Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Mistakes Were Made

The latest issue of McSweeney’s includes a four-chapter excerpt of Michael Chabon‘s Fountain City, which was intended to be his second novel had he ever been able to finish it. Fountain City had a spectacular concept, but thanks to five years of fruitless labor, it became a spectacular failure: In his introduction, he explains that “over the course of the next half decade I wrote fifteen hundred pages and incorporated into the plot and fabric of the novel everything from messianic Zionism to French cuisine to radical environmental activism. And baseball. Oh, and Japanese monster movies.”

Sounds like fun, but on the evidence of the 70-odd pages Chabon reveals, it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t quit sooner, or how any reader could get to page 100, let alone 1,500. His hero, Harry Klezmer, drifts over two continents, three cities, and a few dozen pages while performing little that resembles a character-defining action. His father encourages him to go to Israel, an offer he declines; he goes to D.C. to meet Foster, his late brother’s partner, and they discuss death in a perfunctory way; he goes to Paris and gets chatted at by the locals. Stuff happens, as stuff in novels do, but Harry is responsible for putting little of that stuff into motion. “At night he flirted unsuccessfully with the female inmates of the hostel,” Chabon writes, which seems preposterous—it’s nearly impossible to imagine him doing something so intentional as flirting with somebody (though, true, it’s easy to imagine him being unsuccessful at it).

In the introduction and the copious footnotes to the chapters, Chabon cops to the problem with this “rather insubstantial hero,” and points out how Harry’s lack of motivation gummed up the plotting. But Chabon still has difficulty pinpointing exactly how his book went off the rails. To hear him tell it in his footnotes, failed fiction is largely due to a kind of misapplication of personal experience—he was suffering less from craft and style problems and more from an inability to make the detritus of his life do the bidding of the great god Theme. Chabon footnotes a casual mention of an Earth First-ish organization, Earth Five-O, by explaining that he initially intended to take a dig at a former college acquaintance, and later “had come to see the idea of ecological restoration, in kabbalistic terms, as tikkun olam—mending the world—and felt that it belonged at the core of my story.” But, he notes: “The history of failure is rife with such tasty and illusive visions.”

Elsewhere, he notes that his own love-hate relationship with Paris may have been part of the problem: “I could not help but write about [the city]; and yet, inevitably, the thought, and then the act, of doing so embarrassed me…. This may, in retrospect, have been one of my fundamental problems with F.C.” And in his concluding remarks he suggests that the whole botched thing was a product of bad timing—if only he had met his wife earlier, he might have found a way to make the novel work. “She read it before she had settled in as my First Reader, as a novelist’s spouse,” he writes. “She read it before she had learned to harness the talent, strength, advocacy, and all the skills of articulate persuasion she had….”

Chabon’s being a bit arch in saying that, I think. But it does suggest that those old feelings of frustration welled up as Chabon went back through his old pages—“grooving on them, just a little bit,” as he writes, but also exasperated over all that effort. If scrutinizing the story’s mechanical failures is too painful (and, to be fair, probably too dull to read about in footnote form), he can at least look back though the manuscript to get in touch with his memories or enthuse about his wife’s smarts as a close reader. If you don’t want to deal with why you changed the first sentence of the novel three times (at least), you can at least tell a few tales about your sexual history, about some important figures from your childhood, about a few amusing coincidences.

One thing Chabon never suggests throughout his notes to Fountain City is that it was wasted effort. “I believe in failure; only failure rings true,” he writes. “Success is an aberration, a random instance devoid of meaning.” He’s probably being a bit arch there too—it’s only his successes that have given him the time and opportunity to address his failures. But believing in failure is much more reasonable; after spending five years toiling on an unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable) novel, believing in success can only feel hubristic.

Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

Good, Evil, and “Escape From Spiderhead”

Interviewed by the New Yorker about his new story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” George Saunders explains that he’s become increasingly interested in good-versus-evil conflicts:

More and more these days what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed, like a couple of PeeWee football players, to see what happens. Who stays standing? Whose helmet goes flying off?

In that regard, “Escape From Spiderhead” is a straightforward enough tale from the PeeWee trenches: Its narrator, Jeff, is a prisoner forced to take part in an experiment to determine whether a drug is capable of generating feelings of love. To prove the hypothesis, Jeff pharmaceutically romances/is romanced by two women, then is asked to choose which of the two will receive a high dose of a Darkenfloxx, a joy-annihilating, potentially fatal drug. This particular Sophie’s Choice is a bust—Jeff could honestly take or leave either woman, so neither gets chosen. But the stakes get raised: The prison’s minders decide a better proof-of-concept would be to dose the women anyway, then record Jeff’s reaction.

