Loved and Outgrew, Hated and Admired Later

Helen DeWitt, at a reporter’s prompting, lists some of the books she most likes to return to:

Rereading is important for writers because people in the publishing industry constantly give advice couched in terms of helping the reader.   If you are not only a reader, or even a rereader, but a rerererererererererereader, you know this is complete bollocks. “The” reader does not exist.  The 9-year-old who read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 50 times in a year is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who has read Invisible Cities more times than she can count (if certainly not 50).  The 16-year-old who read Pride and Prejudice as historical romance (I know Austen was forbidden, but really) is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who reads it for its social analysis, its savagery.  (The 16-year-old would have had no interest in Goffman or Bourdieu; the 54-year-old sees Austen as their intellectual cousin.)  As a rereader you can’t be an amnesiac: you KNOW there were books you loved and outgrew, books you hated first time, admired 20 years later.


I don’t get to return to books as much as I’d like, but one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I had last year was revisiting Edward P. Jones’ two short story collections, this time reading them in parallel since the stories “talk” to each other. (That is, the first story in Lost in the City shares characters with the first story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and so forth.) I recall enjoying Wendy Lesser‘s book on the subject, Nothing Remains the Same, though it’s been a decade since I’ve read it and I owe it another visit.

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham‘s] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

A Sense of Where You Are

“For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels,” writes D.G. Myers, lamenting the death of regionalism in American fiction. Myers lays the blame for all that sprawl on writing workshops, though it could just as easily say something about how the explosion of information in the past two generations has broadened writers’ horizons; if nothing else, the research is now easier. I’d also figured that writers’ breadth of interests, geographic or otherwise, mainly reflected the fact that Americans in general have become much more mobile in the past 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t actually the case; a majority of Americans haven’t moved from the state in which they grew up, and a majority of those people—more than a third of the U.S. population—have never moved from their hometown.

Of course, writers are different from the rest of us, and many successful ones will likely have to at least consider leaving town and finding a perch in academia. If that means we have a generation of writers who are promiscuous about place, so be it—I’m not convinced Michael Chabon would be a better writer if he’d ditched his MFA program and decided to focus exclusively on writing about hometown of Columbia, Maryland. But Myers’ post does make me realize that regionalist writers in recent years are hard to come by, and even then they tend not to stick around long. Adam Langer, the last great hope for the great Chicago novelist (or at least the most recent great hope) wrote two sprawling novels about the city and then shifted his focus to New York; Stuart Dybek, the great Chicago hope who preceded him, is now in Michigan.

Being a regionalist writer today seems to mess with your productivity; time was, William Faulkner could write a steady stream of novels and stories about Yoknapatawpha County, but now Marilynne Robinson has a long career with only three novels to show for it. And Edward P. Jones—the name that springs quickest to mind when I think of great contemporary regionalist writers—takes his time as well. Perhaps it’s less stressful to be a polymath with an MFA than a writer interested in the details of a particular place.

Links: Tidying Up Before The Holidays

Edward P. JonesThe Known World is now available in Arabic. (Can’t “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” be translated too?)

J.D. Salinger figured that The Catcher in the Rye was unfilmable. He also noticed when somebody needed a new typewriter ribbon.

One man’s effort to rehabilitate the reputation of James T. Farrell.

Ayn Rand‘s fiction “is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air.”

The frustrations of reading Barry Hannah backwards.

“We live in an era in which unprecedented globalization and economic interdependence, liberal-democratic hegemony, nanotechnology, robotic warfare, the ‘infosphere,’ nuclear proliferation and geoengineering solutions to climate change coexist with the return of powerful autocratic-capitalist states, of a new Great Game in Central Asia, of imperialism in the Middle East, of piracy on the high seas, of rivalry in the Indian Ocean, of a 1929-like market crash, of 1914-style hypernationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, of warlords and failed states, of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, and of a new holy war waged by radical Islamists complete with caliphates and beheadings reminiscent of medieval times. In short, we live in a Thomas Pynchon novel. (via)

The Fact of the Land

Yesterday the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill hosted an all-day seminar called “The Classical Southern Novel,” during which participants discussed four acknowledged regional classics: Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind, Robert Penn Warren‘s All the King’s Men, and Eudora Welty‘s The Optimist’s Daughter. According to a News & Observer report on the event, the seminar concluded without much argument or incident, but the fact that no black writers were included in the discussion didn’t pass without comment:

Though the subject of race is omnipresent in most Southern classics, none of the works discussed Friday was written by blacks. There were few, if any, blacks in attendance at the event at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development.

