Links: Bright-Sided

Drew Johnson‘s spirited defense of O. Henry on the hundredth anniversary of his death: “[I]t’s worth remembering that this is a register with which all writers have terrible difficulty. For all the contempt lavished on stories which crudely bring on the tears, my nagging sense is that the skills to traverse the terrain of ‘The Last Leaf’ or ‘Magi’ are widely lacking—and so we hide behind the ‘happiness shows white on the page’ excuses. It’s hard to think of happy stories.”

Falling hard for the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces.

E.L. Doctorow on how Ragtime might resemble a rag: “In the way it plays off personal lives against historical forces, you could make the claim, I suppose, that the historical forces are the basic stride or the inevitable irrepressible beat, and the attempt to escape history is the syncopated right hand.”

Peter Matthiessen recalls visiting Prague in 1948.

What’s killing fiction? MFA programs? Publishing house editors? Anybody willing to step up and blame readers?

Benjamin Percy recalls his early admiration for Stephen King‘s The Gunslinger.

Richard Price‘s novel Lush Life has inspired a series of art exhibits on the Lower East Side.

“Grocery store owners, it seems, have more dignity, more potential for sympathy, and more substance, than politicians, at least if you’re an up and coming novelist.

Jeffrey Eugenides
isn’t very excited about the upcoming film version of his short story “Baster.”

Any appropriate name for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have a Don DeLillo-like affect.

Writing about American sports fiction, Benjamin Markovitz notes that “[John] Updike probably chose basketball for Rabbit because it’s less Waspy than tennis or golf. Even so, the class lines in American sports are not fixed. Basketball is played by inner-city blacks and rural whites. American football grew up on the playing fields of east coast prep schools, but early on it also became a way out of poverty for the working classes.” This may explain why fiction writers find sports so useful for their purposes—and why the Great American Lacrosse Novel will probably never be written.

Brady Udall
on researching his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist: “I figured I’d meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hair-dos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace.”

I’m mindful of the fact that all the writers mentioned in this links post are men. I don’t think all of them are purveyors of manfiction, though. On a related note: Are female authors in movies always broken/weepy types?

G-Rated Reviewing

Daniel Green at the Reading Experience has taken notice of my blog post on Don DeLillo‘s new novel, Point Omega—a post that was intended as a sort of supplement to the DeLillo review I wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Green is politely approving of the newspaper review, but he’s much kinder toward the blog post, concluding that “blog-published reviews and criticism in general are more satisfying in this way than what can be found in print publications, especially newspapers.”

Before going on, I want to say that I’m grateful for Green’s compliments—he doesn’t dispense them casually—and that I’d sooner shuck out my eyeballs with a rusty fork than revisit old squabbles about the virtues of bloggers versus newspaper book reviewers. But it might be useful to say a little bit about the “perceived ‘general’ audience” of a newspaper book review, and why it’s worth respecting.

As with most daily newspapers, the circulation of the Star-Tribune has been declining in recent years—the Sunday edition (where most of the book reviews run) has around half a million readers. This blog’s readership is smaller than that, to put it mildly; indeed, few Web outlets could compete with those single-day readership numbers. (The Canadian Newspaper Association launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stressed the disparity in audience size.) That doesn’t mean that litblogs are proportionally less important than newspapers—it certainly doesn’t mean they’re more poorly written—but it does mean that writing for a newspaper involves a different set of obligations toward an audience that’s still worth respecting.

For one thing, I can’t assume that the reader of a newspaper review is somebody like Daniel Green, who has a strong interest in books and the critical conversations that surround them. I can’t even responsibly assume that the reader is especially interested in books, let alone books written by Don DeLillo. The person flipping through the Sunday paper generally has little idea what he or she is interested in; it could be healthcare, or last night’s game, or Hi and Lois. The best I can hope for is a reader who’s perhaps heard of DeLillo, and who might know that he’s a much-decorated novelist concerned with contemporary American life. Assuming anything else is assuming way too much. After all, any journalist who covers healthcare reform can’t even assume that Americans know how many senators it takes to break a filibuster.

Writing in the face of such ignorance is, understandably, an unappealing prospect for a lot of people, particularly book reviewers. But ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity. If I can’t assume much baseline knowledge in a newspaper’s readership, I can at least assume a degree of interest in being told about something they haven’t heard about before. Which is why I think of compressing a statement about Point Omega into 450 words is an interesting challenge and not an exercise in futility; how can I convince somebody to find DeLillo as interesting as I do? If newspaper book reviews often fall into the category of lazy “lifestyle reporting,” as Green puts it, I can at least do my own bit to avoid the most egregious problems with daily newspaper reviews. Those are legion, but the majority could be avoided by simply policing for cliches like “stunning,” “dazzling,” and the like. And I can’t think of a circumstance where I’d write a newspaper book review in the first person. As a journalism professor once put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it,” and I think asking a reader to care about both a book they haven’t read and a person they haven’t met is outright idiocy. Some people are clever enough to pull off that trick. I don’t believe I am.

