Down Living

David Guy‘s “Ardent Spirit, Generous Friend,” is largely a tender remembrance of novelist Reynolds Price, who died last January. But it also sheds some light on the insecurities that can haunt even the most accomplished writer. Guy recalls finishing his first novel, 1980’s Football Dreams, and having Price gently but firmly let him know the disappointment that comes along with getting that first book out:

“Publishing a first novel is a down,” he said.

I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the sentiment or by the ’60s locution. We’d known each other back in the hippie days.

“Really?” I said. The past 10 years of hard work had been for nothing?

“You’ve spent your whole life thinking that if you can finally publish a book, everything will change,” he said. “You’ll suddenly be good looking and everybody will love you, the world will throw itself at your feet. Then you publish the damn thing and nothing happens. You’re the same social misfit and compulsive masturbator you always were.”

And Price was saying that as somebody who had the best first-novel launch a novelist could hope for: 1962’s A Long and Happy Life received plenty of acclaim and was simultaneously published in its entirety in Harper’s, the first (and last?) time the magazine did such a thing for a novel.

Guy’s portrait of his mentor is so fawning it’s a little hard to trust, but if he doesn’t delve too deeply into how the down-ness of novel writing affected Price, Guy willingly exposes what it did to him. Writing a novel, in Guy’s vision, is a kind of compulsive act—something that’s going to wound you in some way or other, but so necessary you can’t resist doing it. And so important you’re willing to assent to requests to talk about it in public: The essay ultimately turns to a panel Guy moderates featuring Price, Anne Tyler, and Eudora Welty that might as well have been called “Four Authors Who’d Rather Be Doing Something Else.” Tyler is prickly, Welty is bemused (“All these people. What do they expect of me?”), Guy is terrified, and Price rolls his eyes when an attendee asks, “Why do you publish?” But Welty answered that question well: “I publish for the same reason I want somebody to be on the other end of the phone when I talk into it.”

Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

Picturing Welty

The new issue of Transatlantica, an American-studies journal based in France, seems to be thick with interesting reading. “Seems” is the operative word, because none of the six essays on Richard Powers appear to have functioning PDFs, despite the site’s suggestion to the contrary. (I’m particularly curious about Thomas B. Byers“The Crumbling Two-Story Architecture of Richard Powers’ Fictions,” since it addresses a theme that Powers gets dinged for a lot, not always fairly.) However, a collection of pieces relating to last year’s Eudora Welty centennial appear to have made their way online intact, including a handful of appreciations of her photography. As Alison Goeller notes in her commentary on the photo In the Bag, Welty had a relatively easy time being a documentarian of a tense subject:

“In the Bag” was one of dozens of photos of impoverished black women that Welty shot as a junior journalist for the WPA in the 1930’s. Although she was white and middle-class, she was not met with the hostility that some of her fellow journalists and photographers faced. In fact, Welty said her subjects seemed to trust her in ways that were unusual. “In taking…these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel—a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years.”

But Louis Mazzari, in paying tribute to Welty’s 1936 photo Tomato Pickers’ Recess, suggests that her WPA work was about more than just capturing working-class lives:

Welty’s sense of irony is always active. She was capturing the end of what Sean Wilentz calls the “old, weird America” and its pre-electric folk during the rise of the recording industry, national radio broadcasting, and mass-media entertainment. In the pose of the guitar player, is there not the slightest mimic of the star? Is his expression and attitude—in the exact center of this folk culture—also not the face of the pop-music future?

Links: Dirty Old Men

Playboy will publish an excerpt of Vladimir Nabokov‘s final work, an unfinished novella titled The Original of Laura. Don’t look so shocked: The magazine interviewed him in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway: KGB spy?

The Second Pass takes a look at ten books that need to be tossed out of the canon. First up, Don DeLillo‘s White Noise: “DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic.” I’m not buying the “polemic” bit, and who said he was shooting for realism anyhow?

The Iowa Review has a new editor.

Politico rings up Ward Just for a quote about the death of Robert McNamara.

Eudora Welty‘s estate pulled her name out of the running for the renaming of her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women.

The Atlantic has a modest proposal: Give tax breaks to publishers who support new and little-known writers. M.A. Orthofer retorts, “don’t ‘not-for-profit’ publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?”

John Updike‘s longtime home in Beverly Farms, Mass., sold last month for $2.5 million.

Jim Harrison has a pretty fancy house too, though his actual writing room looks like a cubicle in an abandoned real-estate brokerage.

George Pelecanos doesn’t know jack about writing about shotguns, according to a Field & Stream gunblogger: “Pelecanos in particular will put characters in a tense armed standoff, then have someone say ‘I can shoot you before you have time to rack that pump.’ In real life the immediate reply would be ‘Boom.'”

March Through the South

Next month marks the launch of the Southern Literary Trail, which honors 18 towns in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that were home to some of the country’s best-loved writers. There’ll be readings on the grounds of William Faulkner‘s house; performances at the Margaret Mitchell house and museum; screenings of films based on the works of Carson McCullers; a whole bunch of events related to the centennial of Eudora Welty‘s birth; and more. The very idea of it was enough to get Harper Lee out of doors for a bit recently.

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.

Nelson Algren’s Food Writing

WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:

Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.

Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.

Short Timing

Next Wednesday Marian Seldes and Sloane Shelton will read from Eudora Welty‘s short stories at New York’s Symphony Space; the reading will be recorded for NPR’s “Selected Shorts” series.

We’re in for a lot of Welty-related stories soon, given that next year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth. If you’re a Welty scholar, you’ve just missed the deadline to contribute to Mississippi Quarterly’s dedicated issue on her, but you have about another month to catch an exhibit of her photography at the Pearl Public Library. My one brief stop in Jackson a couple years ago was too brief for me to visit the Eudora Welty House (though I was there around St. Patrick’s Day and the town was fit to burst with Jill Conner Browne fans.) Visiting the house’s Web site reminds me that she was a fine photographer as a well as a great short-story writer; the Welty Foundation sells the photo you see here, Window Shopping, as a fundraiser for its efforts.

Your Guide to the Depression

As somebody who cherishes his Illinois and California WPA guides, it’s hard to argue with David Kipen‘s plea to revive them online:

I’m calling for the creation of a free, route-based, readily searchable online repository of all the text and photography from every last American Guide, with the Center for the Book’s literary maps to all 50 states thrown in for good measure. Copyright law here should prove less of a headache than usual, considering that the American taxpayer already paid for this priceless treasure house a lifetime ago.

The WPA guides, somewhat famously, helped support many writers during the Great Depression, including Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, and more. (A 2003 New York Times piece captures the breadth of the contributions.)