Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

A Funny Kind of Novel

The Guardian Book Club has been spending the past month commemorating Bret Easton Ellis‘ 1991 novel, American Psycho—an unusual choice, maybe, but then perhaps some novels need about 20 years of distance before they can be read clearly. Nobody would agree with that notion more than Ellis himself, it seems. In an essay published last week, he notes that “I don’t think I got a single good review—every one across the board was terrible, apart from one in the Los Angeles Times.”

It’s interesting to look back and see the revulsion that characterized the response to the book at the time. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post called it “pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts: a dirty book by a dirty writer.” The Jerusalem Post‘s David George said the book is “drowned in a style of writing in which irony is submerged by vulgarity.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called it “a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail.” (In the same review, he also noted that books in general had become little more than something “to distract us on a flight between JFK and LAX.” Books: Irrelevant since the early 90s! At least!) The Independent discovered that “Bret Easton Ellis” is an anagram for “to sell, be nastier”—a zinger with some work behind it, since this was before the era when online anagram finders made that sort of thing easier. (“Beastliest loner” would also have been acceptable.)

True enough, Henry Bean‘s review of the novel is one of the few that delivered praise: “What’s rarely said in all the furor over this novel is that it’s a satire, a hilarious, repulsive, boring, seductive, deadpan satire of what we now call—as if it were something in the past—the Age of Reagan,” he writes. Even there, though, the praise is hyperactive, as if he’s so caught up in the book’s provocations that he feels compelled to provoke too. (“One can imagine [the National Organization for Women] demanding such books instead of boycotting them,” he writes. Really?)

Guardian book club blogger Sam Jordinson mentions it only glancingly, but the Guardian praised the book too, in a strange way. Fay Weldon‘s “An honest American psycho” is emblematic of how writers tied themselves in knots thinking about the book—the difference here being that Weldon comes out in favor of the novel, or at least in favor of the anti-censorship forces around it. The book is “brilliant,” she writes, for the reason people found it outrageous: It’s a horror novel without the comforting moral resolutions of most horror novels. She writes:

It’s because there’s always been someone in the other books to play lip service to respectability: to the myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect. The serial killer gets discovered, punished, stopped. There are people around to throw up their hands in horror, who can still distinguish between what is psychotic and what is not. Justice is done. There is remorse. Just not in American Psycho. And we hate him for saying it. In American Psycho not so. Nobody cares. Slaughtered bodies lie undiscovered. The city has fallen apart. Nobody takes much notice. The police have other things to do. Those who are killed don’t rate – they are the powerless, the poor, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sellers of flesh for money: their own and other people’s. The tides of the city wash over them, erase their traces.

How much of this is genuine praise and how much of it is a satire of its own sort, sending up the hypocrisy of the era? Is it really a “myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect?” What’s with the schoolmarmish tone? (“[N]ot in American Psycho…. In American Psycho not so.”) Weldon’s chief pleasure seems to be more in tweaking the noses of the hypocritical bluehairs who would abolish the book than in defending the book itself. It’s a self-insulating argument, as if to say, “You think American Psycho is bad, buddy? Lemme show you American society!”

We can look back at all this and not take it so seriously—and taking it too seriously might’ve been the problem in the first place. As Jordinson points out, the satire that was off-putting back then has only gained potency over time:

As well as being a repulsive nightmare, Patrick Bateman is a comic creation of the highest order. His snobbery, his bad taste, his obsession with Les Mis and ability to take Huey Lewis and the News seriously, his terror when someone has a better business card than him, his constant worry that he has “to return some videos” all add up to one of the funniest comic creations since Bertie Wooster. True, he isn’t quite such pleasant company as Bertie, but what did you expect? He’s a psycho.

The book may not have improved over time, but we may finally have reached a point where it can be discussed on its own merits.

Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

Links: Passing the Torch

Joyce Carol Oates: “Virtually all of my novels depict crimes—from a perspective of the tragic rites of sacrifice, redemption, and the passing of the old order—that is, an older generation—to the new order—the younger generation. It’s somewhat unusual that a novel of mine, like Blonde, is purely tragic, without any apparent hope of redemption.”

The voices in Shalom Auslander‘s head.

Grand Street editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the literary magazine in 1985 “to follow the model that the New Yorker once provided and fell away from—to be informative and insolent”—has died at 73.

Andrew Seal is beginning a series of posts on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. Trilogy—valuable for folks like me who only got through The 42nd Parallel in high school and who have since forgotten most of it.