All that said, writing shorter and shorter reviews is damned frustrating. When I began reviewing regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003, my average assignment was 1,200 words. Now 500 words is a luxury. Newspaper reviewers now typically toil at what George Orwell considered pointless labor: “Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful,” he once wrote, “but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it.” I genuinely want to write it, but I’m genuinely frustrated with it, which is why I’ve started getting into the habit of writing supplementary posts to my reviews. That’s something I’ve done before with Joshua FerrisThe Unnamed and hope to do more of in the future. They’re fun to write, and they help me write down a few thoughts that I couldn’t squeeze into the review proper. But I don’t write off the value of the original review versus the blog post, even if I disregard which article got me a paycheck and which one didn’t.

DeLillo in Slow Motion

My review of Don DeLillo‘s new short novel, Point Omega, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Here’s the kicker:

Like much of DeLillo’s work, “Point Omega” is concerned with how much we’re doing to do ourselves in. But unlike the jagged existentialism of “Falling Man,” there’s an elegance to De-Lillo’s considerations here, an artfulness to the prose that softens the mood of despair without sugar-coating it. Nobody would call this bleached-out landscape a happy place to visit. But this slim, strong novel evokes the kind of patient, haiku-like quietude we ache for in the post-9/11 world.

If you’ve paid any attention to coverage of the novel, you know that many reviewers see the book as yet another well-intentioned failure by a major author whose best work is behind him. In Bookforum, an exasperated Aleksandar Hemon writes that “whenever the reader reaches some level of understanding [of the novel], and meaning appears to be within grasp, the narrative slips away to a new level of intricacy.” In the National, Giles Harvey argues that “What’s missing from DeLillo’s presentation of human beings…is emotional depth.” Plenty of people have pretty much had it with DeLillo delivering another slim novel full of ghostly characters and abstracted musings on geopolitics. “While I’ll always admire DeLillo, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading him since the rightly famous opening of 1997’s Underworld,” Benjamin Alsup writes in Esquire, summarizing the prevailing sentiment.

I’ve counted myself among that number: “Who needs Don DeLillo?” I wrote in the opening of my review of 2007’s Falling Man. But I tried to meet Point Omega on its own terms, and I think it’s rewarding for that. In fact, part of me believes that if Point Omega were the novel that DeLillo delivered immediately after Underworld, the critical response would be very different—instead of voicing frustration with his knotty abstractions, he’d be praised for expressing concerns about war, loss, and time with such concision.

Yes, Point Omega could not exist without 9/11 and the second Iraq war, but its concerns aren’t exclusively present-day. War, loss, and time are immortal themes, after all, and I’m not the first to notice that the novel’s central character, a retired war strategist named Richard Elster, echoes Robert McNamara. To that end, the passage describing Elster’s role in the war complex has a timelessness to it that could’ve appeared in a DeLillo novel from 1997 or 1987 or 1977:

News and Traffic. Sports and Weather. These were his acid terms for the life he’d left behind, more than two years of living with the tight minds that made the war…. He was there to conceptualize, his word, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counterinsurgency. He was cleared to read classified cables and restricted transcripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

The third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon. Bulk and swagger, he said.

But Point Omega doesn’t succeed simply because DeLillo still has a command of the kind of language of authority and control that surrounded the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise; DeLillo’s tone and pacing are similarly assured. Good novels have a way of signaling early on how they ought to be consumed, which is why the opening and closing chapters, featuring the video art piece 24 Hour Psycho, are so effective; evoking the slowed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock‘s film sets the book’s metronome, and what follows will direct the reader toward Elster’s idea of time (he can wait forever), or that of the filmmaker who’s arrived to shoot him (he’s in a hurry to make his documentary).

And in a way, the novel’s central tension isn’t between war and peace or American empire and the rapidly approaching apocalypse (though DeLillo hasn’t neglected those concerns), but between differing notions of what it means to be patient. How soon do you perceive somebody’s disappearance as a loss? How long does it take to come around to somebody else’s way of thinking? How much time is required to shift from being concerned about humanity to being concerned about a single human being? DeLillo shows how those questions rattle the impatient filmmaker in simple, rhythmic language:

I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, the indifference of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.

