the novelistic qualities of the show, the essay should help settle matters. The show, she suggests, isn’t just “novelistic,” but a forceful attempt to expand what we consider “novelistic” today in terms of who gets to be written about in literary fiction:

The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

This shades close to Walter Benn Michaelsfuming about how American literature hasn’t produced a great novel about the income gap. But Moore doesn’t dwell on the show’s politics within literature, just its power as a narrative—how it is, as she writes, “arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.”

Links: Restoring Honor

The National Book Festival will be held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It’s always a good time, though unfortunately I won’t be able to make it this year. I wrote up a preview of the fest for TBD, a new-ish local news and arts site.

Leon Wieseltier: “Anger at the false and the fake—as long as the labor of persuasion is done: a curse is not an act of criticism—is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture. No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness.” (via)

Related: “Writers would prefer to believe that critics are separate, and that their separation means they’re the enemy, and out to get them. The irony is that writers are generally meaner to other writers than critics are.”

I recognize that there’s a fraught situation in Missouri regarding a local school board’s banning of a Sherman Alexie novel, but we’re in an awful mess when book reviews have to come with disclaimers from the editor.

Remembering Maxwell Perkins.

No self-respecting op-ed columnist would write that he or she wished the paper would publish more good news. But apparently it’s OK to publicly wish for more happy novels. (Moe Tkacik has much, much more.)

Gary Shteyngart: “I have a very boring kind of Media Diet, in the sense that I read what people would expect me to read, nothing special. Most of the things I read have New York in the title.”

Jonathan Lethem says goodbye to New York.

Literary road-tripping through the South—and a stop at Thomas Wolfe‘s childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina.

Whatever you do, do not read the promotional patter on the back cover of the paperback of John Cheever‘s Bullet Park.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Yesterday Don DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and to mark the occasion he answered a few questions from PEN. Discussing the future of the book, he said this:

The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read.

As it happens, I came across this just as I finished Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story, a funny and mordant novel that voices some of the same concerns about books that DeLillo does. In Shteyngart’s world—set either 15 years from now or in 2011, depending on when you think America’s debtpocalypse arrives—everybody is genially enslaved by handheld devices, which stream all manner of data points about one’s financial status, health, and sexual attractiveness. Shteyngart’s grim joke is that the devices are brimming with information but contain little to no actual news; the world is literally collapsing all around them, but, on the evidence of their tiny solipsism machines, Priority A is their potential for getting laid that night. So neither the devices nor most of the people who use them can quite process the concept of old-fashioned books. When hero Lenny Abramov scans his personal history, it shows the purchase of some “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts.” “You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” a friend tells him. “All those doorstops are going to drag down your Personality rankings.”

Not that Lenny doesn’t know it. Fully aware of what a drag those books are, early on he proudly tells his diary that “I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly. I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsing mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

It’s hard to discuss how Shteyngart resolves the fate of the book in such a culture without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that Shteyngart doesn’t think that novelists will be entirely out of a job—novels may change, but he doesn’t share DeLillo’s concern that technology will “reduce the human need for narrative.” And at any rate, I don’t think that either DeLillo or Shteyngart are especially concerned with the death of the novel per se. What they’re mourning is the death of reading novels as an aspirational activity—as something that people did in order to feel like an informed citizen, a part of the culture. (Part of the reason why the chatter over Freedom evokes so much high emotion is that it’s an “event” novel that hasn’t existed in decades, and we’re no longer sure what to do with “event” novels. Must we read them? We no longer live in a culture where we can tolerate being told to rally around one particular book or movie or film—a point Jessa Crispin smartly made in her essay about why she doesn’t want to read the damn thing.)

It may be that the literary world that DeLillo and Shteyngart are concerned about losing entirely has just found its level—it’s preserved all the people who love reading for its own sake, and lost all the people who read out of duty or obligation. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the novel itself will become as corrupted and egocentric as DeLillo fears. I suspect even he would agree that the minds of other people will still be interesting 20 years from now—and if you’re so eager to customize another person’s mind, a novel probably isn’t what you want anyway.

