Links: Short Subjects

Paul Kincaid has a thoughtful post at Big Other about the distinctions between the novel and the short story: “Over the duration of a novel, duration being time spent in composition or in reading or simply the passage of time within the fiction, there has to be time enough to seek explanation, to make sense…. Within the compass of a story, on the other hand, the unbidden, the whole, there need be no more than that moment that makes no sense, because it is adrift from history and from future, seen separated from what went before and what comes after which are in their turn what gives it context.”

I’ve been reading Steven Millhauser‘s book of new and collected stories, We Others, which comes out next month, and he made a similar point in a 2003 interview with Jim Shepard in Bomb: “But shortness encourages certain effects and not others. It encourages, for instance, the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment. In the little world of the story, many kinds of desirable effect are inherently impossible—say, the gradual elaboration of a psychology, the demonstration of change over time…. As for novels: in their dark hearts, don’t they long to be exhaustive? Novels are hungry, monstrous. Their apparent delicacy is deceptive—they want to devour the world.”

Also at Big Other, which I really should’ve been keeping up with regularly a long time ago: A word-hoard from Annie Proulx‘s The Shipping News.

“1. Mow lawn. 2. Get rid of that fucking hose.”

Novelist David Carkeet recalls a lifetime’s worth of resonant words and phrases that have a way of worming their way into one’s everyday thoughts. Or, as he puts it, “the crap in my head.” (via)

Michael Dirda considers the literary heritage of his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, and invites readers to share their own hometown authors. (To my knowledge, my hometown of Lyons, Illinois, has produced only one author of note, Jack Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia.)

Regarding The Tragedy of Arthur and other novels in which the author is a character: “The game element of art, the puzzle of the construction, distances us from what really greets us every morning, as opposed to that we confront in the turning of the page. These fictional autobiographies flag a form of deception and collusion between reader and writer.”

Frank Wilson isn’t sold on the third rule for book reviewers in Robert Pinsky’s much-circulated Slate piece. The rule in question: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.” Wilson writes, “Certainly reviews that focus exclusively or even principally on Pinsky’s third rule are a waste.” I agree it’s a difficult thing to pull off, especially in a tight word count, and it risks opening the door to off-point political readings and other ramblings. But it does have the benefit of putting the reviewer’s opinion in context. Perhaps it’d be more helpful to revise the rule or add a corollary to it: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about how well the book’s author addressed the thing the book is about.” (Or just dump Pinsky’s rules and go with Updike’s.)

Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” John Barth: let it go.

Down Living

David Guy‘s “Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend,” is largely a tender remembrance of novelist Reynolds Price, who died last January. But it also sheds some light on the insecurities that can haunt even the most accomplished writer. Guy recalls finishing his first novel, 1980’s Football Dreams, and having Price gently but firmly let him know the disappointment that comes along with getting that first book out:

“Publishing a first novel is a down,” he said.

I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the sentiment or by the ’60s locution. We’d known each other back in the hippie days.

“Really?” I said. The past 10 years of hard work had been for nothing?

“You’ve spent your whole life thinking that if you can finally publish a book, everything will change,” he said. “You’ll suddenly be good looking and everybody will love you, the world will throw itself at your feet. Then you publish the damn thing and nothing happens. You’re the same social misfit and compulsive masturbator you always were.”

And Price was saying that as somebody who had the best first-novel launch a novelist could hope for: 1962’s A Long and Happy Life received plenty of acclaim and was simultaneously published in its entirety in Harper’s, the first (and last?) time the magazine did such a thing for a novel.

Guy’s portrait of his mentor is so fawning it’s a little hard to trust, but if he doesn’t delve too deeply into how the down-ness of novel writing affected Price, Guy willingly exposes what it did to him. Writing a novel, in Guy’s vision, is a kind of compulsive act—something that’s going to wound you in some way or other, but so necessary you can’t resist doing it. And so important you’re willing to assent to requests to talk about it in public: The essay ultimately turns to a panel Guy moderates featuring Price, Anne Tyler, and Eudora Welty that might as well have been called “Four Authors Who’d Rather Be Doing Something Else.” Tyler is prickly, Welty is bemused (“All these people. What do they expect of me?”), Guy is terrified, and Price rolls his eyes when an attendee asks, “Why do you publish?” But Welty answered that question well: “I publish for the same reason I want somebody to be on the other end of the phone when I talk into it.”

Links: Cleaning Up

A handy database of what appears to be all the fiction that has run in the New Yorker. Have fun with the tag function: “Dogs” appears 82 times; “Cats” 38 times; “prisoners” seven times; “littering” once.

