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.

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

Another Green World

People who dismiss fiction because they don’t know “what it’s good for” or argue that “it doesn’t accomplish anything” (I know a few such folks) might want to take a look at Robert Macfarlane‘s essay in the Guardian on Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Macfarlane points out that the book, which follows a tribe of activists taking their revenge on those who’ve abused the land in the southwest desert, not only influenced a generation of environmental activists (Earth First! in particular), but was intended to do so:

Every now and then, the imaginary forms of literature feed back into the lived world with startling consequence. They assume real-world agency in ways that exceed the cliché of “life imitating art”. Abbey’s novel triggered one of these unusual feedback events. “This book, though fictional in form,” he wrote in an enigmatic epigraph, “is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all began just one year from today.”

From there, Macfarlane largely muses on why Britain doesn’t have an environmental literature to call its own, but also suggests that the theme has endured in American literature. If it has, I’m not sure Macfarlane’s examples prove his point; the only example he provides from the last two decades is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which he writes has a “vast and as yet unmapped influence.” (How do you know it’s vast if it’s unmapped?) I think of The Road more as an apocalyptic novel than an environmental novel; the two overlap, but the former has been around since the Cold War (or the Bible, if you feel like being cute about it), while books like Abbey’s were very 70s products.

To the extent I can think of examples, novels about the environment and environmentalists aren’t the deliberate calls to arms that The Monkey Wrench Gang was. Back-to-the-landers certainly don’t come off as especially admirable in T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and the slow environmental wreckage noted in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker registers as an inevitability, not something to be agitated against. It may be more that Abbey’s book was more of its particular moment than of any long-running American tradition that continues today. And the book’s brand of environmentalism has been corrupted in the years since, novelist Joy Williams suggests in her 2001 essay collection, Ill Nature:

Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the reason writers—real writers, one assumes—don’t write about Nature is that it lacks a sense of humor and registers no irony. It just doesn’t seem to be of the times—these slick, sleek, knowing, objective, indulgent times. And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It’s a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness generally felt toward Nature. It’s their word now. You don’t mind giving it up.

Links: Gathering Dust

Ann Patchett figures nobody’s read her 1994 novel, Taft.

Cormac McCarthy has won the PEN/Saul Bellow award for lifetime achievement, which should make Michael J. Fox happy.


John Jeter
, author of The Plunder Room, explains why breaking into publishing is a little like his day job of running a music club.

Don’t start an interview with Tobias Wolff by asking about writing process.

Identity Theory’s James Warner avoids a similar kerfuffle in his interview with Yiyun Li, by simply asking what questions she prefers to avoid. This, for once, elicits an interesting reply:

I don’t particularly like to be asked about my views of political situations, both current and historical. As a fiction writer, I believe that what needs to be said about any political situation can not be separated from my fiction, and I feel that I have said enough in my work.

(Though if you write a novel set during late stages of the Cultural Revolution—and The Vagrants is a great book—it’s hard to be surprised that somebody might ask for your thoughts on China today.)

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote down some impressions on the critics who contributed to an issue of TriQuarterly commemorating his 70th birthday—with high praise for scholar Alfred Appel Jr., who died last Sunday. (via Sam Jones)

Independent bookstores around the country are being decimated. Except the ones in Martha’s Vineyard.

Screwing the System With Tao Lin and Binky Urban

In preparation for a panel on fiction writing/blogging/the death of the publishing industry/the death of newspaper book reviews that I’m participating in this Saturday, I’m trying to gather as many different perspectives on the current state of the publishing industry as I can. It’s not my bailiwick, but Twitter has been great at pointing me in a few interesting directions (@sarahw, @RonHogan, and @R_Nash being just three of many especially helpful people there worth following). Everybody agrees that the current situation is destructive, but it’s interesting to see the optimism of younger writers with little to lose set against the handwringing of the old guard that’s losing plenty.

In an interview with the Urban Elitist, Tao Lin discusses how he’s successfully financed his forthcoming novel by selling six $2,000 shares in it. Lin is somewhat infamous for his hustling for attention; I haven’t read a word of his fiction, so I have no clue if it’s worth that kind of investment. But going the Tao Lin route, however attention grabbing, still means lots of mac and cheese, at least for a while:

I have had part-time jobs almost continuously since college (I am 25), I think, except for maybe one year when I shoplifted batteries and Moleskine journals to sell on eBay. I stopped working at my last part-time job last August when I sold 60% of the royalties to my next novel, RICHARD YATES (Melville House, 2010), for $12,000. Since then my money (other than the $12,000) has come from selling pre-orders and lifetime subscriptions to books that a press I started called Muumuu House is publishing; Christmas and Chinese New Year’s money from my parents and brother; and selling drawings, drafts of things, and various “piles of shit” from my room on eBay.

