Links: Filing Extension

I’ve read David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King but feel at a loss to say anything about it. That’s partly due to its sheer sprawl; the time required to get a grip on it and say something cogent is time I don’t have. But that’s a bit of a lie, because there’s something else, something Robert P. Baird gets at in his essay on how much we can or should connect the text of The Pale King to its author’s suicide. As Baird suggests, a common instinct (and certainly my instinct) is to avoid the matter entirely by indulging in some New Critical close reading, but I’m more resistant than even that—I have an urge to say, screw it, that the whole enterprise of cobbling a novel together from the scraps he left behind was foolishness, and that it would’ve been better if Little, Brown had just released what is now chapter 22, the book’s masterpiece, as a trim, self-contained novella and left the rest for scholars to fight over. Or publish all of it, however large, because, as Baird writes in explaining why Wallace’s afterlife so ties us up in knots, “Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic.”

Karen Russell on Joy Williams‘ dialogue: “Exchanges as doomed and hilarious as those in a Beckett play fill her books. This speech rarely reads like a realistic transcription of the way that ‘normal’ people talk—but it gets at the primitive forces lunging under language.”

Dinaw Mengestu remains unhappy that his second novel, How to Read the Air, is being characterized as an “immigrant novel”: “The characters I’m writing about are Americans, even though they may be immigrants. So for critics to bring in part of my own identity, to say this is part of the novel as well, I find very problematic.”

Kyle Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the way an opening sentence can. (A commenter points to the American Book Review‘s list of the 100 best last lines from novels, in a thread that also includes a good conversation about the last line of As I Lay Dying.)

Much of Lorrie Moore‘s essay on memoirs in the New York Review of Books feels like a series of cheap shots. The very structure suggests it: Here are two well-promoted memoirs about death from major New York publishers, and isn’t it interesting that they are bested by a little self-published book—one that, on the quoted evidence, seems stuffed with cliches and commonplaces. But I keep thinking about what seems at first like the weakest complaint in her review, about Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye: “O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention.” I admire the book, and I don’t see it as losing something for lacking an investigation into Garden State carcinogens. But if we’re to respect memoirs as more than exercises in solipsism—or respect them at all, these days—a second effort to avoid trafficking in what Moore calls the “poetry of bereavement” may be worth the while.

William Maxwell is best known as a New Yorker editor, but he also wrote six novels. William Lychack recalls his correspondence with Maxwell and enthuses about his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Audio of Lydia Davis discussing her translation work.

Audio of Marilynne Robinson on the Old Testament roots of Christian liberalism.

Audio of Don DeLillo on the writer as a “bad citizen.”

George Saunders: “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.”

Robert Gottlieb on how important editors are to writers: “Whether you’re a good editor or a bad editor or a non-editor, it doesn’t matter: You represent the crucial reading. Yes, his spouse has read it. Yes, her agent has read it. But you represent authority, even if you don’t deserve it. You also represent money. And if you have a decent reputation, a writer wants to know what a person with a decent reputation thinks. And of course, if it’s a writer you’ve worked with over the years, it’s even more crucial because there’s a visceral connection.”

On Roger’s Version

At Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, I have a long piece on John Updike‘s 1986 novel, Roger’s Version. This essay is part of NBCC’s occasional series “In Retrospect,” which looks back at finalists and winners of its annual awards. Roger’s Version was a finalist for the NBCC’s annual award in fiction, but didn’t win the prize; that honor went to Peter Taylor‘s A Summons to Memphis, a book I don’t know. (It took the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that year as well.)

The gist of my essay is that while many reviewers of Roger’s Version understood (and admired) the novel as just the latest in a string of Updike’s studies of sex in the suburbs–though with an unusual amount of research into theology and computer science applied to it—it’s a trickier book than that. The book takes a few metafictional turns, some fairly obvious but a few willfully obscure. It can be hard to read Updike’s intentions there: He either was careful not to draw too much notice to his experimenting, wanted to test the reader’s attentiveness, or both. Regardless, it’s a book that rewards close reading, so this was my attempt to walk through some of the book’s inner workings. A few grafs from the introduction:

Yet the most curious, persistent, and interesting tension in Roger’s Version largely escaped the notice (or interest) of most critics, despite the fact that it’s plainly stated in the book’s title: Roger is telling a version of events, inventing the affair between Dale and Esther as an angry acting-out of his bitterness over the chill in his marriage and Dale’s intellectual project, which he finds “aesthetically and ethically repulsive.” Roger’s Version isn’t just among Updike’s most meticulously researched novels—it’s also one of his most ingenious in terms of style, perspective, and willingness to test narrative reliability. As such, it’s a strong counterargument to the notion that Updike was an artful domestic realist who tinkered often with setting but little with structure and perspective.