Small wonder the story didn’t work out as a novel, as Saunders told the New Yorker. (“I had written many, many pages of a draft [“A novel,” I was thinking, all last summer, finally my novel!”] in which Jeff escaped, and it became a story about him hiding down in the town. But it didn’t really have much life in it.”) In imagining a environment where authority figures are concerned about “underloving or overloving,” Saunders has written a cousin to stories like “Harrison Bergeron”, in which the urge to keep a society even-keeled leads to all manner of cruelty and oppression. But Saunders has at least two new tricks up his sleeve. The first, as usual for him, is his tinkering with language—though “Spiderhead” isn’t as playful as another recent good-versus-evil story of his, “Victory Lap,” it captures Jeff’s joy as he rides the wave of Verbulace, a drug that makes him emotionally and rhetorically expansive (“…a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing…”), then falls dumb and simple as the drug wears off and Saunders yanks the leash (“Lunch came in. On a tray. Spaghetti with chicken chunks.” “Our talking became less excellent.”). And by setting the story in such a drab, institutional place, Saunders knows each image becomes almost absurdly vivid—none better than a fellow prisoner’s tattoo of a stabbed rat stabbing a rat.

The second trick is a little more devious: Saunders is asking the reader to make the same kind of choice that Jeff is compelled to. In the same way that Jeff is eventually told about the less-than-charming traits of the two women he artificially fell for, then asked to recalibrate his feelings toward them, Saunders delays telling us about Jeff’s “fateful night”—the reason he’s in prison—until near the end of the story. How much judgment can we throw down on a narrator who’s shown us such a good time before then? How can we begrudge the guy the urge to express the same kind of free will that we get to casually bring to reading a short story in a magazine? We root for him: story itself is roughly analogous to the love drug that got Jeff into this mess in the first place. “Spiderhead” would be harder to pull off in the third person—we have to be invested in Jeff to care about his concerns about freedom and control. Those themes are dangerous turf for fiction writers: Stories like this get easily co-opted as political fables (not for nothing did the National Review decide to reprint “Harrison Bergeron” in 1965). But Saunders isn’t that didactic and, well, un-fun; he makes sure to keep our focus on the “I” (Jeff) in prison, not the “we” who put him there and debases him.

Links: Generosity

Gary Shteyngart: “Nobody wants to read a book but everybody wants to write one. Reading requires an act of empathy, really. What you’re doing when you’re reading a book is saying, I’m going to turn off who I am for a little bit, and I’m going to enter the personality of another human being. Reading is a very generous act, but it’s a very helpful act if you really want to understand what another person is like.”

On making a film version of Winesburg, Ohio with a contemporary setting and all-black cast.

D.G. Myers deems Kurt Vonnegut unfit for the Library of America, largely because of his “sentimental moralism.” I read and enjoyed most of Vonnegut’s books in high school but haven’t revisited them—maybe sentimental moralism means more when you’re a kid. Same probably goes for J.D. Salinger. But it’s still hard to for me to dismiss Vonnegut as easily as Myers does, because Vonnegut had such a strong influence on other writers—Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer most prominently. Neither makes my short list of great living American writers, but that’s just me—the point is that Vonnegut still insinuates himself into fiction in ways that, say, Salinger, never does now. Which is at least one justification for including Vonnegut among the country’s “most significant writing.”

Speaking of: In 2006 Vonnegut went on Second Life to do an interview, which was recently unearthed at Mobylives.

Also speaking of: An online repository of academic research on J.D. Salinger.

And, speaking of some more: The Library of America’s own blog on how Willa Cather has been dismissed as too readable and/or too reactionary.

“The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.”

Levi Asher gathers up some news items as proof of Beat culture’s continuing endurance, including a new John Clellon Holmes biography and a film version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kyle Minor‘s suggested reading list for a spring fiction workshop would fill a couple of bookshelves and crush the soul of a young MFA student. But it’s an interesting (mostly) anti-canonical longlist of (mostly) contemporary literature. (On a related note, HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler recently answered a few questions of mine about the site for the National Book Critics Circle “Conversations With Literary Websites” series.)

Jonathan Franzen aces a quiz on birds.

Ernest Hemingway‘s life as told through his guns.

Andrew Ervin (whose debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions, I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) talks about working on the book, and why he’s careful about what he reads when he’s writing.

Binky Urban and Karl Marlantes get big prizes; Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross gets a smaller one, but at least has a good strategy for spending it.

“Sophie’s Choice”: a useful shorthand for “heartbreaking decision,” which is to say it doesn’t apply to figuring out what to cook over the holidays. (via)

Ann Beattie, Walks With Men

Ann Beattie‘s novella Walks With Men was largely pummeled by critics when it came out last summer. The story of Jane, a 20-something Joyce Maynard-ish woman in New York who falls for a man she knows to be manipulative, it was largely criticized for piling on incidents and abuses without a connecting thread. Jane “leaves us hungry—for at least some authorial insight into this flat account of Jane’s aimless and impoverished life,” wrote Dinitia Smith in the Barnes & Noble Review. Jay McInerney, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was more sympathetic, in part because Beattie’s minimalist style was so influential on his. But he came away feeling much the same: “[W]e are pretty much living in a universe of accidents and unexplained events; Beattie’s unwillingness to explain or connect seems almost perverse.”