“Conceptualize” is a useless term for Elster, and it is for DeLillo as well. That’s an unusual thing to say about a novelist whose chief skill is an ability to look at the big picture, but he’s found a way to gracefully study individual emotion without letting larger themes make too much noise. Point Omega is the first time when his exchanging big ambitions to study interior lives seems like a fair trade. If we still prefer bulk and swagger, that’s our problem, not his.

The 9/11 Novel Now

The Panorama Book Review, part of Dave Eggers‘ effort to show what can be improved in the newspaper in general and the book review in particular*, includes an essay by Juliet Litman considering the evolution of the 9/11 novel. To perhaps overly reduce her thesis, novels like Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man used the image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers to evoke the pain of the day’s events—they are “artifacts of the aftershock.” By contrast, novels like Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 wirewalk between the tops of the Twin Towers as a thematic device, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland, suggest how much we’ve healed in the past few years. Litman writes:

Like Falling Man, [Let the Great World Spin] forces its readers to relive and rewatch the fall over and over again—but here, the man does not fall. With each vignette, we meet someone who is somehow wounded, a character who is destined for or has already experienced an untimely descent, and we feel their disquiet as they ponder the tightrope walker. Their falls have occurred all over New York, not necessarily at the site of the Twin Towers, and so much grief suffuses the story that reader can can hardly revel in Petit’s achievement. Thus, in one swift narrative, readers experience both the sadness of those already wounded and the safety of certain survival.

Positioning McCann’s book as a 9/11 novel requires a little fancy footwork; with the exception of the epilogue, all the action takes place well before the terrorist attacks. Of course, McCann knew what he was doing in writing a story that prominently featured the World Trade Center in this day and age—his passages on Petit’s walk focus on feelings of fear and helpless spectatorship among the folks on the ground. And Litman’s on to something: If the novel says something about the post-9/11 mood, it may be more about an eagerness to get past it—McCann overstuffs the narrative with character after character as if to reclaim New York as a place full of life. Netherland has a similar strategy—to focus on the living instead of the dead, and even to avoid the trauma of the day head-on. (For all its cricket chatter, the book could be considered a sports novel as easily as a 9/11 one.)

“The synecdochic falling man—the symbol for the larger, brutal aftershocks of the attacks—has given way to McCann’s metonymic, never-falling tightrope walker and to the open-to-everything eye of O’Neill,” Litman writes. In some ways that marks a reversal of critical expectations from the 9/11 novel—not so long ago Keith Gessen told NPR that he thought it would be 50 years before 9/11 was the subject of a great novel. Great or not, it may be that the project of writing novels about that day is wrapping up—moving from shock to healing in less than a decade.

* In that regard, it’s hit-and-miss. I like the idea of including original fiction in a book review, and George Saunders‘ “Fox 8” is clever. The reviews themselves introduce two good ideas: a replication of the first page of the book under consideration, which gives you a sense of the writing as well as the look of the words of the page (that’s not entirely unimportant), and a sidebar listing data about the book’s author, which keeps the boilerplate biographical stuff from clotting the review proper. A feature on male cover models for romance novels seems in concept a nice way to integrate reported stories (haven’t read it); charticles on bookstore economics and commonly mispronounced author names have good information and can be processed quickly. But if the book review of the future has to include things like James Franco and Miranda July talking at each other about the pleasures and frustrations of being actors and writers at the same time, count me out. I happily let my subscription to Interview lapse a while back; at $18 for 12 issues, it counted among the dumbest things I’ve spent money on.

DeLillo in Winter

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Rayner uses a new edition of Don DeLillo‘s White Noise as an opportunity to remind us of the author’s charms:

“White Noise” posits a world, very much our world, in which TV images and a sense of déjà vu replace real events even as they’re happening. “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters,” Gladney says, a haunting and lovely phrase that, for a few seconds, reclaims his being from anxiety and media saturation.

“White Noise” is almost overstuffed with such moments, with deadpan dialogue and scintillating aphorisms. DeLillo’s biggest kick comes not from satire, or the evocation of the mystery and magic that course through our lives, but from making language pop and fizz.

Pop and fizz—remember when DeLillo made language do that? His concerns have become more interior and less world-encompassing in the three novels he’s published since 1997’s Underworld. Perhaps by necessity, his prose has become similarly less expansive. Few readers ever went to him strictly for laughs, but the satire and taste for irony that Rayner admires is all but absent now. I have a galley of DeLillo’s next novel, Point Omega, and though I have my hopes I also dread what’s coming; at less than 150 pages it looks light as a pamphlet but seems heavy as a concrete piling.