Several participants seemed unsure whether “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s tale of an unnamed black man who considers himself invisible due to his race, qualifies as a “Southern” novel. Ellison, who was black, was a native of Oklahoma, and a portion of his novel is set in the South.

Jill McCorkle, a novelist and professor at N.C. State University, acknowledged that many consider the portrayal of black characters in the novel she lectured about, “Gone With the Wind,” offensive.

“You have to read it in the context of time and place; otherwise you’ll wince every couple pages,” she said.

Presumably some of the handwringing over the Southern-ness of Invisible Man is because it’s largely set in New York. It also probably has something to do the novel’s allegorical nature; as Charles Johnson pointed out in his recent appreciation of the novel on the National Book Foundation’s site, the novel is more about themes of alienation than place. “His central, famous trope of “invisibility” remains universally applicable for any group that is socially marginalized,” Johnson writes. Neither he nor the three other commenters talk at all about the novel’s physical settings; it’s simply not what we remember about about it, or think is most important.

At any rate, the discussion reminded me of Edward P. Jones‘ fine introduction to the 2007 edition of New Stories From the South, which he edited. His essay addresses the question of whether he, as a Washingtonian, feels qualified to discuss the South; his comments artfully make a case for positioning him, and I think Ralph Ellison too, in the Southern canon:

[S]o much is about the heart, wherein the soul dwells, and so maybe my heart, when all the standing in the corner is done, doesn’t care if Washington is north or south of the Mason-Dixon line…. The heart knows that just about every adult—starting with my mother—who had an important part in my life before I turned eighteen was born and raised in the South. They—the great majority of them black and the descendants of slaves—came to Washington with a culture unappreciated until you go out into the world and look back to see what went into making you a full human being….

Black people passed this culture on to me, but once I discovered Southern literature I learned that much of it was shared by whites, whether they wanted to admit it or not. I read Richard Wright and Truman Capote and Wendell Berry and Erskine Caldwell and a whole mess of other writers and came up on white people who, in their way, were just trying to make it to the next day. Dear Lord, reach down and gimme a hand here. Those fictional white people lived in a world that was not alien to me. As I read, I felt I knew far more about that world of people than I did about those people who lived in cities in the North, who lived, as I did in D.C., with concrete and noisy neighbors above and below and a sense that the horizon stopped at the top of the tallest building. It does not matter where Washington fits on the map; I was of the South because that was what I inherited.

English Into Arabic

Last fall I made a brief mention of Kalima, an effort by the United Arab Emirates to translate books from English into Arabic. At the time, the organization was working in conjunction with the National Book Festival to scout for suggestions of great American literature to include in its series. On the evidence of a recent press release, they made some pretty impressive choices. Below are Kalima’s picks:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Not all Americans, you’ll notice—the release mentions seven authors total from the U.S. were included. A little googling reveals that Publishers Lunch has reported a few more recent rights purchases by Kalima, including Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Robinson’s Housekeeping

Links: Naming Rights

The Mississippi University for Women is pondering a name change—in part because, well, it’s a co-ed school. Among the three proposed names on the table is Welty-Reneau University, named after cofounder Sally Reneau and author Eudora Welty, who attended the school for two years. “I think it should be Welty University. That name seems like it would attract more males here,” says one student. Huh?

A high-school district in Newman, Calif., in the state’s central valley, is discussing whether to ban Rudolfo Anaya‘s novel Bless Me, Ultima (recently selected for the NEA’s Big Read program), because of profanity. Relevant quote: “Trustee RoseLee Hurst said the foul language is tantamount to violence and she’s an advocate for removing violence from schools.”

Meanwhile, Washington teacher John Foley thinks it’s time to phase out To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men from English curricula. At least he has some suggestions for replacements.

The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards were announced last night.

The winner of the Newbery Medal will be announced tomorrow.

The American Booksellers Association announced that 69 independent bookstores opened in 2008. No work on how many had to close its doors in that time, but things can’t be in complete crisis if Georgetown can handle a new shop dedicated to foreign literature and works in translation.

