Links: Make It New

Ruth Franklin delivers a few of her reading resolutions for the 2012. Her fourth one, about avoiding distraction, seems increasingly essential. As for me, last year I read little besides 2010, ’11, and ’12 releases, and I hope to spend the coming year spending more reading time with books that aren’t on the new-release schedule; we’ll see how it goes.

There is no question about the political import of contemporary writing that George Saunders cannot politely bat away. In an interview with Full Stop as part of its series of questionnaires on “The Situation in American Writing,” he defends writing as “useless work” and writes that, at best, “what fiction can do is inspire tenderness.” This would come off as protesting too much (or, rather, overly protesting a fiction writer’s utility as a protester), except that he acknowledges that a writer is a product of his or her allegiances; because those political and class positions are unavoidable in the writing, he argues, why expend the extra effort broadcasting them?

James Campbell looks at the first volume of Ernest Hemingway‘s collected letters and Paul Hendrickson‘s biography, Hemingway’s Boat, and finds some of the roots of Papa’s self-aggrandizing fictions. His son Gregory was fed up with that and plenty else besides by 1952: “If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (from his 1898 novel, The Uncalled): “There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller.”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I was enchanted by James M. Cain‘s 1933 essay on the city, “Paradise,” even the parts grousing about what makes for a quality chamber of commerce. Still, if you get through the virtuoso opening section you’ll have read the best writing in it. Cain nails a tone at once awed and skeptical about Southern California, as in this bit where he empowers the reader to add a few cultural touches to LA: “If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators.”

From Bernard Malamud to Helen Frankenthaler to Dick Cheney in a few easy steps.

Deborah Eisenberg: “You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on.”

Jane Smiley, debunking the notion that great writers work in solitude: “[A]s I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren’t by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the [Iowa] writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too.”

Links: Filing Extension

I’ve read David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King but feel at a loss to say anything about it. That’s partly due to its sheer sprawl; the time required to get a grip on it and say something cogent is time I don’t have. But that’s a bit of a lie, because there’s something else, something Robert P. Baird gets at in his essay on how much we can or should connect the text of The Pale King to its author’s suicide. As Baird suggests, a common instinct (and certainly my instinct) is to avoid the matter entirely by indulging in some New Critical close reading, but I’m more resistant than even that—I have an urge to say, screw it, that the whole enterprise of cobbling a novel together from the scraps he left behind was foolishness, and that it would’ve been better if Little, Brown had just released what is now chapter 22, the book’s masterpiece, as a trim, self-contained novella and left the rest for scholars to fight over. Or publish all of it, however large, because, as Baird writes in explaining why Wallace’s afterlife so ties us up in knots, “Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic.”

Karen Russell on Joy Williams‘ dialogue: “Exchanges as doomed and hilarious as those in a Beckett play fill her books. This speech rarely reads like a realistic transcription of the way that ‘normal’ people talk—but it gets at the primitive forces lunging under language.”

Dinaw Mengestu remains unhappy that his second novel, How to Read the Air, is being characterized as an “immigrant novel”: “The characters I’m writing about are Americans, even though they may be immigrants. So for critics to bring in part of my own identity, to say this is part of the novel as well, I find very problematic.”

Kyle Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the way an opening sentence can. (A commenter points to the American Book Review‘s list of the 100 best last lines from novels, in a thread that also includes a good conversation about the last line of As I Lay Dying.)

Much of Lorrie Moore‘s essay on memoirs in the New York Review of Books feels like a series of cheap shots. The very structure suggests it: Here are two well-promoted memoirs about death from major New York publishers, and isn’t it interesting that they are bested by a little self-published book—one that, on the quoted evidence, seems stuffed with cliches and commonplaces. But I keep thinking about what seems at first like the weakest complaint in her review, about Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye: “O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention.” I admire the book, and I don’t see it as losing something for lacking an investigation into Garden State carcinogens. But if we’re to respect memoirs as more than exercises in solipsism—or respect them at all, these days—a second effort to avoid trafficking in what Moore calls the “poetry of bereavement” may be worth the while.

William Maxwell is best known as a New Yorker editor, but he also wrote six novels. William Lychack recalls his correspondence with Maxwell and enthuses about his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Audio of Lydia Davis discussing her translation work.

