Death City

1. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington,” writes the narrator of Grief, Andrew Holleran‘s slim, beautiful 2006 novel, “as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.”

2. That’s as good a one-sentence summary of Washington, D.C., in fiction as you’re likely to come across, mostly because of the first part, about “government itself.” The second part of the sentence isn’t unique to Washington: Every city “weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.” The grandeur-shabbiness divide is what makes cities appealing to noir writers, who like to show how easy it is to shift from one to the other. But Grief isn’t a noir but an elegy—a gay writer’s lament for the AIDS-stricken age he survived. And the difference between a noir and an elegy here is government—the trappings of structure and authority. The federal city helps him keep it together. This novel couldn’t possibly be set anywhere else.

3. Still, the city is unstable: It can’t make up its mind about itself, as the narrator says, and neither can he. He walks a lot through D.C. to sort it out—it’s as walkable a city as San Francisco, but rarely gets described that way in fiction—and he tends to settle on the museums and monuments. Words Holleran returns to when he describes the city: cemetery, tomb. “At night the National Museum looked like an enormous mausoleum,” he writes. Later, he’ll equate it to a “parlor where a body was laid out amidst the lilies.” A friend, responding to a suggested museum visit, cries, “Museums are morgues!” But the narrator keeps coming back.

4. Elizabeth Hand, reviewing the novel in the Washington Post: “I have never read a novel that so powerfully and movingly evokes D.C.—its spirit, its ideal essence.” Thomas Mallon, in a dust-jacket blurb: “[Holleran has] a superb feeling for the real Washington, D.C.” Are Hand and Mallon putting a positive spin on things, or do they mean to say that D.C.’s essence is embalming fluid?

5. Because even sunlight is grim in Grief‘s vision of Washington. A friend recalls how he attended so many funerals for AIDS victims in Rock Creek Cemetery one summer he picked up a suntan.

6. Holleran’s method for enlivening this tableau and holding the reader’s interest is to withhold information about the narrator. We know he’s come to D.C. after the death of his mother, but the circumstances aren’t entirely clear. We know he’s teaching a class at a local university but not what it’s on. We also know he’s naive—he gets scammed out of $20 shortly after his arrival. But he learns. And as he acclimates to the city we get a more and more precise picture of where, exactly, he’s renting. Ultimately his wanderings have a maplike precision, right down to the protesters he routinely sees on the curbsides.

7. He can crack a joke. He spies a middle-aged man cruising the men’s rooms at the university “like a lobster fisherman checking his traps.” Eventually can crack a joke, rather: That one’s on page 110.

8. The strange thing about Grief, as Washington novels go, is that it makes little effort to get past the federal city, the L’Enfant plan and the monuments, the way a “realistic” novel about the city might. The narrator is constricted to a tourist-friendly sliver of Northwest, the better to show how he’s clinging to safe structures.

9. The major themes of Grief, according to the remarkably thorough Wikipedia article on the novel: “Struggles and Hardships,” “Mortality of a Middle Aged Man,” “Loss of a Loved One,” “Premature Death,” “Family Member Death.” The anonymous article author gets an A for effort, but these are all subsets of the main theme of the book, which Holleran already made pretty clear in the title.

10. Still, the very fact that a 150-page, moderately well-reviewed novel inspires that kind of attention says something. Daphne Merkin praised the book in a 2007 New York magazine article about underrated novels. “It’s bone-spare but plangent with meaning—the kind of novel that would be immediately hailed if it were written by a laconic European writer.” Given the kind of attention laconic European writers get, Grief never stood a chance.

11. It’s not hard to see why. I mean, the title.

12. But not just the title. There’s a strict formality to the novel’s structure amid its elegant details—appropriate for the city it imagines, but a hard sell for any reader looking for a realistic portrait of the city or a conventional rendering of the novel’s subject. (A two-star Amazon review: “I am an aging gay man. I have lost both my parents and have buried two lovers. I know well what grief is—and this is not it.”) The narrator is making his way through the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, the kind of thing only characters in novels do, as a symbolic gesture. But it works because Lincoln’s grief in those letters is so compelling, and the assurance the narrator receives from them is so palpable—her mood snaps perfectly with the mood of the entire book. “All those dashes and exclamation points!” his landlord says. And all that death inside. He could be describing a book of Emily Dickinson poems.

13. Mary Todd Lincoln: “For sorrow, such as ours, there is no balm, the grave and Heaven, with reunion with our loved ones, can alone heal, bleeding, broken hearts.” It’s a line, the narrator tells us, “I’d decided to learn by heart.”

14. Holleran announces the book’s main question early on: Is grief a process—something that is eventually done with—or a perpetual state of being? Grief is like living in fiction, Holleran suggests, because in grief we always have a story to tell ourselves—something about the person we lost, or what the loss did to us. And the opposite of grief, in the novel’s reckoning, isn’t happiness but the simple business of living—the ability to go on without massaging a narrative out of our past. “You can have one nice day here after another,” the landlord tells the narrator, encouraging him to plant roots in D.C. But having one nice day after another would involve sacrificing the story he’s writing in his head.