Ministorage As a Way of Life

As many people noted yesterday, the Paris Review has freed up its stellar collection of author interviews, making them available in full online. It’s still not quite preferable to having the four-volume set of the Paris Review interviews, which I’d still suggest you pay cash money for—the sample manuscript pages reproduce better there, for one thing. But it’s hard to complain about having so much great material available instantaneously. For instance, here’s Rick Moody on whether he considers himself an American writer:

What else could I be? I guess to be an American writer means, uh, that I have dined multiply at drive-through windows and that I have no choice but to occasionally darken the inside of a shopping mall, and that I come from a country of former slave-owners, and that I feel the Manhattan Project as a blot on my conscience that I will never expiate, and that there is something in baseball that I think is close to my heart (it was once a Native American game), and it means that I daily have contact with guys who think that our government exists only in order to hinder the magnanimous philanthropic work of large corporations, and it means that there’s constant vacillation in my head between the ethical messages of Judeo-Christianity and a desire to cast off these messages entirely, and it means, hmm, that I like artificial cheese food products, and it means that I conceive of nature as an expanse of space, and it means that I believe that spirituality is best experienced in landscapes emptied of human beings, and it means that I like to spin the dial on a television set, just can’t stop myself from spinning that dial, and it means that I only speak one language well, and it means that I don’t mind listening to people on the street talking incessantly about stock prices, and it means that I look to Europe for a definition of the high arts, and it means that I sometimes can’t tell the difference between high and low arts, and it means that the sentimental reiteration of family as the origin of all good is never far from my mind, even though I resist this idea entirely, and it means I know a lot about cars, and it means that I can talk for half an hour about the best kind of computer, and it means that I have a lot of opinions about the best operating system for a computer, and it means that I prefer music with guitars to music with electronic keyboards, and it means that I think ketchup is a vegetable, and it means that I am to some degree or other worried about my weight, and it means I believe strongly in ministorage and the ministorage way of life, and it means I can’t imagine anyone would disagree with all these American things. Guess it means a lot of things, huh?

I confess I’m not picking Moody at random: Like every good American, I have a sales pitch. If you’re in the Washington, DC, area and are free tonight, please consider paying a visit to the George Mason University campus: As part of my work on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, I’ve helped put together a panel discussion tonight on the next decade in book culture for GMU’s Fall for the Book festival. The panel features Moody along with four bright DC-area literary folk: Sarah Courteau of the Wilson Quarterly, Allan Fallow of AARP The Magazine, Britt Peterson of Foreign Policy magazine, and moderator Bethanne Patrick, host of the Book Studio. The panel starts at 6 p.m. and runs till 7:15 p.m. at GMU’s Johnson Center Cinema; stick around after the panel for a reading by Moody, who’ll be joined by Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Admission is free; hope you can make it.

Q&A: Benjamin Percy

This month Benjamin Percy will publish his debut novel, The Wilding, a wilderness tale inspired by a story in his excellent 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh. Percy makes his inspirations known from the outset—the novel’s epigraphs come from James Dickey, William Kittredge, and Wallace Stegner—and The Wilding is very much in a tradition of man-versus-nature tales of a few decades back. But it’s Percy’s own story as well, concerned with the effects of the Iraq War and the rapidly commercialized wilderness of his native Oregon. Percy a few questions about the novel via email.

The Wilding is an expansion of one of the best stories in Refresh, Refresh, “The Woods.” How did it evolve from a short story to a novel?

My father once said to me, “You know what’s the problem with your stories? They’re too short.” I laughed it off at first—my father is someone who reads epic sci/fi novels almost exclusively—but a few years later the comment began to make sense. I couldn’t get some of my fiction—including “The Woods”—out of my head. This was a story that had appeared in a magazine, and then my collection Refresh, Refresh, but it didn’t feel finished. So I began to image a larger acreage for the story, more room for the characters to roam around. I raised the stakes, including a troubled marriage and an impressionable young boy into the mix. This was the initial draft, a first-person single-track narrative (that would later become something completely different) about a son, father, and grandson descending into a doomed canyon in the weekend before development began on a golf course community.

The novel isn’t the first time you’ve written about the effects of the Iraq War, but Brian is an Iraq War vet who behaves in a very interesting way, becoming “simply an animal, a complicated animal.” What inspired Brian’s character?

Barry Lopez once said to me, “Writers are servants of memory.” Which I love. Especially in the context of war. I feel it’s essential for contemporary writers to acknowledge Iraq and Afghanistan—even if only marginally (accounting for the culture of fear and paranoia we live in)—making a nod to the cultural moment. But when I think about what Barry said, I think about picking up a newspaper and seeing on the front page a string of headlines about celebrity news—and then flipping to page seven and seeing a buried sidebar about twelve soldiers dying in an ambush. Which pisses me off. By writing about the war, I’m forcing (some) people to acknowledge what they would rather forget, would rather ignore.

The novel is about several characters—their plotlines braided—all struggling with their inner animal. Some of these examples are more subtle—such as with Karen, who is motivated by lust and boredom and claustrophobia to flirt with what exists outside the confines of marriage—and some of the examples are extreme, as is the case with Brian, the wounded soldier returned from Iraq. An IED has left a spider-shaped lesion on his brain. He feels lost among people, his company best suited for the woods. He begins to sew together a hair suit—from the animals he traps—and dons it when he stalks the forest at night. I wanted an almost lycanthropic transformation to take place.

