Links: All Talk

Thomas McGuane on reviews: “John Updike said reviews are inexorably mixed—and that’s true. But it doesn’t exempt you from the storm and stress of them as they roll in. You’ll get one from the daily New York Times that says you’re the worst writer in the world, and one from the Sunday New York Times that says you’re the best writer in the world; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says somebody ought to shoot you, and the San Francisco Chronicle says, ‘Let’s welcome him to Mount Parnassus.'”

HTMLGiant interviews Stephen O’Connor about his fine story collection, Here Comes Another Lesson. (A few thoughts on the book.)

Elaine Showalter on the connection between Albert Camus and Philip Roth.

The Paris Review is currently working on an interview with Samuel R. Delany. Says editor Lorin Stein: “I don’t think Delany’s books have ever sold many copies, but if you want to know what’s going on in American literature, you had better know about him and his literature. So, in that sense, it may become a more parochial interview than it was; it may do less to encourage international understanding, but I think that now the literary community in the United States feels that it’s more marginalized than it used to be.”

Ted Gioia talks up his Postmodern Mystery project with Scott Timberg.

Karen Tei Yamashita
discusses the massive amount of research she conducted for her National Book Award-nominated novel, I Hotel. The intensity of her research is certainly on every page, to a fault—during much of the time I was reading it, I wished the book were an oral history of San Francisco’s International Hotel, and at times the book’s novelistic elements were so thin I suspect Yamashita occasionally did too.

“In whole fields of discourse, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book—a static, authored, discrete hunk of prose—is starting to seem quaint.”

On Herman Wouk‘s Marjorie Morningstar: “By choosing Morality over Marjorie while indulging Marjorie over Morality, Wouk creates a character, call her a puritanical sybarite, much more intriguing than he may have intended.”

Scott Esposito on online literary criticism.

Russell Banks: “People more and more resemble people in the 1930s. Maybe that tradition of socially conscious novels written by Dreiser and Dos Passos will re-emerge. In my own work I’ve always had that dynamic conflict between high art and a narrative that’s socially conscious. There’s always been a healthy kind of back-and-forth. Maybe today’s crisis will bring that tradition back into view. I hope so.”

Allegra Goodman on revision.

Stanford is launching a multidisciplinary year-long program addressing war and ethics. Tobias Wolff is handling the literature part.

Anne Rice on sex and Catholicism.

On teaching graphic novels. A good chunk of Alexander Chee‘s reading list is unfamiliar to me, but we seem to share an admiration for Lynda Barry‘s memoir/writing primer, What It Is.

If you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month—or just writing a novel, I suppose—some extended advice on writing female characters: “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.”

Dinaw Mengestu on a Times review that concluded with a hope that his fiction might “expand to the world beyond his own experience“: “Saul Bellow spent his entire career writing novels that pretty much concern the experience of Jewish American second generations—and obviously I’m not comparing myself to Bellow, but would you say, “Bellow needs to stop writing about that”? No. Philip Roth—“Just get over the Jewishness.” Toni Morrison should get over her African American experience thing in her fiction. And Edward P. Jones, my God, how many times is he going to write about black people in D.C.? It’s absurd.”

Something Almost Like Knowing

Because readers can’t make time even for their favorite authors these days, I propose that some kind of graphic be appended to Richard Powers‘ stories and novels. A good designer would be required to nail it down, but the graphic would allow you to see, at a glance, whether a Powers work features thoughtful, full-blooded portraits of human beings or just makes them playthings of a heartless god-author determined to remind us how we’re just cogs in a machine. That way, you could decide quickly whether a Powers work is right for you, depending on how sick at heart you are about humanity. The Echo Maker and Gain could have, say, a heart-shaped sticker, or some slickly Chip Kidd-ish smiley face; Plowing the Dark could have an image of, I don’t know, a DSL router or something.

“To the Measures Fall,” which ran in the October 18 issue of the New Yorker, is a DSL router-ish kind of story, one whose thoughtful conceit doesn’t quite cover up its cynicism. The story is a study of the fickle nature of literary reputations, as told through a woman’s relationship with a mythical novel, Elton Wentworth’s To the Measures Fall, a British World War I saga published in 1948. Scratch that: Though its main character is a woman, the story is written in the second person, to better underscore how we, the reader, are implicated in the rep-making system. Her subjective relationship with fiction is your subjective relationship with fiction.