I haven’t read a romance novel in forever, but I’ll read anything Jessica Tripler writes about the genre. She considers A Visit From the Goon Squad though that filter: “It struck me that the dominant emotion in VGS is one not so often encountered in romance: shame…. [T]he kind of abject shame so many of VGS characters inhabit is not one that makes for a romantic read. I think the difference is that in romance, the shame is either (a) not really earned (it’s really a virtue in disguise), or (b) centers on a character flaw that gets fixed in the narrative (the cop who is afraid of commitment, for example). The shame in VGS is, at one and the same time, both unique to the characters and universal.”

Gertrude Stein gets an iPhone: “Stopping everything is something. Stopping everything and stopping all of that thing is something. Stopping everything and then doing nothing in stopping everything is something.” (via)

Egyptian translator Hala Salah Eldin Hussein: “I have recently been contemplating the value of literature in these times, where your step in Tahrir Square—protesting and demanding civil rights—should be more valuable than translating fiction. Can fiction really take second place after revolutionary activism? How can fiction help us in a time of political unrest? Should I stay in my office finishing this marvelous piece by Susan Straight, or should I just go out with my fellow countrymen, six hours or more every day, in the square? It seems that translating political articles will be of more use to the revolution, but for the time being I’ll keep the belief that a day translating Lorrie Moore or Edward P. Jones will teach me how to be a better human being, I’ll get to see the world in its true colours, I’ll learn about myself, others and humanity.”

Andrew Seal isn’t blogging these days, alas, but his very busy Tumblr, Fuck Yeah, Historiography, is stuffed with gems from texts on American literature, sociology, political history, and more.

Catch-22 at 50. (via)

Lynne Tillman: “I think it’s true that unless human beings experience something, they simply don’t understand what people are going through. Now that I am conscious of the world of chronic pain, when I see somebody walking down the street who’s having trouble, I feel a sadness for them. I notice. I’m very lucky that I could get a hip replacement.” (via)

“If you really want to publish a book one day you will publish a book. The time that you spend getting there is kind of wonderful. Don’t cut it short. The emotional range is valuable.”

Robert Pinsky unearths a document listing three reasonable rules for writing a book review.

On Tobias Wolff‘s debut novel, 1975’s Ugly Rumours, which few know about and which the author himself is disinclined to discuss.

Defending Herman Melville‘s poetry.

We will always want narratives, but will we always want endings?

John Steinbeck‘s affection for Arthurian England.

Dept. of Sausage Making: Stuart Dybek and an editor discuss whether the name of a public housing project in one of his stories needs some additional explanation. (via)

Well put, by Rae Bryant: “One of the masteries in Nabokov’s stories, what I admire so much, is how smoothly the stories turn readers into accomplices.”

Somewhat less well put: “Maybe Vladi­mir Nabokov wasn’t referring to America’s favorite confectionery on a stick when he wrote Lolita,’ but he should have been.”


Adam Goodheart‘s review in Slate of David S. ReynoldsMightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America gets at what’s so appealing about the book: Reynolds shows not just how influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in American life (though whether it actually sparked the Civil War is debatable), it explores how culturally omnivorous Harriet Beecher Stowe was while writing the book. “Appearing at the moment of America’s—indeed, the world’s—first great flowering of mass popular culture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin drew on minstrel shows, pulp fiction, abolitionist broadsides, temperance propaganda, and evangelical tracts,” Goodheart writes.

For me, the most fascinating part of Reynolds’ book was the discussion of the “anti-Tom” novels that sprang up in response to Stowe—defenses of slavery written by people indignant at the book’s message, and the traction it was getting. According to Reynolds, 29 such novels were published before the Civil War, and the University of Virginia’s comprehensive Uncle Tom’s Cabin website includes selections from most of them. The creepiest, easily, is Little Eva, Flower of the South, an 1853 children’s book in which the title character is saved from drowning by Sam, a slave. Its last sentence: “Eva’s parents were so pleased with Sam for saving Eva, that they gave him his freedom; but he never left them, he loved them all too well.”

