Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.

Radio Day

At a little after 10 a.m. EST today, I’ll be a guest on the Minnesota Public Radio program Midmorning, talking about the pleasures of rereading. As I’ve mentioned last week, rereading is something I don’t do as much as I’d like, though I swear my call for comments last week wasn’t an attempt to crowdsource my on-air patter. I imagine I may have a thing or two to say about Studs Terkel, Roger Ebert, Ward Just, and Nelson Algren, which may only mean I reread whenever I miss Chicago. Happily, I’ll be backstopped again by Janice Harayda, the segment’s other guest, creator of One-Minute Book Reviews. The MPR site appears to have a live stream, so please tune in if you’re able.

Update: The segment is now available for listening online.

Radio Day

It’s a busy morning, so just a quick note that today I’ll be on Minnesota Public Radio’s show “Midmorning,” discussing books with Janice Harayda, proprietor of the fine blog One-Minute Book Reviews. The theme is “literary escapes,” and to my great relief I’ve been told that the conversation needn’t stick to escapist fiction. Still, I’ll try to avoid talking about Every Man Dies Alone or something. It’s a call-in show, so you can make your own recommendations on-air, and it’ll be available online later, so you can be among the many people who tell me I talk too fast. I’ll try to update this post later with a list of books that were discussed and recommended.

Responding to Reviewers

Conventional wisdom has long dictated that writers aren’t supposed to respond to reviewers—except, perhaps, in cases where egregious errors of fact are involved. But Jack Pendarvis addresses a middling review of his debut novel, Awesome, in the New York Times Book Review sensibly. Which is to say he notes the complaints and preserves his sense of humor. Perhaps only satirists should get to do this:

Then the reviewer ends the paragraph like this, as if she were put up to a dare of some sort: “Fee fie foe fun!” (Exclamation point hers.) I will go out on a limb and say that “‘Fee fie foe fun!’ – The New York Times” is going to be plastered all over the cover of the paperback. So be it! The reviewer is less entranced by my “***** jokes” (WARNING: the “link” is full of racy quotations), of which she gives several examples, some of which, truth be told, appear kind of shameful when they’re laid out there cold on the slab like that. As a counterweight, I’d like to “link” here to some kind words from a feminist (she starts out suspicious but I win her over by the last paragraph) who mentioned some of the same ***** jokes and seemed to appreciate what I was “going for” in context. Why do I feel the need for a “counterweight”? It’s untoward! Nobody likes a whiny writer! No book review is ever good enough for a precious, precious writer like myself! The New York Times reviewer did a fine job!

Related to reviewers and reviewing: I have a post up on the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, about writing about books for alternative weeklies. The timing is a bit awkward: I wrote the piece a couple of weeks back, and if I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would have changed a few things. But I do think that the basic point of making oneself flexible as a writer—yes, fine, “media producer”—still stands. If anything, that point is more critical than ever.

Posting Will Be Light…

as I head out of town for a couple of days. In the meantime, I’m not so humble that I won’t recommend “A Pelecanos Dictionary,” my attempt to discuss George Pelecanos‘ new novel, The Turnaround, in terms of some of his most persistent themes, tics, settings, and so forth:

Pelecanos has spent more than 15 years writing 15 novels that, taken together, make for a panoramic story about Washington, D.C. That’s a lot of waterfronts, a lot of neglected corners, and—to pick just one of the writer’s hobby horses—a whole lot of references to Stax/Volt singles. But there’s an irony buried in this career path: As his study of the city has deepened, his writing has become more and more simplified. Read his books in chronological order—starting with 1992’s A Firing Offense up to the brand-new The Turnaround—and the change in Pelecanos’ writing mirrors the change in a typical Pelecanos character. There’s a youthful recklessness, then a growing wisdom about the world’s complexities, then a kind of essentialized understanding of it. As his characters have gone through a debullshitification process, so has he.

Back to the usual schedule on Monday.

Best Westerns

The Charlotte Observer ponders the legacy of William Saroyan, who was born 100 years ago in Fresno, California. Donald Munro writes: “Who can say why Saroyan doesn’t have the name recognition today of, say, his contemporary John Steinbeck?”

Funny you should ask! In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley joins Robert Gottlieb as a member of the Salinas Handwringers Society—a small but apparently growing group of critics who take whacks at Steinbeck’s works yet still find themselves enchanted by them. “Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan…is almost completely forgotten?” Yardley asks, then proposes an answer:

The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Yardley isn’t being cute or glib here—his assessment is couched in a wise reading of Cannery Row, and the whole essay is worth your time.

Staying in the West a little longer: I’m a little out of practice in long-form reviewing, but I wanted a little more room than usual to discuss Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder and Willy Vlautin‘s Northline. My review of both novels is in this week’s City Paper.

Roundup: Call Your Mother

The best line in the New York Times‘ piece on the Philip Roth 75th birthday celebration comes at the very end: “He has delusions of grandeur,” said Roth’s weeping mother when the writer explained that Portnoy’s Complaint was going to attract a lot of attention.

Alice McDermott
: “When I go to colleges, I always look at their reading lists,” she told the South Bend Tribune, “and I still see they are very short on women writers. At least now you get an apology. Before, there wasn’t even an awareness of it.” She speaks Tuesday and Wednesday at “A Festival of Our Own: Women Writers at Notre Dame,” at Notre Dame University.

Your moment of zen: The latest VOA Special English author feature is on Langston Hughes.

And a quick DoSP note: I have a review of Scott Simon‘s Windy City in Washington City Paper, and a review of Brian HayesGroup Theory in the Bedroom in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Posting Will Be Light…

…to nonexistent for the next few days. Today I’m flying up to New York, where I plan to spend the remainder of the week sightseeing, catching up with colleagues, and taking in some of the various National Book Critics Circle awards week events. I suspect that a few of you who are here at this blog will likely be there at those festivities; if you’d like to say hi, drop me a line.

Roundup: You May Have the Falcon…

Stephanie Salter tries to get her head around Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon. My old place in San Francisco was just a couple of blocks from the apartment where Hammett wrote that novel; back in 2001 I wrote a story about the guy who lived (lives?) there.

Nicholson Baker writing “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing” is like Rick James saying “Cocaine is a hell of a drug”–the dude’s found the thing that’s going to reshape his life for years, for better or for worse. As he points out: “All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you’re trying to sleep.”

A couple of DoSP notes. I have a brief review of Adrian Tomine‘s Shortcomings in Washington City Paper; Tomine is at Politics and Prose on Wednesday. My review of Richard Price‘s excellent new novel, Lush Life, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. At the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, I’ve been gathering up various materials related to Price’s Clockers; an extended version of the interview with Price that first appeared on City Paper’s Web site is running in three parts. Parts of that interview dedicated specifically to Lush Life are now up at the Chicago Sun-Times Web site. Many thanks to NBCC president John Freeman for proposing the idea, and to Price for giving up so much of his time to weather a fusillade of questions about something he did three books ago.

Sunday Miscellany

Richard Krawiec responds to the foofaraw regarding Gordon Lish‘s editing of Raymond Carver, making the case for a strong-willed editor.

Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, like every popular novel that’s about adolescents and speaks to adolescents about the things that concern adolescents, is deemed unfit for adolescents.

The Millions compiles a list of favorite short-story collections. Good stuff, but: No Faulkner? No Hammett? This guy deserves a slot on the list too.

My brief review of Samantha Hunt‘s historical novel about the last days of Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, is online at the Chicago Sun-Times site. I had high hopes for the book, but