Of course, DeLillo’s reputation would be much smaller if he kept repeating the dryly arch tone of White Noise. The question is whether his increasing grimness has gotten him anywhere. In his book Out of the Blue, critic Kristiaan Versluys argued that 2007’s Falling Man evoked the way 9/11 fractured our capacity to tell stories in conventional forms—so the thinly drawn characters and the paragraphs soaked in vague foreboding are strategic responses to the death of comforting narratives, not failures on DeLillo’s part. I’m willing to revisit the book at some point to test the argument for myself, but I worry if it will just again feel, as I suspect, much like “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a DeLillo short story that ran in the New Yorker last November.

The setting is again a college, but now it’s Jack Gladney’s stomping grounds in nuclear winter: The weather is gray and windy, the two characters are grimly academic college boys, and their shared class is in logic, taught by a man prone to pronouncements like, “The only laws that matter are laws of thought. The rest is devil worship.” In a certain light, the story is a mildly comic existential tale: The two young men ponder the background of the old man who wanders the campus, filling him up with more drama than he probably deserves, confident in their imaginations but too timid to actually approach the man and figure out what his deal is.

All of which is fine as far as it goes, though DeLillo never quite nails down how callow he’d like his narrator and his friend to be. On winter break he wanders the town (even more a ghost town that it’s felt like before):

On the stunted commercial street in town, there were three places still open for business, one of them the diner, and I ate there once and stuck my head in the door two or three times, scanning the booths. The sidewalk was old, pocked bluestone. In the convenience store, I bought a fudge bar and talked to the woman behind the counter about her son’s wife’s kidney infection.

Nothing in the story suggests that he’s had much capacity, let alone interest, in such casual conversation about such a serious issue. Perhaps he and the clerk have known each other a while; perhaps she volunteered the information without his encouragement. But a more assured DeLillo would’ve clarified the matter, or dispensed with the bit entirely; in any event, that’s just a minor plot hiccup compared to the ginned-up conflict between the boys that concludes the story. By the end things have moved pretty much nowhere, from a dimly felt fear of connection to a dimly felt fear of connection. It’s fine if DeLillo chooses to abandon the tone he pioneered in White Noise. What’s disappointing is the loss of sure-footedness that’s come with it.

Q&A: Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue

Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, a professor of English at the University of Ghent, takes a close look at a handful of 9/11-themed works of fiction in his new book, Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it prompted me to rethink my reactions to the novels he discusses—I may never be a great admirer of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, but the book reveals how carefully DeLillo worked to mimic the ways that traumatic events unsettle our ability to tell stories. Dr. Versluys does much the same for the other books he covers in-depth, including Art Spiegelman‘s graphic memoir In the Shadow of No Towers, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Frédéric Beigbeder‘s Windows on the World. Out of the Blue is an academic book, but it’s low on jargon, and provides some useful context for the debates about 9/11 fiction that are bound to emerge in the future.

Dr. Versluys answered questions about Out of the Blue via e-mail.

Much of Out of the Blue discusses 9/11 fiction in relation to trauma studies. Did you have an interest in the relationship between trauma and literature before writing the essays in this book? What led you to look at trauma as one of the main prisms you use to study this literature—as opposed to, say, through the prism of politics?

When I spent a sabbatical year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in 2004-5, the idea was to write a book on recent New York fiction. I have taught many courses on that topic both at Ghent University, my home university in Belgium, and as a guest professor in the Columbia summer school program. The way I had planned it, the last chapter would be devoted to 9/11 fiction. For reasons too intricate to explain I started with the last chapter, only to realize that in the short time since the terrorist attacks had taken place, a body of work had come out that was substantial enough to be the subject of a separate book.

The first text I studied in depth was Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Spiegelman looks upon the events of September 11 through the conceptual screen of the Holocaust. That led me to take a closer look at trauma studies in general and Holocaust-studies in particular. I have always treated post-structuralist approaches to literature with a great deal of skepticism. But especially the writings of Dominick LaCapra (rather than the canonical Cathy Caruth) made me aware of the fact that in trauma studies post-structuralism – so often abstract and theoretical in its orientation – touches ground and provides a tool to talk with respect and deference about things that remain essentially unsayable. Nonetheless, I feel that, at bottom, I remain an old-fashioned humanist. I prefer to read novels in the grain, rather than against the grain. And while I am indebted to post-structuralism for its attention to language and though I take into account that language introduces fissures and ruptures, I also perceive it to be an instrument of healing and restoration.

You write that the 9/11-themed works you discuss “testify to the shattering of certainties and the laborious recovery of balance.” I imagine that novelists writing on subjects such as war, or totalitarianism, or even domestic abuse, might feel they’re doing the same kind of testifying. What, if anything, distinguishes 9/11 novels from fiction about those other kinds of traumatic experiences?