I don’t know of a novel that’s inspired so many retorts in novel form. (Is there a shelf of anti-Grapes of Wrath and anti-Jungle fiction somewhere?) Part of the reason for that may simply be that there’s little chance a single book of fiction could now move the culture politically the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin did—“faction” has a way of preaching to the converted, and nobody would want to read a novel about, say, the debt ceiling. (The jobless recovery novel is there for the reading, though, if you want it.) But Reynolds points to something that distinguished Stowe’s novels from other political fiction: An acknowledgment of the other side’s beliefs, which blunted any critique of the novel. Reynolds writes:

[N]one of the anti-Tom novels came close to selling as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The main reason was that Stowe had preempted them on virtually every point. Racism in the North? She had memorably captured that in her ironic portrait of Ophelia. The miseries of white workers, often as great as those of enslaved blacks? She expressed this proto-Marxist idea compellingly through St. Clare, who spoke of a forthcoming working-class revolution. The kindness of many Southern slaveowners? She granted that…. Stowe was thus a frustrating writer for proslavery novelists to rebut, since she agreed with them on many points—except the central moral issue of slavery.

Links: A Familiar Story

My first thought when I began reading this article about how literary experimentation has been abandoned in favor of plot was Tom McCarthy‘s C. John Lucas then mentions the book, only to assign it the role of an exception that proves the rule. But isn’t that just as true of William GaddisThe Recognitions, the novel that inspired the article in the first place?

Related: Gravity’s Rainbow was exceptional enough to be rejected by Pulitzer Prize board despite the strong support of the fiction committee. Charles Johnson riffs on that and a few other problems, particularly involving race, with that prize.

Also related: “[R]egardless of the pleasures afforded by novels, was there ever a time when most readers turned to them for a refined aesthetic experience rather than the narrative?”

A fine essay on the unlucky life of writer Allan Seager, author of the much-borrowed short story “The Street.” (via)

Reasons to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film version of Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“The top 80% of all published stories in the [Best American Short Stories] 2005 through 2010 as well as notable stories mentioned in the back pages came from the same 42 journals.”

Colson Whitehead: “The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well.” (via)

Connecting the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case with Dinaw Mengestu‘s 2010 novel, How to Read the Air. (Lloyd Jones‘ very good forthcoming novel, Hand Me Down World, hits at some similar themes as well.)

Patrick Kurp on the virtues of reading widely.

“[T]he book review will undoubtedly survive. So will screeds against it, which is only fair: our age is one of constant comment, and the book review must take its lumps as stoically as the books in its pages do.”

On William Burroughs‘ ongoing ill will toward Truman Capote. (via)

A novelist-psychologist argues that “the more fiction you read, the better you are… at understanding other people.”

Lastly, if you’re in the D.C. area, tomorrow marks the very first Indie Lit City Summit, an all-day gathering of indie presses, magazines, and other literary folk from the D.C.-Baltimore region to talk shop and share ideas. The keynote speech will be given by Electric Literature‘s Andy Hunter; more info at the website.

Real Life

Vendela Vida‘s second novel, The Lovers, is coming out in the UK (it was published here in the United States last year), prompting a lengthy profile of her in the Guardian. Much of the piece focuses on the work she does with her husband, Dave Eggers, at the Believer, 826 Valencia, and cowriting the screenplay for the 2009 film Away We Go. But the piece squeezes in some discussion of her novels, which the reporter oddly describes as “works of realism.”

I haven’t read Vida’s debut novel, And Now You Can Go, but I’m an admirer of her two follow-ups, The Lovers and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, both of which display a spiky, spare prose style that highlights the inner turmoil of their female protagonists instead of cloaking it. What they aren’t are works of realism. In both books (and the debut, I gather), the leads make snap decisions to disappear for a while in a new, unfamiliar locale—Lapland in Northern Lights, Turkey in The Lovers—and Vida dwells little on the sightseeing aspects of those places. For her, the exotic settings are ways to erase familiar comforting routines, forcing emotions up to the surface—nobody’s doing a whole lot in these novels, exactly, but they’re expending a great deal of energy.

Vida discusses her internship at the Paris Review, where she began thinking about how she’d approach her fiction: “I’d borrow a back issue every night, read it on the bus home, and pick up another the next morning. I didn’t have any friends in New York; I sat inside and read my Paris Reviews. I was particularly interested in female writers, because I was trying to figure out how to be one.” That in turn influenced the heroine of Northern Lights—though Vida’s statement could apply to the heroine of The Lovers too:

“I wanted to make her real,” Vida says. “At the time, I was tired of reading novels by women in which the men could act as badly as they wanted, while the female characters had to please and enchant. I wanted to try something different. A lot of the responses I got were negative: ‘unlikable’ was the word I heard over and over, which drove me crazy—why do you have to like a character? But it was a conscious thing: I set out to make sure she wasn’t trying to flirt with the reader.”

(A little more on Vida and her style from last year.)