The opening pages of William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice might serve as the great Brooklyn novel. (via)

This year’s William Faulkner conference at the University of Mississippi will focus on his screenplays and movies adapted from his work. (Apparently not on the docket for some reason: The Reivers, a 1969 Steve McQueen vehicle that scored two Oscar nominations.)

Meanwhile, an attempt to connect Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not buying it. (via)

How Prague’s literary culture started in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rick Moody on the difficulty of putting Walt Whitman‘s words to music: “The only challenge is, it’s freaking hard to set the lines because there’s no meter…. Why couldn’t they do a Dickinson event? Those could all be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.'”

In connection with a Lush Life-themed exhibition taking place in Lower East Side galleries, Richard Price talks about the neighborhood and his perspective on the art world, putting in a plug for The Horse’s Mouth as “the Citizen Kane of artist movies.”

Was the food writing in American Psycho ahead of its time?

Colum McCann finally has time to make progress on a new novel.

The Art of Aging Gracefully

The June issue of Harper’s includes a lovely 2002 essay by the late Barry Hannah titled “Why I Write” (sub. req’d), in which he catalogues the experiences that inspired him to become a writer. The piece moves chronologically, and in writing about a breakup in his early 20s he muses on the comfort and sense of maturity that comes with being 30 years separated from that young man. Especially as a writer:

I think of those moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture when the words seem absolutely final, bodiless, disattached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity. My desire is to come even close to that team—to be that luck, to be touched by such grace. I do believe that as you write more and age, the arrogance and most of the vanity go. It is a vanity met with vast gratitude: that you were hit by something as you stood in the way of it, that anybody is listening. When you are ashamed and revising your comments to old girlfriends of thirty years ago, you might be shocked to find out you really have nothing much better now than what you said in the first place.

Bret Easton Ellis hits on a similar theme in an interview with Vice magazine about his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms—a sequel to his career-defining 1985 novel, Less Than Zero. “You can’t repeat that,” he says of that book’s success, “and there’s no sense in wringing your hands, pacing around feeling worried about it. You just have to do what you want to do.” But he seems eager to discover what he could bring to those characters with a couple decades’ of maturity of a writer, and he talks about killing off a central character as kind of symbol of his own growth, a way to escape the bad-boy reputation that’s clung to him:

What happens to the writer looking back on his work? Does he become a destroying artist at a certain point in his career? You know? I think there was another impetus behind Imperial Bedrooms and it was one that I was surprised to see emerge and that I kind of wrestled with. And that’s the idea of… I don’t know how to put this. There’s a sentimental view of Less Than Zero. It’s something that has taken shape around that book. It’s kind of “beloved.” And I think it’s also heavily misread by about half of its readers. I’ve met many people in the last three or four years since I’ve moved back to LA who tell me, “Oh man, I moved to LA after reading Less Than Zero.”… And it definitely seems to be almost like an artifact of the rah-rah 80s. It is up there with John Hughes movies and Ray-Bans and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As dark as I felt the book was when I was writing it, as serious as I was about it when I was a student working on it, it was very surprising to see it be read in a certain way and to take on this reputation. So I think there was a feeling of wanting to fuck with it a little bit when I was working on Imperial Bedrooms.

Links: New Deal

Guest editor Claire Messud dedicates the new issue of Guernica to women writers, including Holly Goddard Jones, Porochista Khakpour, and Elliott Holt. In her introductory essay, Messud writes: “Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men…. Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.”

Aleksandar Hemon (also in Guernica): “I think the short story has been revived by these so-called immigrant writers; they do not know what the common lore is so they don’t care about it.”

John Updike never reviewed T.C. Boyle‘s books, and don’t think Boyle didn’t notice. But that that doesn’t mean Updike did him no favors.

This Side of Paradise will be a musical.

So will American Psycho.

Daniel Green has assembled an impressive list of major author interviews (i.e., non newspaper-phoners) that are available online. HTMLGiant wants suggestions for worthy additions to it. (I have one!)

Myla Goldberg: “Writing—it’s sort of the opposite of blogging and tweeting because I’m trying to conceal. I don’t want you to see me.”

