Links: The Book of Jobs

The iPad may force designers of print books to think a little harder about the medium in which they work. Should they do so, the results can be beautiful.

What happens when you read the sex scenes in Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead at an impressionable age.

Sam Lipsyte
: “I think I don’t shirk from emotional autobiography. I mean, I stick pretty closely to the feelings. I change a lot of details, just to avoid the court system.”

Granta editor John Freeman is interviewed at ARTicles, the recently revived blog of the National Arts Journalism Program.

Claire Messud is the latest American to sit on the jury for Canada’s Giller Prize.

Harvard Crimson
columnist Theodore J. Gioia—who at last report was criticizing books he hadn’t read—has a few thoughtful things to say about William Faulkner and humor, plus a glimpse of James Wood‘s teaching style.

The literary magazine Shenandoah will become an online-only publication next year. Its final print edition, celebrating its 60th anniversary and featuring works on Flannery O’Connor, will come out in June. In advance, the editors of the journal have posted an essay (PDF) by James L. MacLeod describing the sights and smells—oh, the smells!—of life on O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm.

Two stories that Cormac McCarthy wrote in college will be included in the 50th anniversary issue of Phoenix, the University of Tennessee’s literary magazine. This presumably displeases McCarthy, who once said he “hoped to be long buried and mouldering before they were published again.”

Flannery O’Connor’s Missed Opportunity

PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly dedicated a healthy portion of its latest episode to Flannery O’Connor, interviewing biographer Brad Gooch, religious scholar Ralph Wood, and others about her Catholicism and how it manifested itself in her work. Or, to be more precise, whether it did. To its credit, the show invited Religion News Service’s David E. Anderson to question how much worth O’Connor’s work has five decades since it was first published. “It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince,” Anderson writes.

True enough, I wasn’t shocked by Wise Blood when I read it this year, but O’Connor would have written a different, more lurid novel if she simply intended to shock; and if Hazel Motes isn’t convincing as a realistic character, he succeeds as an outlet for O’Connor’s concerns about faith, outsiderness, and our expectations of preachers. Grotesques, practically by definition, aren’t meant to convince in any realistic sense. But Anderson is on sturdier ground when it comes to O’Connor going AWOL during the civil rights movement, and he closes his piece on a harshly (but not undeservedly) critical note:

“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.

Links: The Meta Angels of Our Nature

The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, lists 61 essential postmodern reads. Lists are designed to be argued over, so there’s no real point in interrogating all the selections. One thing, though: Reading Percival Everett‘s I Am Not Sidney Poitier a few weeks back, I didn’t think for a moment about whether it was “postmodern” or not. At the risk of invoking some ungainly term like “post-postmodern,” it may be that the postmodern novel is just something that happened, not something that’s happening—a method of wrestling with an increasingly mediated existence in the years before mediated existences became commonplace, before a ten-year-old kid could embed video and songs on a MySpace page and make virtual friends with some stranger in Bali. A lot of the stuff on the list, like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, seems more like metafiction than postmodernism, which aren’t synonymous terms. At any rate, I’m sure one of those ten-year-olds will grow up to write a novel that sorts it all out for us.

Scott McLemee considers the new biography of Saul Bellow‘s ill-fated colleague, Isaac Rosenfeld.

A book on Flannery O’Connor‘s Catholicism is in the works.

And a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth might be.

Also in the works: A documentary about bad writing. The trailer features George Saunders delivering one of the smartest and most succinct explanations of what bad writing is that I’ve heard.

The Ransom Center has an online exhibit of artifacts from Norman Mailer‘s coverage of Apollo 11.

And Ted Gioia considers whether the moon landing was science fiction writers’ finest hour, and one from which it never quite recovered.

There’s too much damn fiction from Montana writers coming out. (Though I did enjoy Kevin Canty‘s new collection, Where the Money Went.)

Lionel Shriver: “I probably had more reading stamina and much loftier literary tastes at the age of 16 than I do now.”

“I am a man in my mid-50’s and starting to feel the weight of the years. I am wondering if there are some good books for me to read that address my station in life. I have never read any Updike or Roth, but I have the impression these authors address the concerns of the aging male. Do you have recommendations?

The Elegant Variation has just wrapped up a four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill.

Museums dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are celebrating anniversaries.

H.L. Mencken once inscribed a book for Carl Van Vechten with a list of the kinds of alcohol he drank during the three years he was writing it. It’s a long list.

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

A Room of Her Own

Joseph O’Neill‘s fine piece on Flannery O’Connor in the June issue of The Atlantic—ostensibly a review of Brad Gooch’s biography but more an appreciation of its subject—stresses the idea that O’Connor was a deeply lucky writer. This isn’t a notion that’s immediately clear reading either O’Connor’s fiction, stuffed as it is with strange, sometimes menacing people, or Gooch’s book, where the shadow of her too-soon death hovers over nearly page. (Gooch is too dignified to make a big noise about that and he doesn’t have to; it’s simply clear that as O’Connor grows more successful, there are fewer and fewer pages left in the biography.) Her life had its struggles, O’Neill acknowledges, not least the lupus that eventually killed her. But the stuff that tends to make aspiring writers neurotic? It was hardly an issue:

She was famous and revered by her early 30s. (“How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty!” wrote John Updike. He was seven years younger than O’Connor.) She never lacked for a prestigious mentor (Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren) or for helpful friends. She never had to take a job. From 1951, she lived at Andalusia, the Georgia property (500 acres of fields and 1,000 acres of woods) co-owned and farmed by her mother, Regina, which turned out to be the perfect habitat for her imagination. Her personal needs were few: she seemingly never wanted, and therefore was never distracted by, children or by her lack thereof. Ditto, pretty much, lovers.