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.'”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

A Persistent Minimalism

Ann Beattie recently wrote in New York magazine about how at 17 she’d ride in a friend’s car and harass other drivers with a bullhorn. It’s a short piece, meant to be a light bit of space-filler in a “summer fun!” package. But MobyLives’ Dennis Johnson is troubled by the piece’s ending, in which Beattie admits her shenanigans led a driver to crash into a tree.

The obvious question, of course, is what did she get away with? One assumes not manslaughter, although causing a car to go “crazily out of control” and crash into a tree isn’t exactly comforting language in regards to that possibility, nor to the likelihood that passengers in that pre-airbag car were at the very least seriously injured. Equally astonishing is that rather than tell us that dreadful reality, and what she thinks now, years later, about her lack of compassion and why she left a crime scene, she resorts to the most unfortunate type of minimalism—the kind that withholds information for cheap effect.

It is a troubling scene—the only defense I can think to muster up is that the ending hints at the shame that attaches to adolescent hijinks, and that a tragedy, had one occurred, would have served the theme of the piece. (Though of course it wouldn’t be much of a “summer fun!” piece then. For what it’s worth, a Nexis search on Beattie’s name and “bullhorn” comes up empty.) Contra Johnson, her willfulness and lack of compassion come through loud and clear; what’s lacking is a sense of the consequences of those feelings (or lack of them).

But the sketch, as Johnson suggests, does promote the idea that minimalism has its limits, particularly in nonfiction. In the New York Review of Books, Meghan O’Rourke recently argues that Beattie’s style has evolved more than her critics give her credit for. The essay is an excellent introduction to Beattie’s style, and why its combination of detail and indirection are so seductive. But O’Rourke gives frustratingly little space to Beattie’s more recent work; she writes that “the work she has written over the past ten years conjures fleshier visions of domestic life and loneliness than she had previously allowed herself,” but the examples of this “fleshier” prose aren’t particularly convincing. On the evidence of the New York piece and her recent disappointing novella, Walks With Men, the differences between Beattie’s old minimalism and her new one can be hard to detect.

Links: This Is Just to Say

Aleksandar Hemon‘s “The Aquarium” is one of the most powerful, heart-in-the-throat pieces of magazine nonfiction I’ve read this side of Gary Smith‘s “Higher Education.” Amelia Atlas is of a similar mind about it, and she thoughtfully explores Hemon’s discussion of the nature of storytelling and how he proposes “an avenue for thinking about the relationship between literature and cognition that doesn’t compromise human expressivity.”

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway‘s suicide. His hometown is stepping lightly around it.

What are your favorite tricks in literature?

An excellent post by Caleb Crain on giving up on a novel: “I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters…. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was.” There’s something to this: Even if you’re reading critically, a novel that works works best when you’re easily immersed in it. If you’re feeling too compelled to apply real-world analysis to a story while you’re reading, the author is probably doing something wrong. (If I’m particularly sucked in by a book, I usually just highlight passages while I’m reading—doing the work of figuring out what I saw in those highlighted passages, and by extension the whole book, generally comes after the fact.)

On Fanny Fern, a witty satirist of relationships between husbands and wives in the mid-1850s—a talent that was all the more striking given her horrendous marriage.

Three unpublished letters from Margaret Mitchell.

Couldn’t agree more with this line from Ruth Franklin‘s essay on why gay marriage hasn’t gotten more attention in literature: “The affair between two men in Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, to give one particularly graphic example, is one of the most moving depictions of obsessive passion in recent writing.”

A rant from Michael Dirda on the evils of bestseller lists, though I suspect he’s overstating the degree to which readers take direct guidance on what to read next by consulting lists.

Tom Nissley gathers up some great moments of dialogue in literature; I’m a fan of the same passage of Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask he quotes.

I’ve been reading a forthcoming biography of William Carlos Williams, who often struggled to balance his dual lives as a poet and physician. Publicly he’d claim his practice energized his poetry, and it certainly gave him the opportunity to know the working-class people who featured in works like Paterson; privately, though, he despaired over his poems and having the time to write them. So the thoughts of novelist-doctor Chris Adrian on the matter are of interest: “[T]here’s something nice about getting to go to a day job where there are concrete expectations of you and concrete things to be done that generally are helpful to other people, whether that’s something as complicated as organizing a course of treatment for a child with cancer or just writing an antibiotic prescription for an ear infection. But it doesn’t take much time spent in either world to want to go back to the other.”

On making a documentary on Nelson Algren.

Visiting the sites of Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (via). And revisiting his unfinished novel Unanswered Prayers.

In praise of Lydia Davis‘ new chapbook, The Cows.


A middle-school principal’s commencement speech reportedly had a lot in common with David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech. But then, Wallace and Tolstoy had a little in common.