Audio of Marilynne Robinson on the Old Testament roots of Christian liberalism.

Audio of Don DeLillo on the writer as a “bad citizen.”

George Saunders: “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.”

Robert Gottlieb on how important editors are to writers: “Whether you’re a good editor or a bad editor or a non-editor, it doesn’t matter: You represent the crucial reading. Yes, his spouse has read it. Yes, her agent has read it. But you represent authority, even if you don’t deserve it. You also represent money. And if you have a decent reputation, a writer wants to know what a person with a decent reputation thinks. And of course, if it’s a writer you’ve worked with over the years, it’s even more crucial because there’s a visceral connection.”

Good, Evil, and “Escape From Spiderhead”

Interviewed by the New Yorker about his new story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” George Saunders explains that he’s become increasingly interested in good-versus-evil conflicts:

More and more these days what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed, like a couple of PeeWee football players, to see what happens. Who stays standing? Whose helmet goes flying off?

In that regard, “Escape From Spiderhead” is a straightforward enough tale from the PeeWee trenches: Its narrator, Jeff, is a prisoner forced to take part in an experiment to determine whether a drug is capable of generating feelings of love. To prove the hypothesis, Jeff pharmaceutically romances/is romanced by two women, then is asked to choose which of the two will receive a high dose of a Darkenfloxx, a joy-annihilating, potentially fatal drug. This particular Sophie’s Choice is a bust—Jeff could honestly take or leave either woman, so neither gets chosen. But the stakes get raised: The prison’s minders decide a better proof-of-concept would be to dose the women anyway, then record Jeff’s reaction.

Small wonder the story didn’t work out as a novel, as Saunders told the New Yorker. (“I had written many, many pages of a draft [“A novel,” I was thinking, all last summer, finally my novel!”] in which Jeff escaped, and it became a story about him hiding down in the town. But it didn’t really have much life in it.”) In imagining a environment where authority figures are concerned about “underloving or overloving,” Saunders has written a cousin to stories like “Harrison Bergeron”, in which the urge to keep a society even-keeled leads to all manner of cruelty and oppression. But Saunders has at least two new tricks up his sleeve. The first, as usual for him, is his tinkering with language—though “Spiderhead” isn’t as playful as another recent good-versus-evil story of his, “Victory Lap,” it captures Jeff’s joy as he rides the wave of Verbulace, a drug that makes him emotionally and rhetorically expansive (“…a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing…”), then falls dumb and simple as the drug wears off and Saunders yanks the leash (“Lunch came in. On a tray. Spaghetti with chicken chunks.” “Our talking became less excellent.”). And by setting the story in such a drab, institutional place, Saunders knows each image becomes almost absurdly vivid—none better than a fellow prisoner’s tattoo of a stabbed rat stabbing a rat.

The second trick is a little more devious: Saunders is asking the reader to make the same kind of choice that Jeff is compelled to. In the same way that Jeff is eventually told about the less-than-charming traits of the two women he artificially fell for, then asked to recalibrate his feelings toward them, Saunders delays telling us about Jeff’s “fateful night”—the reason he’s in prison—until near the end of the story. How much judgment can we throw down on a narrator who’s shown us such a good time before then? How can we begrudge the guy the urge to express the same kind of free will that we get to casually bring to reading a short story in a magazine? We root for him: story itself is roughly analogous to the love drug that got Jeff into this mess in the first place. “Spiderhead” would be harder to pull off in the third person—we have to be invested in Jeff to care about his concerns about freedom and control. Those themes are dangerous turf for fiction writers: Stories like this get easily co-opted as political fables (not for nothing did the National Review decide to reprint “Harrison Bergeron” in 1965). But Saunders isn’t that didactic and, well, un-fun; he makes sure to keep our focus on the “I” (Jeff) in prison, not the “we” who put him there and debases him.

Links: The Secret History

At Jewish Ideas Daily, D.G. Myers—who from where I sit sets the standard for rigorous, thoughtful, and provocative litblogging—is in the midst of an ambitious study of landmarks in American Jewish literature, with a focus on lesser-known works. His second essay in the series looks at Ezra Brudno‘s 1904 novel, The Fugitive.