15. This is what fiction does: It frames and organizes us, becomes a placeholder for our emotions, gives it a shape. When a critic says that a book is “too formal,” what is it the critic is complaining about? That it’s pushing our capacity for emotional response off the page? Or that it offers itself as a repository for emotions we’d prefer not to acknowledge? Grief is a deceptively humble but wholly successful proof that it can be the latter.

Foreword and Onward

In a funny and thoughtful piece in the Millions, Bill Morris wonders who actually finds blurbs useful. Not booksellers: The one Morris speaks to is skeptical. Not readers: Colum McCann figures most people “see through the bullshit factor.” And certainly not the writers asked to do the blurbing: McCann despairs of being snowed under by all the blurb requests he receives, and the more profligate blurbers tend to get a bad reputation.

Like Morris, my introduction to the disingenuous world of blurbing was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a recurring feature in Spy magazine that exposed how incestuous the publishing industry could be.* That’s not to say that all the blurbing was insincere. Of course Graham Greene and Paul Theroux would say nice things about the other’s books; it’s no surprise that John Cheever and John Updike would high-five each other. But even if there were honest members of these mutual admiration societies, their blurbing could often be so fulsome and overheated—I’m looking at you, Philip Caputo—that the praise they delivered could easily be ignored.

So, a proposal: If blurbs have a “bullshit factor” problem but are necessary to keep the publishing industry functioning for lesser-known authors, perhaps authors should write fewer blurbs and more introductions for new books they truly admire. Forewords, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and other commentaries are usually reserved for literary museum pieces like reissues an anthologies. But they needn’t be exclusive to such works. Last year I came across a couple of books that I became a little more interested in precisely because a writer I respected took a moment to write not a dozen words but a couple hundred praising it. In a preface to Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen, Percival Everett writes: “I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning.” Hey, me neither—and you neither too, hopefully. And introducing Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia, Dan Fante writes: “Here the scenes between Max and his lady love are open heart surgery done with an ax. If you’re a Henry Miller or Bukowski fan then Hating Olivia is fresh meat.”

Everett and Fante aren’t bringing any more intellectual heft to their praise than the average blurb does, it’s true—I had to go back to the books to recall what it is they had to say, which turned out to be not very much. But the fact that their praise ran longer than a sentence was meaningful to me—I likely wouldn’t have read Boggs’ book at all were it not for Everett’s benison. Requests that writers submit not just blurbs but two-page introductions might only make McCann’s life worse. But it might also be freeing: Instead of feeling obligated to say nice things about every young writer around, a writer can pick his or her spots, submit their praise only when it’s actually warranted, and avoid any accusation of being dishonest. After all, Morris’ article about the book he was asked to blurb is much more interesting—and made the book in question seem much more interesting—than the blurb he wound up writing.

* There’s a bit of irony in the fact that Kurt Andersen, a Spy cofounder, was once one of the most unavoidable blurbers around.

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Based on a True Story

In the Brooklyn Rail, Paul Maliszewski launches a two-pronged attack on the work of journalist and short-story writer Wells Tower. One complaint is convincing and the other isn’t, but it’s a respectable effort—there’s a common notion that critics ought to go a little easier on the young fiction writer*, but Maliszewski figures there’s no reason why Tower, on the strength of just one story collection, shouldn’t undergo a stress test.

The essence of Maliszewski’s argument is, first, that Tower is a product of the world of magazines, which deals in carefully crafted but dispassionate narratives, and, second, that an unseemly emotional distance, if not emotional confusion, has crept into his fiction as a result. Magazine writing is “not writing; it’s flattery,” he writes. The ding on magazines is reasonable enough: Anybody who’s entered a profile in Esquire or Vanity Fair admiring the writer’s stylistic flash and exited feeling like some humdrum home truths has been recycled knows the feeling. What promised to be a fireworks spectacular turned out to be a couple of kids in the backyard shooting off bottle rockets.

Lame analogy, you say? You may sympathize with Maliszewski, who feels Tower deals in lame analogies wherever he goes. When he describes George W. Bush‘s hands looking as if “they’ve just been dipped to the wrist in something sticky and he’s waiting for them to dry,” Maliszewski tees up: “[O]ne might ask how fingers are supposed to hang when one’s arms are at one’s sides. Don’t fingers without anything to grip always go limp? Or one might wonder why a man with something sticky on his hands is waiting for them to dry. Wouldn’t such a man wipe or clean them?” Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s an awkward, uncomfortable predicament to be in—and if you’re attempting to paint Bush as awkward and uncomfortable, it may not be such a bad metaphor after all.