The story’s protagonist first discovers Wentworth’s novel as a literature student in the 60s, poor enough that she has to decide which novels to keep and which to lose to avoid excess baggage charges. Her calculus back then is whether a book will actually matter in the years to come (“Who knows how long Updike will be read?”), though soon enough she’ll meet Wentworth on his own terms, discovering a charm, depth, and intelligence in To the Measures Fall she missed the first time; “You can’t read,” she discovers, awestruck, in a bone-dry but emotionally resonant sentence that Powers is especially skilled at deploying at the appropriate moment. It is decided: The rest of her life will be dedicated to defending Wentworth’s honor.

Which suffers quite a bit. British critics may love Wentworth, but he’s a nonentity in the United States (“the James Michener of the Midlands”), and by the 90s “scholars of all ranks show how Wentworth was the product of a thousand horrific cultural blindnesses and Eurocentric brutalities.” Powers clearly means to make a statement about how literature transcends all this, rises above the complexity of our outer lives, the merciless pokings of academics, and the bleating of book-club participants who can’t see the value of a book that doesn’t directly reflect their own experience. If only the main character weren’t relegated to a chill everyperson-hood herself, somebody whose life is a familiar assortment of turning points—courtship, marriage, children, divorce, attainment, death. If Wentworth’s novel is meant to illuminate this woman’s existence—our existence—throughout those decades, Powers isn’t especially concerned in showing how. To the Measures Fall is a novel that has a way of sticking around, but what it has to say to the reader who obsesses over it is constantly opaque. By the story’s close she rereads the novel and is filled with “something almost like knowing”—another very Powersian turn of phrase, in this case meant to dramatize the power of fiction. But the line comes off as condescending, as if this lifelong reader really and truly couldn’t read.

Perhaps as an attempt to complicate this, the story’s sections end with boldfaced questions relating to the novel’s value, spoken as if by God, or at least the author of an especially obnoxious reading-group guide. “How much do you offer the junkstore owner for the used book?” “How many [Amazon] aliases do you create to rate the book?” “What percentage of your pleasure has gone out of the book forever?” The questions are meant ironically—discussing the value of a book in quantitative terms is comically beside the point. But the questions come in like horn blasts well after the point is made, and its final appearance is mawkish, mechanized. Every Powers fan has to tolerate a certain degree of that mechanization; if he courts readers’ impatience by arguing that our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions, well, our lives are often diminished by others’ political and business decisions. But Powers is usually generous enough to give his characters the intellectual capacity to consider their own place in the machine. This time Powers lets us know, in bold letters, that somebody else is fully in charge. How much pomo intrusiveness can you abide before it’s clear the author has lost faith in characterization and instead prefers to assert how he’s got our number?

Links: The Two Percent Solution

I haven’t the slightest idea what New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman means by this comment, made in a New York Times feature about Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent second novel, How to Read the Air: “He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations, but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.” Perhaps if he didn’t write about immigrant life and aspirations, he’d be 100 percent an American writer, wholly comfortable in his own voice?

Richard Ford discusses his forthcoming novel, Canada, with Canada’s National Post.

On James Ross‘ 1940 debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, and his quiet, failed efforts to publish a follow-up.

Elizabeth McCracken on what it means to be a National Book Award finalist: “It didn’t change the way that I felt about my work, but I do know that it changed the way other people felt about my work. And that was a great gift.” (The only book among this year’s finalists I’ve read is Lionel Shriver‘s So Much for That, which I have a few problems with; I’m currently reading Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel, though it’s too early for me to comment on its sprawl.)

Brock Clarke on discovering Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes: “Exley was also a great writer: sometimes he sounded like a guy who didn’t know he wasn’t on stage (‘I saw myself a kind of Owl-Eyes come to Gatsby’s wake…sequestered from the one or two mourners, a curiosity weeping great, excited tears in the blue shade of funereal elms’), and sometimes he sounded like a guy who’d learned to talk in a bowling alley (‘Wake up, yuh good-for nothin’ bum!’), but no matter how he spoke, and no matter what he was speaking about, now matter whether he was self-pitying or self-deprecating, lyrical or profane, Exley was brilliant, and the proof of his brilliance was this book.”

Jennifer Egan attempted to put a little epic poetry into her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.