Thomas Doherty‘s excellent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Death of Film Criticism,” is worth reading on its own terms, but there are plenty of obvious parallels to be drawn from it book criticism and arts journalism in general. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that plugging your ears and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist won’t help. Plenty of critics embrace it, of course, and a few just might make a buck off it.

Mary Gaitskill wasn’t a fan of the cover of her 1997 story collection, Because They Wanted To, which featured a large screw. “I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic-looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt.” The paperback cover seems reasonable enough.

Some literary passings get more attention, but few have inspired the range of thoughtful and affecting remembrances the way Barry Hannah‘s death has. A.N. Deverspiece evokes the shock of learning about his death. HTMLGiant gathers a few thoughts from admirers. Justin Taylor recalls Hannah’s influence. Nathan Deuel offers a contrary view. Wells Tower‘s 2008 profile includes the Hannah story “Water Liars.”

Tower, by the way, didn’t wind up winning the Story Prize this week. But Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a fine choice.

Lionel Shriver
talks with the Wall Street Journal about her new novel, So Much for That: “I don’t assume any sentence is good just because I wrote it.”

An American in Tangier, a 1993 documentary on Paul Bowles, is available on the incomparable cultural archive UbuWeb.

A guide to the J.D. Salinger letters now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Paul Theroux isn’t impressed with John Edwards‘ charitable efforts in Haiti.

Lots of folks get suckered into Ayn Rand‘s philosophy as teenagers. Count George Saunders among them.

Missouri legislators are planning to rename a stretch of highway in Saint Louis after Mark Twain, having decided that Mark McGwire doesn’t deserve the honor. A radio station doesn’t think Twain deserves it either, so a petition is making the rounds. Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith seems to be getting most of the votes, though I’d feel skittish driving on a highway named after somebody known for backflips.

Saunders Out Loud

As a rule, I don’t consume audiobooks or listen to podcasts of authors reading their work. But I’ll pay money for a recording of George Saunders reading his story “Victory Lap” last night at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. On the page, the story asks the reader to spend a little time puzzling out how it ought to be read. It concerns two awkward teens and a sinister adult, shifting perspectives from character to character, with various other voices rattling inside their heads; brackets, italics, and interruptions abound, and quotation marks are absent.

Sorting all that out involves a little work. But he trick to the story, Saunders made clear last night, isn’t to fuss with it but to go through it fast. As his rapid delivery made clear, “Victory Lap” is largely about what it means to be an adolescent sorting out your own moral code while being mindful of others’—you’re processing, processing, processing. Add the facts that one character’s life is in danger and that another is on the track team, and the rushed pace captures the kind of anxiety Saunders is concerned with. Of course, it helps that Saunders is a tremendous ventriloquist for his characters; the opening section of the story introduces a host of voices, from Mom to a teacher to a baby deer, and he captures all of them as distinct, comic, and slightly strange, like Disney voice artists who were just a little too off-kilter for Uncle Walt’s purposes.

Saunders wasn’t slickly performing the story, the way some writers do when they read their work. He’d just found a way to fully inhabit the characters he’d imagined; if the audience happened to be entertained at the same time, so much the better. Fiction always tends to come off as funnier when it’s read in front of a crowd—you don’t take wit, even subtle wit, for granted in the everyday world, so it catches you short when you hear it out loud. But it’s still hard to be entertaining. Case in point: George Saunders. In a 2007 New Yorker podcast, he gives an engaged but flat reading of Isaac Babel‘s story “You Must Know Everything.” It may be that Babel’s work doesn’t quite lend itself to the kind of extroverted style that can make a story sound good, but Joshua Ferris didn’t have an easier time of it reading Saunders’ “Adams” for the same podcast last fall. It’s easy enough to sound colloquial as Saunders does, but hard to sound like the characters are living through you. That’s a gift.

Links: Brought to You by Dell and Folgers Coffee

Earlier this week the FTC released new guidelines on how bloggers must disclose their relationships with commercial entities. I haven’t spent much time thinking about this—unlike smart people who have—mainly because I suspect any battle between the gummint and bloggers will attack women and children first. Relatively speaking, me and my modest stack of advance reader’s copies aren’t worth anybody’s attention and trouble. I’ve always considered ARCs as a tool to do my job, not some great prize; I receive them, but, like editors at newspaper book reviews, I feel no particular obligation to review them, acknowledge their existence, or announce their provenance if I do get around to mentioning them.