The Washington Monthly tapped a variety of authors and pundits to recommend books that President Obama should read. The list is stuffed, as you might expect, with a lot of policy tomes. But a few novels sneak in: Joel Garreau pitches Huck Finn (sorry, Mr. Foley!), Jeff Greenfield suggests a Washington novel I haven’t heard of, Garrett EppsThe Floating Island, David Ignatius recommends Graham Greene‘s The Quiet American. And George Pelecanos smartly submits that the new president get to know the best fiction writer living in D.C.:

I would recommend that President Obama read Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. It’s a short-story collection that brilliantly illuminates the humanity and struggles of everyday Washingtonians. Despite the phony Washington bashing during the campaign, D.C. is as Main Street as any place in America, and just as deserving of federal attention. The District could be a model for reform. A leader with Barack Obama’s intelligence and enthusiasm has the ability to make that happen.

The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Among the events coming up this week: Alex McLennan and James Matthews (whose collection of generally military-themed short stories, Last Known Position, I recommend) today at the Writer’s Center; Leonard Downie Jr. Monday at Politics & Prose (I recently reviewed his debut novel, The Rules of the Game, for Washington City Paper); the aforementioned George Pelecanos, also Monday at the Arlington Public Library; and former president Jimmy Carter, Wednesday at Borders Baileys Crossroads. Also, the Politics & Prose February schedule is now out, and anybody interested in getting tickets for Malcolm Gladwell’s Feb. 5 event at the Avalon Theatre should probably get on the horn to P&P ASAP: A former Postie who writes books that appeal to businesspeople and policy wonks, coming to a town that’s home to the Post and that’s full of businesspeople and policy wonks is bound to be a big deal.

Roundup: Strange Cargo

Edward P. Jones still isn’t working on another novel. After a reading at Boston University last month (video here, which also features Catherine Tudish and Ha Jin), he told the audience, “even if I were, it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing. It’s like you’re pregnant, and somebody talks about the future of your child, at 5, at 10, at 15, but all you’re hoping for is happiness and health. You can’t think much beyond that.”

I hadn’t heard about the Kinky Friedman precedent until I read an interview with Jonathan Miles in USA Today. Miles talks about his new novel, Dear American Airlines, which didn’t get much static from the carrier thanks to Friedman’s Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. Not that he wasn’t concerned: “American seems euphonious and iconic,” he says. “‘Dear JetBlue’ doesn’t work as well.”

Blogging from the Hay Festival, John Freeman notes that Lorrie Moore was asked by an audience member whether the United States is more receptive to short-story writers. Jhumpa Lahiri comes in handy in answering that question these days:

America has annual anthologies, such as the Best American Short Stories, which regularly sell over 100,000 copies a year, as well as prizes for stories and workshops galore. Occasionally a collection strikes a cord and people buy it. Ethan Canin’s The Emperor of Air was a bestseller, as was Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” which is tremendous, debuted on the “New York Times” list at number one (you can read an extract here).

Lahiri’s phenomenal success in the form is still, of course, an aberration. In response to the publisher’s question from the audience, Moore ultimately argued that Lahiri’s book of stories was such a phenomenal success because the publisher believed in it (and because it’s also a very good book).

In D.C. Tonight?

I’m kicking around the idea that D.C. is the only major American city that isn’t the setting for an important novel. I’ve gotta be wrong about this, yes? But at the moment all I’m coming up with is Ward Just‘s Echo House as a novel that’s any kind of rival to, say, The Man With the Golden Arm or City of Night or The Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m hoping that tonight’s reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library featuring Dinaw Mengestu and Edward P. Jones will help me out a little. I liked The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears well enough, but it’s no classic, and no amount of strenuous effort can make All Aunt Hagar’s Children into a novel. Suggestions?

Today’s Post has a piece on Jones; Mengestu was just announced as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the first-fiction category.

Dept. of Self Promotion

My brief review of Manil Suri‘s The Age of Shiva is now available at Washington City Paper‘s Web site. Suri reads at Politics & Prose on Monday.

Another D.C. note: I’ll be spending much of tomorrow, Saturday, at American University, checking out Washington Independent Writers’ Fiction Writing All-Day Seminar. A number of interesting writers are on the docket, including Susan Richards Shreve, Olga Grushin, and Edward P. Jones. The walk-in registration rate is a bit steep, but it’s a full day, and casual opportunities to meet writers don’t come along too often.