I’m planning to get to Andrew Wingfield‘s Right of Way, a collection of stories set in the gentrifying Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. He explains the neighborhood’s appeal to a fiction writer: “Gentrification is an abstract term. Like many abstractions, it describes a real phenomenon and has some value because of that. But fiction deals in details. My stories dial down into specific families, specific relationships and lives and places, and in writing them I’ve come to see how messy and complicated and never-finished a neighborhood’s transformations can be.”

Jonathan Franzen
delivers to Oprah without comment a list of his favorite works of fiction (Andrew Seal has helpfully typed up all the titles in one post, sparing you about 30 clicks), topped by Russell Banks‘ 1985 novel, Continental Drift. I would’ve figured that what Franzen admired in that book is the way it applies an epic scope to a domestic story, addressing the American way of politics, race, and class, in some ways more successfully than Freedom does. But writing about Banks’ Rule of the Bone for the Times in 1995, what Franzen seemed to most admire was its guy-ness: “In novels like Affliction and Continental Drift Mr. Banks has deepened Hemingway’s investigation of American maleness, lending a voice to working-class fathers who want to be ‘good’ men but are reduced, by economic brutalities and some essential rage riding on the Y chromosome, to bad ones.”

Thomas McGuane: “I’ve really been longing for a lighter heart in American literature. Dickens, Fielding and Twain were all great writers who could write with humor. We’re at the point now where Dostoevksy is funnier than the average American novel.”

New Arrival

Posting here will be light for a little while. I like to think I have a good reason, though:

That pensive fellow up there is Daniel Neidorf Athitakis, who was born yesterday. He’s doing fine, as is his mother. Me, I’m a bit sleepy but mostly just over the moon over this kid. I’m sure it’ll be a little while before I get back into a regular groove around here, but a bit of a break might not be such a bad thing. Regardless, I imagine that I’ll try to sneak in as much reading as I can between feedings, changes, and other parenting duties. Talk to you soon.

Salvation City‘s Boy With a Problem

Someday, when we have some distance from the latest iteration of the cultural/political/religious squabbling that helps make this country what it is, scholars looking for defining texts of life circa 2010 will have a lot to learn from Sigrid Nunez‘s sixth novel, Salvation City. Set in a near future where the country has just been walloped by a flu epidemic worse than 1918’s, the novel follows Cole, an adolescent boy who’s taken into an evangelical Christian community after losing his parents. There’s enough violent imagery to suggest the horrors of living in a time when a substantial proportion of the population has been quickly killed off, but it’s a story about the boy, not the world; the book has more in common with the homey coming-of-age novels of Tony Earley than Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road. Nunez recently told Bookslut that the genesis of the novel was Cole’s character, not the epidemic:

I didn’t start with the idea of an epidemic but with an idea for a character. In my other books, the main character has always been female, and I knew even before I started this book that I wanted the main character to be male, not for any other reason except that this was something I hadn’t done before. And once I had invented the character of young Cole, of course I had to invent a story for him, and a world for him to live in…. I didn’t set out to write a sci-fi book or a traditional dystopian novel. And it’s not a post-apocalyptic novel, either, because although the pandemic inflicts extreme damage on the world it does not destroy it.

But it’s not quite right to say that the novel is a coming-of-age story either, because Nunez is often more concerned with the dueling environments in which Cole has been raised than with Cole himself—the novel is as much a culture-versus-culture story as a boy-versus-nature tale. Cole’s biological parents were classic secular humanists who kept the Bible “on a shelf with other big books: reference books.” His post-flu surrogate parents, Pastor Wyatt and Tracy, are evangelical Christians, and much of the novel follows Cole’s thoughts as he weighs what he’s heard from both sides. “Cole remembers his parents saying that they could never fall in love with anyone who wasn’t smart; they couldn’t even be friends with people who weren’t smart,” she writes, shortly before Pastor Wyatt tells his congregation, “Remember, in this world the sharpest knife in the drawer could be Satan.” When a Salvation City doctor tells Cole that prayer is “still the best medicine,” he can’t help but remember his old pediatrician telling him that “laughter is the best medicine.”

Tossing and turning over all this one night, Cole feels, as Nunez puts it, “like a rotisserie chicken.” That vivid simile doesn’t just capture the restlessness he feels, and the slow-burning threat he’s under. It also evokes also what Nunez has to do with Cole in order to keep the novel functioning. He’s kept intellectually immobilized throughout much of the novel, forever an outsider from Salvation City’s cliques, and a little more dim than he really ought to be given all he’s seen. His transformative moment is witnessing a community “rapture child”—a supposedly anointed beacon of Christian love and hope—behaving in an ungodly manner, but it takes an unlikely number of pages for him to start thinking that the pieties he hears might be hollow.