Still, he’s hopeful: “I feel that within 2-4 years I will have steady cash flow from royalties from my books, foreign sales of my books, foreign royalties from my books, and other writing-related things,” he writes. Keeping authors going until steady cash flow arrives is also much on the mind of agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who works with a host of A-list fiction writers. In an interview with Haaretz, Urban—who was in Israel as one of her clients, Haruki Murakami, picked up the Jerusalem Prize—argues that agents like herself, along with major houses, played critical roles in bringing Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford to wider audiences. Her biggest fear in the midst of the reshaping of the publishing industry is that younger fiction writers no longer get the time to find a foothold:

“So fewer books will be published, and those whom we call midlist writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem…. The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership. That’s what I stay awake at night and worry about.”

It’s a legitimate concern, especially if a writer doesn’t have the temperament to perform all the duties that a publishing house traditionally has—it’s certainly hard to see the reclusive Cormac McCarthy starting out by going the Tao Lin route. The risk, perhaps, is that the fiction writers who survive this transformation are the ones who do the best job at self-promotion. Even McCarthy now has to give in a little, as he did by appearing on Oprah. Urban explains:

“I told him that before he says no, an Oprah Book Club pick means sales of between 750,000 and 1.2 million copies.” There was a long pause, and McCarthy replied that he knows he owes a lot of people, and maybe he should consider it. She asked him whom he owed, and he replied that he owed her and his publisher (Knopf). “I said, well don’t do that for us, and he said no, I think I should.”

The Killer Inside We

In Esquire, Stephen Marche neatly connects our current obsession with violence to the bloodiness of Cormac McCarthy‘s novels. Marche’s evidence mainly sticks to Grand Theft Auto and mixed martial arts, but no matter, it’s still a good excuse to get a good quote in:

I hear my mother asking, “Why must our paradises be so violent?” Cormac McCarthy has an answer. From “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy’s masterpiece: “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. . . . That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” We can choose to sublimate violence through sports or confront it through fiction or turn it into comedy through video games. Violence remains. Always.

Taking a tone that’s a little less up-in-arms, my Washington City Paper colleague Brent Burton wrote a fine piece a while back about metal musicians’ embrace of McCarthy’s corpus:

When asked why McCarthy makes such a strong impression on headbangers—especially those who eschew vocals—Dahlquist suggests that imagery might be just as important as structure. “If I get something in my head,” he says, “maybe someone else will, as well.” Dylan Carlson, the man behind drone-metal act Earth, a band that once featured Kurt Cobain, would no doubt agree. Sidelined for years by drugs—O’Malley claims Carlson “cheated death,” just like a character in a McCarthy novel—Carlson reemerged in late 2005 with the all-instrumental Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, an album based on—you guessed it—Blood Meridian. “[T]his book was the strongest invocation of the real American West I had ever encountered outside of a straight historical text,” Carlson said in an interview with British webzine Metal Chaos.

Roundup: Bait and Switch

(If you’re arriving here from the Readerville Journal, welcome. If you’re not arriving here from the Readerville Journal: The folks at that venerable site have been nice enough to dub this site its Blog of the Week.)

Frank Wilson‘s Books, Inq. points to a review of Lionel Shriver‘s The Post-Birthday World, an exemplar of very divisive novels. (Wilson’s taken this up before regarding Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road.) It was one of my favorite novels of last year; my review for Kirkus is floating somewhere on the Barnes & Noble review page.

Coudal Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, has put out its latest edition of Field-Tested Books, in which various writers contribute short essays about their experiences reading outside of the usual contexts of libraries, living rooms, and public transit. Bless Joe Meno‘s essay on Winesburg, Ohio, which I blogged about at Allvoices.

Mark Twain‘s home in Hartford, Conn., is in deep trouble; a visitors’ center wound up costing double what was anticipated and energy costs are way up. I’d suggest putting on a short play and charging customers a ton for it, but maybe that’s a little too glib. Seriously: Donate here.

Superman is 70.

Guy Sorman, writing in City Journal, enthuses about the Amazon Kindle. Walking in Central Park one day, he convinced his wife that she needed to read Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd, right now, and uploaded it to his Kindle: “I typed “Billy Budd” on the keyboard. It took five seconds to complete the wireless download and cost me approximately $6, debited from my Amazon account.” Had Sorman talked to me, I could’ve saved him six bucks, but I will concede that the Kindle is preferable if you’re insisting your spouse read something outside at that very moment.

I knew that Gore Vidal was bitter at how he’s been treated by the New York Times over the years, but yeesh:

What do you think is your own best novel? I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.

Well, it was a great pleasure talking to you. I doubt that.