It turns out, though, that this particular tinkering project has a fairly serious design flaw. As readers, we can get behind the idea that Roger’s narcissism prompts him to conjure up an affair—that’s an imaginative feat wholly within anybody’s power, even if we can’t do it with Updike’s skill or his affinity for the rude, naked statement. But it’s difficult to turn narcissism into a deep understanding of computer programming, which Updike suggests Roger possesses in the book’s late pages. So if it’s not a busted narrative, what is it? Maybe a profound joke on deus ex machina—the fact that Roger is suddenly bestowed powers he couldn’t naturally possess speaks to the unknowability of God’s will. Or perhaps Updike is making a more cynical point, one in keeping with the cynicism of his hero: That proving Roger’s overblown sense of entitlement demands Updike take liberties with his own sense of omnipotence, wildly pulling the strings of others’ knowledge and behavior.

To put it another way: What better way to show how arrogant your protagonist is than to arrogantly unsettle the ground rules of realist fiction? And Roger Lambert is unquestionably one of the more arrogant creations in Updike’s oeuvre. How dare Lambert? How dare Updike? The answers are essentially the same for both: Pretending to God’s power implicates Roger and Updike in equal proportions.

This piece has been in the drawer for a while. I wrote an early draft of it about two years ago at the request of a website that was soliciting long essays on contemporary novels. Shortly after I filed the piece I was told the site was shutting down. (I don’t believe this was a cause-and-effect thing, though an anxious writer always wonders….) In any event, thanks to the 1986-7 board of the NBCC for making Roger’s Version a fiction finalist—not just because it honored a good novel, but also, more selfishly, because it gave me a chance to give the piece a home.

Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Close Encounters

Lynne Tillman‘s “Love Sentence,” a story included in her new collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, is a small masterpiece of repetition, taking a single line and prodding it, testing it, circling around it, studying it, finding humor and pathos alike in it. It helps that the sentence in question is “I love you”—a line that gives a writer plenty of room for interpretation. But the story’s central mood is frustration; the narrator is more confused by the line than inspired by it. “Everything Paige thought about love, anything she felt about love, was inadequate and wrong,” Tillman writes in the first sentence, and what follows is an attempt to answer a question about that inadequacy: Is it possible to write about love honestly, in a way that avoids both sentiment and cynicism?

Tillman’s plainspoken style comes in handy for abstractions like this. The stories in Someday are usually built on only the merest skeletons of plot, so the emphasis shifts to individual words; her tone is philosophical, though rarely distant. In “Love Sentence,” the plot is really just a setup for Paige’s musings: She’s thinking about old lovers, using scissors to cut hearts out of paper towels. (It’s a hokey arrangement only if plot were the point; when you’re sorting out the metaphorical power of “love,” might as well behave like a metaphor yourself. Besides, the describes the hearts beautifully, stacked “like honeyed pancakes.”) As she scissors, she falls into a rhythmic kind of thinking. She imagines love letters that are effusive with a kind of desperate desire (“In my dreams I cleave to you, I hold you, your body bent to mine…”), which press up against quotes from writers and musicians that celebrate and diminish love, from Freud to Andrew Marvell to the Troggs. She lays out the various ways she can love somebody: “Oblivously, I love you”; “Awkwardly”; “Commonly”; “Blindly.” Sometimes love is the cute stuff of paper hearts (“Sweetly, I love you”), but usually it’s more frustrating; nobody wants to live full-time in the spaces those adverbs represent.

But why bother writing about a subject that’s been written about forever? That’s the question Tillman wants to play with, and part of Paige’s frustration is that she knows that her emotions are nothing new even when she very much wants them to be. “[S]ensation maintained that her love was unique,” she writes, but she knows love isn’t sensation alone. To indulge in that sensation is to be willfully ignorant; to distance herself from it is to be cold-hearted. “[L]ove wouldn’t leave her alone,” she writes.

That kind of push and pull between thought and emotion, particularly in the midst of relationships, is a hallmark of the stories in the collection. The relationships in “The Substitute” and “Chartreuse” thrive, in a sickly way, on their instability. The woman in “More Sex” considers the old saw about men thinking about sex every seven minutes and considers the TV and film stars she might want to have sex with—not to any real erotic purpose, but as a kind of resignation. “[W]anting to have sex with men she couldn’t have…was also all right, because she could easily have sex with men she didn’t necessarily want.” “Love Sentence” appears toward the end of the book, as if it were a last-ditch attempt to settle the matter, even though it can’t possibly be settled.