As a traumatic event, September 11 is comparable to other traumatic events. Paradoxically, though, one of the characteristics it shares with similar events, is that it is singular and irreducible. In the first place this is the case, of course, for the victims, their families and friends. No analogy is capable of capturing what it means to be trapped in a burning tower or to lose one’s parent, spouse or close friend.

In addition, 9/11 is arguably the first instance of what one could call global trauma. It was witnessed not only by the people in the direct vicinity of the WTC-towers on that bright Tuesday morning. It was also witnessed by millions and presumably hundreds of millions on TV, either live or in the many repetitions of the iconic images that everybody remembers. It is possible that in order to talk about this new kind of trauma, we will need a new vocabulary, a new or at least a modified conceptual framework. We know a lot already about indirect witnessing and secondary trauma, esp. with regard to second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. We also know that a whole culture can undergo a sense of shock so severe that its collective assumptions are profoundly disrupted and that a catastophe can “create ‘problems of identity’ for individuals and communities well beyond its circumference of material destruction” (Gray and Oliver). So there is a lot of theory to go on already. Yet it seems to me we are dealing here with something that is different from what preceded. Notions such as those of authenticy or inauthenticity, the traumatic sublime, postmemory, trauma transference, empty empathy etc. – all notions that are current in trauma theory – may have to be adapted or revised to fit the new category of global trauma. Televised indirect experience raises new questions as to what is genuine and what is hype and it establishes new conditions for making memorializing into an act of approximation and not an act of appropriation.

You note that there are about 30 literary novels available currently about 9/11. Were there other 9/11 books that you considered writing about at length? I suspect you’ve already heard from people wondering why the book doesn’t mention, say, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

In order to keep the study manageable, 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, 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. To study that phenomenon requires another book.

Your chapter on Falling Man ends with a provocative statement: Because the novel “allows for no proper mourning or working through,” you write, there’s a danger that “it can serve as a prelude to, or be used as an excuse for, wholesale, reactionary and even totalitarian movements of redress and moral restoration.” Can you elaborate on how these movements might manifest themselves?

I borrow this idea from Dominick LaCapra. The point he makes is that a condition of collective grief that is considered irredeemable might be the breeding ground for a revanchist logic. If the nation does not learn to deal with loss, it might be tempted to restore normalcy “through the elimination or victimization of those to whom blame is imputed” (LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 65). This line of reasoning is related to the distinction between true and false witnessing, made by the psycho-analysist R.J. Lifton. False witnessing, according to Lifton, occurs when death anxiety is converted directly into killing. The example he cites is the massacre at My Lai. But it could easily be applied to the way the Bush administration reacted to September 11 and in fact to the ultra-conservative backlash that lasted till the election of President Obama. The novels I discuss argue for an ethics of responsibility, in which the complexity of the situation is fully presented and the simple binary logic of “us versus them” – so cleverly exploited by the Bush administration – is avoided.

Critics have been largely (though not uniformly) unkind to the books you discuss, and you elaborate on some of the reasons why. Writing about Falling Man, you note that “the characters are so thin that their whole existence boils down to mere nomenclature” and that “no narrative momentum is allowed to develop.” You note the “flatness” of Grandpa’s character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the “soppy happy ending” of Terrorist. But you also point out many rewarding characteristics of these novels that you believe critics missed. Do you feel the negative critical reaction to these books is related more to their unconventional structures and approaches, or more to the way they are, as you write, “subversive of nationalistic imperatives”?

Let’s be clear about one point: the great September 11 novel has not been written yet and maybe it never will. To a point, the negative critical reactions are justified and understandable. No writer has yet been able to capture the magnitude of the event or the shock it produced. The unsayable remains unsaid. The negative critical reactions might, therefore, be understood as the result of disappointment. Here is an event that cries out for a definitive reading and it is not forthcoming. Nonetheless, there is much more to these books than some reviewers have spotted. My study is a tribute to the few writers who have been courageous enough to tackle an impossible topic. Even though they succeeded only partially, there is much insight to be gained from their efforts.

You note that nearly all the books under discussion have been written by white American men, and write that it’s an open question whether future 9/11 fiction will be “marked by more gender and ethic diversity or acquire a more outspoken international dimension.” What do think has made 9/11 the province of such a singular kind of writer thus far?

The answer to this question can only be pure guess work. Minority writers might have no need to deal with 9/11, as long as they are dealing with the traumas in their collective pasts. As to women, Anita Shreve and Claire Messud have been prominent in recording the dispersion of 9/11 in the culture at large as a spectral presence, a vestige, palpable but invisible.

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.