Links: From a Flask With Unknown Contents

Whiting Award winner Adam Johnson says the aspiring writers in his classes these days are being a little too cute with the subtleties. “‘What happened? What was it about?’ he asks his students. ‘I didn’t want to hit you over the head with it,’ they reply. ‘Hit me over the head with what?'”

Lizzie Skurnick on a star-studded event honoring Judy Blume: “Her controversy wasn’t based on her attention to the illicit. It was based on her attention to the ordinary.”

Tom Perrotta figures people don’t cheat on their spouses nearly as much as novelists suggest they do.

A comprehensive collection of Ernest Hemingway‘s letters is nearing completion.

Cormac McCarthy has signed a few copies of The Road, and no, you can’t have them.

The Idaho Review, which has published a host of major authors from the West, celebrates its tenth anniversary with a 296-page issue. (via New West)

William Faulkner‘s old residence in New Orleans is holding up well, post-Katrina.

Shanthi Sekaran: “When an Indian American writer portrays India, a reader will already have seen five other portrayals in other books and inject what they’ve seen before…. That leads readers to overlook other aspects of an immigrant experience.”

The owners of Chicago bookstore Women and Children First aren’t buying the statement that there are as many as 30 feminist bookstores in the country.

Daniel Alarcon on Americans’ disinterest in reading works in translation: “There’s a certain curiosity about the world that’s not matched by a willingness to do the work…. So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans.” (via Bookslut)

A great wide-ranging interview in the Morning News with Tobias Wolff about writing programs, the state of short fiction, the novel he’s working on, the Richard Price novel he’s reading, and more.

Dear Stanford Daily: Here’s the thing. If an anonymous student tells you that Wolff regularly takes swigs “from a flask with unknown contents” in class, it’s pretty much imperative upon you to ring him up for a comment. Then he could tell you whether what’s in the flask is innocuous or not, avoiding any need for golly-who-knows-what-he’s-drinking weasel-wording. Regardless, you’re bound to get a story out of it, and telling stories is something he’s pretty good at. Give it a try.

It Takes Two

Writing in the Rumpus, Adam Johnson proposes that more fiction writers start including collaboration in the their toolkit. Working together forces an individual writer to set aside his or her ego, allowing the “team” to better concentrate on the business of characterization, setting, and so forth:

I wish I would’ve been asked to collaborate on just one story for a workshop back in my MFA program. I would have hated it, of course, because it would’ve meant that I’d have to question all my instincts, that I’d have to get off the crutch of my limited skills, and that I’d have to write a true character for once, a fictitious person that wasn’t a guised version of myself. I would have had to ask, out loud, questions like: What is this story about, what is this scene trying to show, and what’s at the heart of this character? And I’d have had to listen to another writer answer. For once it would have been about writing and not “being a writer.”

And about those MFA programs: Yes, Johnson notes, they have a collaborative element to them, and yes, he supports them. That, in spite of his acknowledgment that MFA programs have a way of making for carefully machined prose. (This is a criticism I leveled at Johnson’s debut collection, Emporium, some years back, though clearly my complaint could have used some more thought and evidence. Blurbs aren’t fair game in criticism, kids.) After all, you have to learn to walk before you can run, and getting down the basics allows for more dazzling acrobatics down the line. “I believe the proliferation of MFA programs is a good thing—more hounds to the hunt,” Johnson writes. “And what’s wrong with learning the skills of writing first, so that when an important story comes along, it has a game author?”

I’d be more willing to get behind Johnson’s defense of collaboration if I could think of more evidence of them—or at least more evidence of cases where it went smoothly. I think if Raymond Carver‘s much-documented contretemps with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver’s stories, to my mind, were improved by Lish’s heavy hand, but nobody would think of that as a healthy collaborative environment to seek out. Johnson cites an unpublished collaboration with his wife as evidence that the system can work well. Are there others that are available on the shelves?

The Red Room Factor

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a story about Red Room, a venture-backed portal for writers that’s attracted investors like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. There’s lots to like about Red Room at first glance: It boasts a slick design, features on big-name authors like Salman Rushdie, and links to news, blogs, and multimedia for individual writers. If I click on, say, the page for Adam Johnson (whose first short-story collection, Emporium, I liked quite a bit) I get info on his books, a quick bio, updates on events, audio of a story of his (reg req’d), and blog, should he ever choose to write one on the site.

I started getting skeptical, though, when I saw this quote in the article by Norman Mailer Anderson, author of a raucous, funny novel about Northern Californians, Boonville: He says Red Room is “becoming the definitive, encyclopedic reference for writers, as defined by writers, which I think is different from defining writers in terms of the commerce they can garner from them, or the anonymity or carelessness that goes on in Wikipedia.”

But: Amazon and Wikipedia aren’t the sole outlets for an author to promote himself, and if your Wikipedia entry is “careless,” you can correct the errors yourself. If the value of Red Room, as founder Ivory Madison argues, is that it gives lesser-known authors a foothold “much as emerging musicians do on” according to the article, why can’t an author simply start a MySpace page? If social networking has taught us anything, it’s not the theme of the site that matters, but the opportunities to put your name in front of lots of other people. Why an author would choose to go to Red Room, simply because it’s “all about books,” instead of simply launching a blog or a Facebook page isn’t yet clear to me. Amy Tan, richer than God, can afford to blog for the first time on a circa-2000 portal site; lesser-known writers are at a high risk of getting lost in the shuffle here.