Throughout the novel you’re juggling two goals that in some ways seem to be at cross-purposes. The book is an adventure story, but you’re also spending a lot of time in characters’ heads—Justin is clearly working through a lot of emotional issues that come from being both a father and a son. Can you talk a little bit about what’s involved in making what you’ve called a “literary thriller”—keeping both the “literary” and “thriller” elements in balance?

I grew up on genre. Doesn’t everyone? I went through alternating phases. Books with dragons, books with cowboys, with robots, with vampires, with trenchcoated spies or pipe-smoking detectives on their covers. And then I went to college. And I was forbidden from writing genre stories—and grew enamored with literary fiction writers like Carver and O’Connor and O’Brien and Johnson. It took several years for me to realize that I could do both, a literary genre mashup. This is nothing new. Graham Greene was doing it—and so are writers like Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lehane and Michael Chabon and Dan Simmons. So I’m interested in the ways you can blend the best of both worlds. The rich, evocative language, the three-dimensional characters, etc., of literary fiction—and the propulsive engine of plot in genre fiction. So The Wilding is my attempt at a literary thriller. I hope people will relish the sentences—and I hope people will feel lost in the interior worlds of the characters—just as I hope they’ll feel a breathless wonder for what happens next.

In a recent essay for Poets & Writers, you discuss your experience revising The Wilding (PDF) and other works of yours in response to sometimes very brutal feedback. How do you sustain your motivation in the face of having to tear down and start over so many times? To perhaps put it another way, what was it about the The Wilding that made you commit to that work to an extent that you didn’t with the three failed novels you mention?

Earlier I was talking about the original draft, the single-track, first-person narrative. That’s the draft my agent sent to Graywolf and that’s the draft that sold. But Fiona McCrae, my editor, had some great suggestions. Because the book wasn’t yet a novel—it was a shnovel. An extended short story. She asked that I move it from first to third, and in doing so, with the freedom afforded to the characters, create several interlocking plotlines. This created a greater sense of plot causality—and a grander, richer frame for the themes explored. I spent about a year in revision, handed her the manuscript, which she liked very much, but asked how I felt about cutting some of what was there and adding in a female perspective. I thought it was a smart move, so I set to work again and six months later had the final draft ready.
I’m grateful to Fiona for the direction she gave me, but you should know that it wasn’t a demand—it was a question. And you should know, too, that these were one-time conversations. “How about you creative several plotlines and try to balance them out?” she said, and I said, “Okay,” and a year later handed her a draft with no intermittent discussion. So she gave me a nudge that sent me rushing off into the wilderness only to return a year later, snarled up with burrs and coated in mud, panting.

James Dickey’s Deliverance seems to have been strong influence on this novel, and William Kittredge has blurbed it, so in a way The Wilding harks back to a very masculine, 70s man-versus-wilderness kind of fiction. Were there particular inspirations you drew from while working on this novel? Are there current writers using that theme today that you look to, or is there something inherently nostalgic about writing this kind of novel today?

This is the 40th anniversary of Deliverance. It’s one of the most important books in my library—a novel I’ve read several times, a novel I often pull off the shelf to paw through and admire. The Wilding is its canonical cousin, I guess you could say. I’m deliberately tipping my hat to Dickey—as you’ll notice in the epigraph and in scenes like the one where the men lay down Starbucks cups over a Forest Service map—even as I’m trying to write my own story, revisiting some of Dickey’s themes (from development, to the jarring intersection of wilderness and society, to the latent animalism within us all) in a contemporary context, set in the vanishing West and seen through a myriad of point of view character.

There’s some talk that regional fiction is dead—D.G. Myers, for instance, recently wrote that writing about place “has yielded to the national network of writers’ workshops” and that writers are now more likely to jump from locale to locale in their fiction instead of concentrating on what William Faulkner called a “little postage stamp of native soil.” Your fiction is obviously very Oregon-centric, but you’re also removed from it now that you’re at Iowa State University. What’s your take on the survival of regional literature, and how do you feel writing workshops are affecting the form?

I think most people are placeless now. You could put a blindfold on me, drop me anywhere in the country, and I’d probably have a hard time telling you where I was. The stores are all the same—the housing developments are all the same—and people live most of their lives indoors. But I come from such a rich, unique place—Central Oregon—where sageflats run up against a jagged range of mountains, where coyotes howl and bulls low and elk bugle. And though I now live far from the mountains, I find myself returning to Oregon constantly on the page. Partly out of nostalgia (my parents moved to Portland as soon as I graduated from high school). And partly because one’s childhood provides a lifetime’s supply of stories. We’re at our most imaginative as children, and when that dreaming door of my mind opens up, the hallway beyond it leads me to the dry canyons and piney woods and rushing mountain streams that I explored growing up.