I’m bouncing around Beattie’s new collection, The New Yorker Stories, and unquestionably Walks With Men falls short. Where a taut story like “Janus” centers a woman’s failed romance and dour obsessiveness around a particular fetish object (a ceramic bowl she thinks helps her sell houses), Jane lacks much of a center, and she’s inexplicably prone to random connections and absurd disappearances. The randomness is not entirely without a point: Jane’s lover (and later husband) is a pompous pedant full of specific suggestions about how to live a better life, and if Jane learns anything by the book’s end it’s that life undoes such guidance. But, yes, its abstracted plot is maddening.

Still, it’s not as completely random as the reviewers have made it out to be; part of the reason why it’s frustrating is that Beattie does occasionally attempt to apply a kind of order to the proceedings, giving hints of Jane’s inner life that might have deepened her character. About midway through the novel, after Jane learns an old lover has died in a subway accident, she sits in a psychiatrist’s office talking, and her chatter becomes a mini-narrative of losing it:

Neither I, nor my old husband, wanted children. He’d had a vasectomy. A pre-nup was what I meant by “contract.” Since it seemed to be to my advantage, what the hell. I had, indeed, thought to get my own lawyer. I sometimes listened over and over to a tape of “We Are the World” and tried to figure out whose voice sounded like a knife slicing the air. I wouldn’t do any more research for Neil after I found out she was married. She was younger than he, but older than I…

Jane’s disconnection from herself is revisited a couple more times, as she abandons her own narration and decides to let somebody else do the talking. Eager to revise an earlier conversation with somebody, she writes, “If it had been a movie I could edit, this is the way the new version would go,” and the ensuing conversation is more orderly, more Jane-friendly than real life. Later, she’ll write, “I sometimes play a little game and think of myself as ‘Jane.’ It’s a good game, because it really does give you some distance from yourself, and it lets you sort out what’s important and what’s not. If a character named Jane does this or that, you are only a kind of reporter.”

As a way of showing how unwilling she is to confront herself, those are useful devices. The problem is that Walks With Men is so slim that Jane’s personality isn’t very well established—what is it, exactly, that she’s so eager to step away from?

When the book was published, Beattie gave an interview in which she argued that in a novella, “the writer can sometimes trust in the reverberation of language and images and symbols in the same way the short story writer can trust in their inherent weightiness.” Each image and incident in Walks With Men makes its own interesting noise, but the book as a whole feels like a room full of dissonant echoes.

Links: Whatever

“[Stuart Dybek] submitted a story called ‘Thread’ to a literary magazine without the label of fiction or nonfiction. A representative at the publication demanded a classification for the story. He responded with what he calls a ‘shrug of the shoulders,’ and the story went on to be published in Harper’s in 1998.”

Scenes from the ceremony inducting the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Matthew Hunte‘s “75 Notes for an Unwritten Essay on Literary Prizes” is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the peculiar, heartbreaking, often compromised processes involved in celebrating one author ahead of others. The 1996 C-SPAN video of an NBCC panel, linked to from the article, is particularly revealing in terms of how the PEN/Faulkner, NBCC, NBA, and MAN Booker prizes function, or at least functioned at the time. And it’s great to see Paul Fussell in action. (Also: a look back at the disastrous 1980 American Book Awards.)

Susan Straight (intensely) appreciates Toni Morrison‘s Sula.

“O unteachable ass”: Mark Twain responds to an editor.

Adam Ross on making the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (And, from the archives, wondering why bad sex writing is getting picked on when there are so many other forms of bad writing out there.)

“The work of the class of 2010 is also reflective of a certain hard-to-define American malaise. [Joshua] Ferris‘s novel The Unnamed and Rivka Galchen‘s Atmospheric Disturbances are both about mysterious maladies that overcome their protagonists without warning. The subjects of Wells Tower‘s stories are inclined to unexpected outbursts of violence and depression; [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie‘s wandering African émigrés are perpetually disappointed by the stifled promise of American life. The stories of 20 Under 40 are similarly weighed down by a creeping unease that seems emblematic of life in the United States today.”

Claim: John Steinbeck‘s Travels With Charley isn’t factually accurate.

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary on the writer, screens in D.C. this Sunday as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival (via). The trailer:

Francine Prose: “It’s very hard when you are writing a novel because you really have to get back into that imaginary world. So unfortunately, sometimes, if I have been away from it for a long time, like two or three weeks, I will actually have to go back to the beginning, to start writing again … just so I can get enough momentum and kind of figure my way back in.”

A quick gloss on why Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” works.

Walter Mosley: “The biggest misconception that people have about the literary life is the romance of it. That, you know, that a writer has this large world available to him or her of people, of ideas, of experiences, of interchange of ideas; that they don’t understand really, not how isolated the life of that person is because the life of that person is dependent on who they are, but the literary life of that person. How hard it is to get recognized, how hard it is to get people to read your books. How hard it is to get people to even to understand what they’re reading when they’re talking to you about their books.”

A few good books Ruth Franklin didn’t get around to reviewing this year.

Louis Auchincloss wasn’t like Trollope. He was worse.