In Reagan’s Debt

Writing in the Rumpus, Rick Moody takes an absurd approach toward answering a question long loved by music geeks: What’s the most awful pop song you can think of? Moody’s nominee is Steve Winwood‘s “Higher Love,”* and his essay ultimately becomes a heartfelt reminiscence of his sister, who died in 1995, and their shared passion for music. Before he gets there, though, there’s lots of willfully silly top-of-head riffing about Winwood and music, and one of the ideas that gurgles up is this:

And since I believe that the politics of an age affect the artistic productions of the age, I suppose I really do think that Ronald Reagan somehow forced Steve Winwood to make “Higher Love,” even though Winwood is a British subject (from Birmingham, I believe), and could theoretically make any recording he wanted to. On first blush, the theology of “Higher Love” is morning-in-America theology, theology of the kind that leads people to believe that Jesus wants them to make lots of money. Or that Jesus will somehow protect them from death, disease, poverty, bad luck, traffic accidents, and so on.

If it’s silly to apply all this to Steve Winwood, is it silly to apply it to books? It certainly seems like a no-brainer to say that politics has a strong influence on art—back in 2007 it was hard not to notice that a few literary novelists seemed to be commenting on American interventionism by writing stories about oppressive regimes and disappeared citizens. Life since 9/11 has made it easy to leverage politics into art; was it as easy to do it during the Reagan go-go years?

The 80s were the years of my childhood and adolescence—nerdy as I was at the time, I didn’t follow contemporary literature (or politics) very closely. But looking at the bestsellers for that decade, it’s not hard to detect some of the themes that Moody is concerned about—there’s scads of Cold War thrillers (Clancy, Ludlum, Le Carre), American verities (Jakes, L’Amour, Keillor), and high-fashion glitz and romance (Steel, Collins, Krantz). But I’m not sure what, if anything, the epic bricks by Clavell, Michener, Auel, and Uris have to say about the Reagan years. (Did we stop liking massive historical novels, or did people just stop writing them?) And the same question goes for all those Stephen King books—though The Tommyknockers is infamously a product of, and commentary on, cocaine addiction, and some smart graduate student could probably spin an argument about Reagan-era South American misadventures out of it.

It’s not as easy to tease out these influences when you look at the kind of literary fiction that was embraced by critics through the decade. Looking at the New York Times Book Review‘s selections for best books during those years—imperfect benchmarking to be sure—what sticks out is an almost deliberate avoidance of political themes and messages. There was plenty of affection for Raymond Carver (in 1988), Philip Roth (1981, 1983, and 1987), and John Updike (1981, 1982, and 1986), none of whom seemed especially interested in morning-in-America themes. (Rabbit Is Rich talks a lot about the economy, but given when it was written and the time in which it’s set it’s probably best considered the Great Carter-era Novel.) Same goes for the interior stories by Marilynne Robinson (1981), Peter Taylor (1985), Louise Erdrich (1985), William Kennedy (1983), and others. With the notable exception of Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was met with both critical and commercial acclaim, looking at the Times‘ selections you’d think American fiction writers spent the decade unaware that the country had a president, or politics, at all.

Conspicuous in their absence from either set of lists are the “brat pack” authors like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis, but those authors may wind up best reflecting the era in which they emerged—certainly Ellis’ American Psycho is a potent satire of 80s consumerism, greed, and selfishness. That book came out in 1991, so perhaps it took getting out of the 80s for those writers to effectively approach it. While they were in the midst of it, they produced threadbare works like McInerney’s Story of My Life, stories that were hollow and went down easy—the “Higher Love” of American literature.

* Moody’s wrong. “Higher Love” is just innocuous. As I suggested on Twitter, the song that ought to get this prize is Europe’s “Cherokee,” which has a number of fatal flaws: It’s reminiscent of (but not as good as) the band’s biggest hit, has a hilariously insincere “social justice” lyric, and includes a keytar solo. None of which, unfortunately, keeps the song from appearing in regular rotation on XM’s otherwise unimpeachable “Hair Nation” channel.

B.E.E. Season

I’m not sure whether to be impressed or puzzled that Scott Timberg‘s lengthy attempt to reshape the debate about Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t mention that Ellis is working on a new novel. (At least, that’s what he told me.) Perhaps the L.A. Times was trying to avoid the icky, promotional-profile feel that would come along with doing a serious profile about an author’s reputation while adding the journalistic equivalent of a pop-up ad. (“Will his next novel change everything? Time will tell….”)

Update 3/23: Did I miss something? A new version of the article, which according to Google News was posted just a few hours ago, includes this sentence: “As he leaned into the argument [about Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom]– the album, which he called “sonically, an absolute ’80s masterpiece,” will lend its name to a new sequel to “Less Than Zero” — it was easy to see that he’s more engaged with things than he lets on.” I read the story twice the morning I saw it, with particular attention to the bit about Imperial Bedroom, since I figured that would’ve been the obvious place to mention the sequel. I’m not trying to foment some bloggy crisis, just worrying if my eyes are OK….