Instead, Nunez fills those pages with more ping-ponging between the destablized secular world and blinkered Salvation City. Nunez avoids delivering a critique of either side, though she does play up stereotypes from both sides. Dad’s a condescending academic: “They don’t read, and they can’t write to save their lives…. And it’s not just what they don’t know, it’s what they don’t want to know.” When a rapture child sees Cole toting a rifle for the first time, she tells him, “Now you’re complete.”

Nunez writes with an effective simplicity that fits Cole’s mindset, and she adds enough detail about this post-flu world to make clear how off-kilter things are. (My favorite bit is Cole and Pastor Wyatt listening to a recent “super hit” on the radio by a bluegrass musician with the excellent name of Earl E. Early. The idea that a genre of music prone to God-struck and fatalistic lyrics has become hit fodder feels grimly appropriate.) But Nunez’s careful balancing act recalls the last line of Tom T. Hall‘s song “The Little Lady Preacher,” about a churchy woman who runs off with the neighborhood reprobate: “I’ve often sat and wondered who it was converted whom.” Nunez needn’t come down hard on either side, but splitting the world unnaturally into factions means the characters become a little unnatural as well. Cole ultimately comes to decision about the world he’ll live in, but his late-stage decisiveness feel more like a necessary device to tie the bow on the story than a natural result of his novel-long questioning. The open-mindedness of Salvation City is so open its main character slips through.

The Apparently Empty Theater

HTMLGiant’s Catherine Lacey points to Wallace Stegner‘s 1959 essay “To a Young Writer,” which is part buck-up-little-camper speech, part warning about the degradations of the publishing industry. It’s beautifully written, though, and something of a classic—so much so that for the low, low price of $790 you can own a limited edition of the essay in book form, built of wood and cloth and calfskin and handmade paper.

Lacey was struck by what Stegner’s piece had to say about self-indulgence. I was struck by what it had to say about critics:

Some good reviews you undoubtedly will get, but also many routine plus-minus ones that will destroy you with their impercipience, and a few flip ones by bright young men who will patronize you in five hundred words or spend their space telling how trying was the heat on the New Haven as they read this book on the commuters’ special.

And especially struck by Stegner’s points about the audience for literary fiction, which suggest that little has changed (or rather, that things back then weren’t much different or “better” than they are now):

The readers do exist. Jacques Barzun confidently guesses that there are at least thirty thousand of them in the United States, though they may have to be found vertically through many years rather than horizontally in any one publishing season, and though the hope of your reaching them all is about like the possibility of your tracking down all the surviving elk in America. But any of them you find you will treasure. This audience, by and large, will listen to what you say and not demand that you say what everyone else is saying or what some fashionable school or clique says you should say. They are there, scattered through the apparently empty theater, listening and making very little noise. Be grateful for them. But however grateful you are, never, never, never write to please them.

Still, I think Lacey herself gets in the best line about writing: “Good writing goes deeper than the self; it isn’t about you, in particular,” she writes. “It’s a hole that you dug through yourself using words like pick-axes until you reached everyone else, or at least a lot of other people.”

An Almost Autistic Insistence

I haven’t kept up with Michael Cunningham since The Hours—which I didn’t like as much as A Home at the End of the World—but the reviews of his new novel about a New York art dealer, By Nightfall, seem positive enough that I’d like to get to it. In an interview with Artinfo (via), he discusses his own early efforts to make it in the art world, and how they led him to writing:

I started writing as something to do that wasn’t painting. I didn’t necessarily feel that I was hugely gifted as a writer, but I did find that I had a much different, and more urgent, level of interest in the process: the fundamental question of trying to produce something like life using only language, using only ink and paper. I’ve actually come to suspect that what we call talent is a real thing, but it is probably closely related to some other capacity to just focus and focus and focus and focus and focus, and just keep at it until you finally produce a decent painting or a paragraph worth reading. And I found that, for writing, I had this almost autistic insistence that I couldn’t quite muster for painting.

Cunningham expanded on that obsessiveness in a New York Times essay: “Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write,” he writes. “It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction.” (Mark Sarvas of the happily resuscitated The Elegant Variation discusses a few problems with the piece overall.)