O’Neill overromanticizes things a bit; Regina, at least in Gooch’s description, could be smothering, and on more than a couple of occasions Andalusia seems prison-like. But there’s no question that most of the roadblocks that fiction writers confront weren’t there for O’Connor; indeed, she didn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to the them, as if ignoring them magically made them disappear. There may be a lesson in that for writers—something about how concentrating on the work and not the career ladder is the most sensible way to go. But that makes it sound easy, assuming that a writer today can casually access O’Connor’s cool, smirking temperament, let alone her talent.

Short Shrift

“If it happens three times, it’s a trend,” goes the thinking at a lot of publications, so it’s easy to see how A.O. Scott‘s essay in the New York Times on the revival of the short story came to be. There are new biographies out about Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme; all three made their reputations on their short stories; hence, there must be some newfound interest in reading short stories. “[I]f the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence,” Scott writes. (Note that “may,” always a useful hedge in a trend piece.)

Imagine the harm to Scott’s thesis had Brad Gooch figured he’d needed another year to work on his O’Connor biography. That’s the problem; the alleged trend is really just an accident of timing. Calling out Wells Tower‘s new collection as a special example of the power of the short story doesn’t help the argument; after all, no matter how poor the financial prospects of the short story are, every year brings a much-praised story collection. Indeed, wouldn’t the timing for this piece have been better a year ago, when Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth topped the New York Times bestseller list?

Maybe, but back then no editor would’ve wanted to hear it. A year ago critics were engrossed in Richard Price‘s Lush Life, and the kind of people who write trend pieces were talking about the revival of the big, ambitious novel about life in the big city. Scott is a very smart critic, and he’s not so foolish as to suggest that the novel is going to be completely supplanted by the short story—even if he does suggest, glibly, that “the death of the novel is yesterday’s news.” But his notion that the Kindle might revive the short story sounds off, an effortful statement shoved into the piece in order to give it some heft. (And anyway, isn’t the point of the Kindle that it can contain dozens of epics?) Even if a publisher did come up with some kind of dollar-a-story payment scheme for short fiction, the sort of quick-hit storytelling that Scott imagines we crave—a “handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention”—only really exists in flash fiction, and though many have tried, enthusiasm for that form is limited. Ultimately, readers care more about the quality of the narrative than the length of it. After all, no serious person ever recommended Raymond Carver‘s “A Small, Good Thing” to somebody simply because it’s short.

Giving the Story Away With Flannery O’Connor

I’m in the middle of reading Brad Gooch‘s so-far-excellent biography of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery, which has prompted me to revisit a couple of her stories, “Good Country People” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” As with a lot of authors that made it into my high-school literary anthologies, I read O’Connor way, way too early—I didn’t know enough about the world to get the irony, and I didn’t know enough about writing to get how carefully she calibrated her strange, skewed Southern characters. (There’s a beautifully turned couple of paragraphs in “The Life You Save,” where O’Connor conflates the fixer-upper nature of an old car and the mute woman in the story, about 75 words that are at once hilarious yet with a note of compassion to them too; O’Connor found a way to smirk at people where any other writer would just poke fun.)

A passage in Gooch’s biography struck me as interesting and perhaps relevant today, given the mood of mild-to-extreme panic from publishers about publicizing books, and some of the anxiety writers feel these days to be perpetually self-promoting. Gooch writes about a 1955 appearance that O’Connor made on a brand-new afternoon TV show about books on New York’s WRCA-TV called Galley Proof. The idea was that the host, New York Times Book Review assistant editor Harvey Breit, would interview an author, and the interview would be interspersed with a dramatization of the author’s book—I imagine a terrifying mix of and America’s Most Wanted.

The story to be dramatized, as it happens, was “The Life You Save.” Gooch characterizes the introverted O’Connor’s disinterest in the proceedings by excerpting an exchange between her and Breit:

Breit: Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?

O’Connor: No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.

In fact, the whole conversation is pretty awkward: It’s available in its entirety in the book Conversations With Flannery O’Connor, which just happens to be available in its entirety online. Breit talks much more than O’Connor does, and O’Connor responds tersely, humoring all his needless references to Mann and Cezanne and Shakespeare. It’s hard to tell without having seen the tape, but by the end Breit sounds like he’s flailing and O’Connor seems defeated:

Breit: And I, for myself, think that although Miss O’Connor can be called a Southern writer, I agree that she is not a Southern writer, just as Faulkner isn’t and that they are, for want of a better term, universal writers, writing about all mankind and about relationships and the mystery of relationships. I think that for me the distinction of Miss O’Connor is not the oblique, refined style that we’re getting so much these days. I’m relieved that you write as simply as you do. I think it may have come out in this small dramatization. Do you think so?

O’Connor: Yes, I think….

Breit: I hope so.

A lesson, perhaps, that not all authors, or critics, are made for television—or should feel forced to be.

The Best of the 50s

Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)

It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?

Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:

“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”