George Saunders reports from a homeless tent city in Fresno, California.

Jane Smiley discusses her first novel for young adults, The Georges and the Jewels.

Sherman Alexie
: “If I had been talking about drowning polar bears [instead of the Kindle], people would have been weeping with me. But nobody recognizes that a bookstore or library can also be a drowning polar bear. And right now in this country, magazines, newspapers, and bookstores are drowning polar bears.

Paul Auster laments the death of independent bookstores in New York: “In my own city of New York, so many superb bookstores have gone out of business in the past years that the epidemic has reached tragic proportions. The Eighth Street Bookstore, the grand literary emporium of my youth, has been a shoe store for more than two decades now. The Gotham Book Mart (‘Wise Men Fish Here’), the home of the James Joyce Society, the home in exile for André Breton and other French Surrealists during World War II, closed its doors recently. Books and Company is gone. Endicott Books is gone. Coliseum Books is gone.”

A personal consideration of Raymond Carver along with some thoughts on Lishification, and a profile of his widow, Tess Gallagher.

A cache of Mark Twain‘s papers, including letters he wrote during the last months of his life, goes up for auction later this month.

Jonathan Lethem on his new novel, Chronic City: “I had to figure out, ok what should I be writing? I thought, the answer is always, I should write the thing that if I don’t write it, it wouldn’t exist… Maybe I could write a realistic social epic of the Upper East Side; it’s possible that I could do that. I feel that I’ve acquired a lot of those tools and inclinations, but to merge it with the dream-life material, I feel that’s my special task.”

Chicago gets a literary hall of fame.

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.

George Saunders, Going Big

Nina Siegal has posted the full text of an interview she conducted with George Saunders around the time of his 2006 story collection, In Persuasion Nation. The conversation is a smart and wide-ranging one, covering satire, the role of fiction in American society today, the post-9/11 novel, theme parks, the meaning of “experimental” literature, and more. I was particularly struck by Saunders’ cri de coeur about his own struggles with being both “popular” and “niche”:

[P]ersonally I’ve been frustrated to some extent by my inability to draw a bigger audience and I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about why this is. Is it because I’m so smart? That would be nice. But somehow I doubt it. Then I wonder is it because I am doing fancy-pants Elitist art moves, too insecure to be a real populist? Am I being punished for being a product and landlord of the MFA Ghetto? Possibly. Or is because the Masses are drones? Well, I think of Dickens: he did okay. But then I think of “Swapping Proctologists” and think, well, hmm, maybe they are Drones. My secret fear is that I am somehow writing in a way that both 1) pre-guarantees a small audience and 2) stems from some flaw in my personality, ie, I am not big-hearted enough to write something that ‘most’ (more?) people could read and enjoy and be moved by.

My resolution is to try and make my writing as big as I can while, at
the same time, recognizing that many of the best effects available in
fiction are highwire effects that the majority of readers might not be
ready for.

Links: Curse Words

Dennis Lehane on just how easy it is to spend five years writing a historical epic: “How the fuck am I gonna finish this? What did I get myself into? This is going to be the one everyone figures out I’m full of shit.”

The publication date for Curtis Sittenfeld‘s American Wife in the U.K. has been moved up from Feb. 2009 to, uh, yesterday.

Jack Kerouac‘s early days as a football prospect and wannabe sportswriter.

Writing in Prospect, Julian Gough finds a way to whack David Foster Wallace and George Saunders simultaneously. The complaint—which you may have heard recently—is that a writer’s ambition and creativity gets stifled when he or she is planted in academia. Bring it, Julian:

[I]t happens to most American academic novelists (like the superbly gifted writer George Saunders who, at 49, has still never written a novel or left school.) They waste time on America’s debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn’t worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes.

George Saunders, Mastering the Hard Sell

“The scariest thing about our profession is at the end of it, in 20 years, what will you know? You’ll know how to service your own talent. That’s it. And even that will be unstable. You’ll learn to juggle, on ice-skates, on a sheet of ice, on a cruise ship that’s either sinking or on dry land.” —George Saunders, speaking last Thursday to a group of creative-writing MFAs at Columbia University