Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

9 thoughts on “Links: Unstructured Play

  1. Regarding McGurl, I think that he probably comes off as a lot more flip there than he really is. The issue may be simply that his primary commitment or purpose in writing the book is not to make a statement about the quality of fiction produced in the “Program Era,” but to prove that the Program Era is a coherent and even fundamental context for thinking about post-war fiction. That is, or has not been, a particularly popular idea within the academy, and I think he gives an accurate summary of why that is or has been.

    So his calling his position on program fiction’s quality “rhetorically strategic” somewhat misrepresents what he’s doing–I don’t think he ever intended to make the argument in bad faith, or facetiously. Instead, he knew that making the quality argument so strongly (rather than making no statement about program fiction’s quality in the book) would draw attention–this kind of attention–to the book’s main argument and purpose, which is about literary history, and the importance of the program to understanding postwar fiction as a field. He could certainly have written The Program Era without telling us how good he thinks program fiction is, but in this case it was “rhetorically strategic” to do so.

    1. Thank you, Andrew—that definitely helps clarify where McGurl is coming from. If nothing else, the discussion has moved “The Program Era” higher up my TBR pile.

      I should add that Andrew Seal wrote very thoughtfully about Batuman’s essay last fall, criticizing her neglect of “the fact that literary texts interact with the times in which they are written and read, and their revolutionary quality or their hackneyedness isn’t a formal problem but a social one.” Link: The post also points to a letter McGurl wrote to the LRB at the time.

      1. I posted comments at the bottom of the Seal blogpost to the effect that Batuman completes misreads McGurl’s book, which I think is truly brilliant as well as a very enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in American fiction (and hence a must-read for you, Mark!)

        Like Andrew, I was a bit surprised by the tone of McGurl’s riposte in the LA Review piece, but he’s right to point out the political undercurrent to the debate.

  2. ‘… their [literary texts’] revolutionary quality or their hackneyedness isn’t a formal problem but a social one.’

    Yes and no, i.e. only in part. If social criteria were of sole relevance, how could we distunguish between hackneyed und original work in an identical social setting?

    1. Hi Lee,
      You raise an excellent point, but my intent there wasn’t to argue that social criteria were of sole relevance–that is, if I’m understanding you correctly, that we could determine whether a work is original or not without considering what actually happens in the text. What I am arguing is that our *expectations* of what originality will look like when we see it, or what unoriginality does look like, are produced through social processes–discussion, evaluation, etc. So a text which actually does something that a previous author already tried out might seem–at a particular moment–to be original because we have been in a sense socially primed to react–again, at that particular moment–to think of that particular textual effect as new or groundbreaking.

      Let me give a concrete example. I believe that when Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney came out in 1984, its use of the second person point of view was considered quite original. In fact, I don’t know offhand of a specific text that did this prior to 1984, but I’d be surprised if absolutely no one had tried it. But that’s really, in a sense, irrelevant. Bright Lights Big City was considered original not because we can scour all of literary history prior to it and determine that, indeed, McInerney really was the first writer to think of doing this, or that, indeed, he wasn’t, but because contemporary readers possessed certain assumptions about literature that led them to see and experience its narrative strategy as original.

  3. ‘What I am arguing is that our *expectations* of what originality will look like when we see it, or what unoriginality does look like, are produced through social processes–discussion, evaluation, etc.’

    Hi Andrew, yes of course, I would think that’s rather obvious, though not stated all that clearly in your piece. It’s not particularly difficult to determine if something is original, at least in broad terms. The real issue is how well this originality is executed, and though social criteria – your contemporary reader’s assumptions – play a significant role, I believe there are other forces at work, some of which can probably be termed formal but in another sense address certain hardwired aspects of human nature: the desire for resolution and curiosity, to name just two.

  4. Interesting comment from Gallaudet, since I also have a major character, Barker, who is deaf. It’s a challenge to balance his interior reality with the confused and sometimes hostile reactions of others, since we see him “from the outside.”

    That’s too bad about critics and Willa Cather, since I believe she was especially sensitive about protecting her work.

  5. Recommendations of great Michigan fiction? I always think of some of Hemingway’s short stories–the Nick Adams stories–such as Big Two-Hearted River. Another terrific piece of Michigan fiction is Harriette Arnow’s novel The Dollmaker, a classic of American realism. I’m not sure how “great” it is, but Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Them takes place in Detroit.

  6. Mark–Recommendations of great Michigan fiction: how about Middlesex, by Eugenides? Set largely in Detroit.

    I love the Nelson Algren quote: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.”

    As a creative writing teacher, I could relate!


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