Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Dale Peck Regrets

A few weeks back I attended an event in New York called “Revise and Recant,” where a few critics confessed to writing reviews that were too harsh, kind, misconceived, and so forth. The most interesting speaker was Dale Peck, who hadn’t arrived to retract one of his infamous self-declared “hatchet jobs,” but to voice regret that his praise for Thomas Pynchon‘s 2006 novel, Against the Day, never wound up in print. He’d been assigned to review the book for the Atlantic, but by the time he’d filed the review the book had been out for something like a year, and the magazine understandably passed.

So instead Peck published the review on his website, though at the time of the New York event the site appeared to be stricken with some sort of malware that cautioned visitors to avoid it at all costs. Those troubles appear to be cleared up now, so “Heresy of Truth” can now be experienced without fear. The piece opens by delivering some decidedly Peckian spankings to what he calls Pynchon’s “early fiction” (“by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon“), but he ultimately cheers Against the Day, in part because it rejects the need to make a grand statement about the world and instead just revels in it:

Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying.

Peck’s praise isn’t quite strong enough to convince me to tackle the 1,000-plus-page beast—his shots at the book’s critics toward the end of the essay make me wonder how much more he enjoyed the book than he enjoyed dismissing the people who didn’t like it much. But the piece does show a charitable, enthusiastic side to Peck that belies his reputation.

What the Heck Is Dale Peck Thinking?

Last week the Washington Post ran a review by Elizabeth Hand that all but vaporized Dale Peck‘s new novel, Body Surfing. Peck, the author of literary fiction and well-known takedowns in the New Republic has recently undertaken an odd career shift, moving into thrillers and children’s books (plus a highly remunerative deal to collaborate with Heroes creator Tim Kring). So, closing her review of Body Surfing, Hand had to ask: “Given his past as a respected writer of literary fiction, and a possible future in the land of commercial blockbusters, whatever possessed Dale Peck to write this book?”

The day before the review ran, the Southeast Review had the answer, and a few more besides. In a wide-ranging Q&A, Peck says part of the impetus for Body Surfing was an interest in accessing his inner Stephen King:

The initial idea, I have to say, was just one of those inspirational flashes: “What if there was a world in which…?” But in developing it, I did think a lot about early Stephen King novels, of which I was (and am) a huge fan. I’m not the first person to notice that one of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his insistence on locating horror within the domestic context, and in Body Surfing I wanted to make sure that readers experience Jasper as a real teenager before he became a demon—that the loss of our everyday existence is every bit as big of a loss as the destruction of the world or the universe or life as we know it, which seems to be the stake in so many thrillers these days.

And, Peck might argue, Hand’s negative review of Body Surfing is all he can expect these days. In the interview, he says that his takedowns (especially the infamous Rick Moody one) have mainly hurt his reputation as a writer, and made it harder for his books to find a home. He figures that any and all potential reviewers would have their knives out, and that left publishers wary:

[E]ditors would—cynically or wisely, depending on your point of view—reject my work, often without reading it, simply because they felt that external factors would make it impossible for it to succeed in the marketplace. At the same time, when I submitted my children’s book anonymously, nearly every publisher in town bid on it, so I knew the problem wasn’t my writing, but how people thought about my writing—or, even more ridiculously, how people thought other people thought about my writing. It’s all pretty tedious, and still dogs me to this day.

Netherland Discussion at TPM

Talking Points Memo has chosen Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland as the first novel featured in its book club. Great idea: I finished the book a couple of weeks back, and I was deeply impressed with how steadily the book balances a clear-eyed picture of New York’s crudeness and chaos alongside such elegant writing. Mobsters and cricket; seedy hotels and top-tier brokers—O’Neill’s city is full of contrasts, but he never presents it as an easy tale-of-two-cities squabble. O’Neill pulls that off partly by refusing to invent cookie-cutter portraits of immigrants and ethnic enclaves—you’ll run into a lot of novels these days (especially New York-set novels), that revel in using such people as comic relief or as cheap reiterations of the Magical Black Man. O’Neill’s characters, by contrast, are ambitious, emotional, self-contradictory, given to statements of ethnic pride, but never strictly for the sake of character detailing.

At any rate, the matter of American-ness in an increasingly global world is very much on O’Neill’s mind in his opening post, in which he questions what globalization might spell for the American novel:

[T]hese days you don’t have to station yourself in America, or even take a particular interest in the American consumer, in order to prosper on an ‘American’ scale. As a result, the traditional preoccupation of American novelists–in essence, to do some kind of justice to the American dream narrative, with all of its assumptions and concerns–threatens to become as anachronistic as Chuck’s plan to Americanize cricket. To what extent, then, is the American narrative viewpoint, globally dominant since World War II, now losing its preeminence?

Given the lively (if often gassy) responses in the comments, it’s a subject folks want to engage in. Joining in on the discussion for the remainder of the week will be Dale Peck, Kurt Andersen, Mia Carter, and Will Buckley. Should be fun. (via)