I try to encourage my students to write about their own backyard. To look to the geography, the culture, the history, the mythology of the place—and treat it as a stage. And a character.

Overlooked and Underappreciated

Earlier this week A.N. Devers asked her followers on Twitter to weigh in on great American novelists who are overlooked in some way. She was inspired to do so by a piece in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke calling out unconscious gender bias among book critics, but the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist hashtag quickly acquired a mix of male and female writers: The final list of authors she assembled includes J.F. Powers, Pervical Everett, and John Crowley in addition to Dawn Powell, Kathryn Davis, and Joy Williams.

It wasn’t such a bad way to kill a few minutes, and because I had D.C. novelists on my mind lately, I put in a word, yet again, for Ward Just. This got a response from Janice Harayda, former Cleveland Plain Dealer books editor and founder of One-Minute Book Reviews, who wondered if a writer who tends to get lots of praise lavished on him by the likes of the Washington Post can really be considered overlooked.

I responded that a writer can still be overlooked even if he or she gets stacks of positive press—once again, there’s little evidence that reviews sell books—and that Just was something of an unusual case. For all that positive press, he’s never won a major award, and though his style and themes (Henry James-ian, thinky but accessible, interested in both political and personal affairs) suggest he could’ve had John Updike‘s audience, he rarely comes up in conversation, online or otherwise. I wouldn’t make it a rallying cry or anything, but sometimes older white-guy authors fail to get the readers they deserve too; the marketplace is full of injustices, and they’re not exclusively a function of gender.

In any event, I tried to compress all that in a tweet, to which Harayda responded that authors like Just aren’t so much “overlooked” as “underappreciated.” The distinction between the two terms wasn’t quite clear to me, so I dropped Harayda a line asking if she could take a moment to clarify. She did better than that, both explaining the difference between the terms and challenging some of the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist responses. Here’s Harayda:

What troubled me about some of the Twitter suggestions was this: Until about 20 years or so ago, entire groups of people truly were overlooked by the publishing industry: gays, blacks, and Latinos and other ethnic groups. In some cases, they had almost no voice, because they couldn’t get published. Black women are one example. The breakthrough for them came with the publication of Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale in 1995. Until that sold well, black female writers of popular fiction simply could not get published. At all. I’m not exaggerating. A year or so before Waiting to Exhale came out, I covered a Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention as background for a 7-part series for the Plain Dealer on how romance novels were changing. And it was heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the black women there. The only firm that would publish them was a small press that was started because nobody else would take on black female romance novelists. The major publishers were telling black female writers of popular fiction things like—this is a direct quote—“Black people don’t read.”

Apart from issues such as race or sex, entire classes of novels are routinely “overlooked” in important areas like prize-giving—for example, comic novels, which have always been taken less seriously than tragedies even if they’re just as good. Let’s face it: Would P.G. Wodehouse stand a chance at a Man Booker Prize? And variations on this principle are still affecting writers. Virtually every week at the Plain Dealer I saw good novels that weren’t going to get reviewed, by us or most other places, just because there wasn’t space.

Contrast such situations to that of some of the people mentioned on Twitter yesterday, such as J.P. Marquand and J.F. Powers. They are both good writers, and, yes, may deserve more readers today. But Marquand won a Pulitzer and Powers, a National Book Award. Is this really being “overlooked”? If so, it feeds into the Manichean view that grips publishing today: You’re a peacock or a you’re feather duster. There’s less and less middle ground. Your books are bestsellers or you’re “overlooked,” a duality works against authors. You mentioned Ward Just, who has had a distinguished career without gaining the stature or sales of Updike. I believe you that he deserves more readers. But if the reception Just has had amounts to being “overlooked,” many writers would kill for it. And it doesn’t seem to me that Just is overlooked because his books haven’t had Updike’s sales or nobody talks about him for the Nobel. Everybody doesn’t have to hit it big in all categories. To my mind, the people who are “overlooked” are not those who have won big prizes, but those who never had a chance at them either because they couldn’t get published or because they wrote books of high literary merit in categories unfashionable with prize judges or readers.

Point taken—Just, like many others on the list, isn’t suffering so much from a poverty of attention as a lack of readers to match that attention. Though I’m not sure what changes that. Maybe it doesn’t require changing. What if the appetite for realist Catholic fiction by J.F. Powers is precisely at the level it ought to be today, even if it’s less than it once was? Is Powers then “overlooked,” or are his books simply meeting their market?