But Maliszewski is dug in—any feint toward metaphorical language is suspect in Tower’s fiction:

As though. It’s as though Tower is presenting his calling card. He adds, “Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.” This is all wrong. The ride doesn’t draw joy out of people. Riding it may make them feel joyful, but if the Pirate removed joy from people, if it were truly like a derrick pumping crude oil from the earth, then the ride would leave them without joy. They would be joyless.

This complaint makes sense only if you spend a lot of time thinking of oil as a finite resource. For most readers, the only thing a derrick suggests on a first read is gushers, or if not that then something that works assiduously to extract oil. Worry not, Mr. Maliszewski; there’s plenty more joy where that came from.

The sniping is unfortunate, because it casts his complaints about the short-story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, in a cynical light—the critic’s ready to blast the head off whatever metaphor dares to raise its imprecise, unaffecting head. But he does compellingly show how journalistic distance blunts his fiction, particularly in the case of “On the Show,” which is based on Tower’s experience following a traveling carnival crew. Indeed, many passages in the story are directly cribbed from the original article. The self-plagiarism in itself isn’t especially bothersome; writers are free to cannibalize their works at will. What Maliszewski smartly points out as problematic is Tower using the same phrases and quotes to serve markedly different emotional circumstances, and the way Tower’s interest in fusty, feature-copy details are more distancing than embracing. Maliszewski writes:

Tower, soaking in the scene, noting its particulars, while being unable to get into a character. Maybe the facts as he knows them discourage his attempts to leap imaginatively into another’s sensibility. Maybe his training as a journalist makes him suspicious of any such leap. Or maybe his social class and the gulf that lies between him and his characters prove to be the greater obstacles.** Whatever the case, Tower’s habit of looking without knowing undermines his fiction.

To be more precise, it undermines one story of Tower’s. The bulk of Maliszewski’s essay is concerned with “On the Show,” which is something of an outlier in the collection, which largely deals with Carver-esque men in domestic predicaments, driven by a lot of shit-talking dialogue. Tower’s failure to leverage the tools of magazine journalism to write successful fiction isn’t a systemic problem, but it’s worth calling out the ways journalism and fiction serve different masters.

* Yes, Tower is in a somewhat different category of “young fiction writer”: He’s been anointed one of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” and is attached to a prominent publisher. The Brooklyn Rail essay would likely not have existed without the praise Tower has received, but had it appeared when the book was published in 2009, it might’ve been attacked as being too harsh on the first-timer too.

** Maliszewski spends a bit of time trying to suggest that Tower’s hardscrabble bona fides aren’t quite in order, an argument that he never quite successfully connects with a failure in Tower’s fiction. Generalizations about class background and what it implies about your ability to write fiction is a messy business; at least Maliszewski doesn’t fall into the trap of suggesting that a lower-class upbringing somehow gives you a deeper understanding of the human condition, but he does readily embrace the idea of feature journalism as a middle-class pursuit that deals in middlebrow ideas.

Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”

Thinking and Feeling

Earlier this week Frank Wilson found a post by British blogger Mark Meynell in which he claims frustration with the shelf talkers at a bookstore chain. The cards ask staffers to finish the sentence, “This book made me feel…,” but feeling has only so much to do with it:

It seems to me that our whole approach to life, from primary school up, is based on emotional response. Probably because we’ve given up on the possibility of truth—not necessarily out of a partisan, ideological antagonism (although that’s true of some). More because of a despair at previous failed attempts. As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think.

In response, Meynell has written “20 Questions to Ask of Novels,” though this seems to veer too far in the other direction, favoring a clinical analysis of the book’s plot mechanics, themes, and reasons for existing. (A handful of questions also prompt the reader to ask about the Christian aspects of the book, which is only going to be useful for so many novels, and the wrong filter for most of them.) I cringe a little reading it, the way I usually do whenever I scan the questions in the “reading group guide” stuffed in many paperbacks. Is a book’s ending “escapism…or gritty, unresolved realism?” goes one question, as if I only had two possible responses. “If evil is a reality, how does it get portrayed?” Er, realistically?

I don’t mean to mock or dismiss Meynell’s project, because by and large the questions are worth asking. And he’s right to be skeptical about how so much casual book commentary celebrates how “relatable” a book is—how much a book evokes something I’ve personally experienced. (I still resist writing about my personal experiences in any review I write, and I reflexively think less of any review that starts with a personal anecdote. Some can make it work, but most can’t.)

The grating part of the list of questions that no open-minded reader ought to look at a book so programatically, and a set of particular questions won’t be relevant to all books. As Wilson points out, “The questions posed here may lurk somewhere in the back of my mind when I read a novel, but certainly not consciously. I just pick up the book and start reading.” For a critic as much as any other reader, the book has to deliver some kind of pleasure—the critic just more spends more time sorting out why the book succeeded at that (or didn’t). And though the answers might touch on “Scale,” “Narration,” “Development,” it’s rarely so simple.