None of this makes for high drama in Tillman’s stories, at least not overtly. As Jessica Winter nicely put it in a review of Tillman’s 2006 novel, American Genius, “She ignites conflict and crisis not with the usual powder of incident and dialogue, but with the twists and sharp U-turns of internal thought.” This may play out more routinely in her other work (reissues through Red Lemonade are forthcoming), but I’m struck at how capably she addresses the emotional contradictions in “Love Sentence” without being willfully opaque or sentimental. By the time she’s done, the line “I love you” has been tested and analyzed plenty, but she ends by stressing the point that it’s nearly impossible to strip it of its power.

It’s interesting to learn that a story so careful and so affecting was initially something of a gag. She recently explained to Artforum how the original version, published in 1994, came together:

At the time, I thought it would be best to start by dissecting the sentence “I love you,” which led to my thinking about death sentence, the death sentence, and several other puns. In the 1980s and the early ’90s, there was a particular emphasis on writing with puns and other language games. Usually I let something stay as it was written, but in this case, the amount of punning unsettled me a bit. I thought that I went overboard, in unnecessary ways. Perhaps I was just being a little too tongue in cheek—I guess my tongue was outside my cheek, too.

So, she continues, she rewrote. As a writer gets older, Tillman writes, “You have more of a sense of what the problems and possibilities are.” I’m sure the original “Love Sentence” isn’t awful, but I’m glad she cared to apply her increasing sense of problem and possibility to it.

Links: Speaking Terms

Cormac McCarthy on working with scientists in his role as writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute: “I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.” (via)

Peter Mountford‘s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, centers on a duplicitous, craven low-level hedge-fund employee. It was apparently a tough sell: “An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made.” It’s a good first novel; review forthcoming.

“‘What a phenomenon people are!’ exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. ‘If you meet—if you really meet a person, how interesting.'”

The Civil War deeply influenced American literature, even if there is no great Civil War novel, writes Craig Fehrman. Plus, an interesting sidebar on photography and Nathaniel Hawthorne at Fehrman’s blog.

“Big wet sky of the republic over the big wet land”: Nelson Algren‘s poetry.

A member of the committee that gives the Nobel Prize in literature says that Horace Engdahl‘s 2008 comments about “insular” Americans was taken out of context. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America,” says Kjell Espmark.

Lynne Tillman, whose new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, I’m enjoying, chats with Lydia Davis. The interview is focused on her 2006 novel, American Genius, but much of what she says about the use of autobiographical material applies to the new book: “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.” (via)

An excellent piece on New York novels by Tom LeClair, who’s concerned about the future of the form: “I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism.”

“No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris.”

Walter Mosley‘s Devil in a Blue Dress conjures up the tone and style of much older hard-boiled detective fiction—which, for Rohan Maitzen, makes it a bit less appealing.

“[I]n the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story.” A few examples to the contrary follow. (via)

A report from a reading by E.L. Doctorow at the George Washington University:

“How much of what you write is true?” called a voice from the crowd.
“Does it sound true?” replied Doctorow.
“Well, yes.”
“Then it is true.”

What Would the Community Think?

Whenever a story comes out about legislators who write fiction, it’s usually treated as comedy gold: The reporter cherry-picks a passage that’s representative of the novel’s awfulness (usually a sex scene), and everybody moves on. Because Roll Call has to cover senators and congresspersons on a daily basis, the criticism in an article about their novels is more muted, but the basic theme is the same.

Seth Fischer, a former congressional staffer, has a more thoughtful take on these books, and how their authors’ role as public servants compromise their writing:

In many of these works, I see the members overcorrecting, of taking risks so huge that they become ridiculous and are therefore not risks at all, like graphic depictions of two horses fucking (Barbara Boxer), or taking out an entire committee hearing. Or worse, they take no risks at all and write political propaganda (Peter King’s Vale of Tears.)

But this is all just a symptom of something much worse, of an inability to actually empathize with their characters…. The characters in these books are ideas, not people, and I can’t blame them. For a politician to relearn how to actually empathize with a character, and hence a person, the pain of the responsibility of their power would become unbearable.

In a 2005 New York Times article on the subject, former Massachusetts governor William Weld admitted that it’s all but impossible to run for office in this country and not write a compromised novel. “I don’t want to give people an incentive to vote against me,” he said. But a 1998 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece on Weld gets a little closer to Fischer’s conclusions about the roots of the politico-novelist’s detachment:

Weld describes his central character as being from the wrong side of the tracks. Weld himself probably didn’t even know where the tracks were when he was growing up: His ancestral estate on Long Island had a driveway a mile and a half long. He’s descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence on his mother’s side, and his grandfather and great-grandfather founded the Wall Street investment house of White, Weld & Co.

It’s not that the wealthy automatically suffer from a lowered capacity for empathy. But if political power is a function of wealth, and if that same political power requires an ability to wall off your ability to empathize, it’s a skill Weld (and many politicians) learned early, and one that runs counter to the novelist’s purpose.

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”