Slowing Down…

Though there’s some news today in Horace Engdahl stepping down as the head of the Nobel Prize’s literature committee (why can’t American commenters get as excited about this as the Swedes?), fact is, holiday plans and slow news weeks means it’s time to start ratcheting things back around here. I’ll pop my head up from time to time, I’m sure, but expect intermittent-at-best updates for the next two weeks.

Still! If you’re a D.C. local, you might be interested to know that the D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the highlights from the new additions are a wealth of events at Politics & Prose, including FSG editor Lorin Stein leading a discussion of Roberto Bolano‘s 2666 (Jan. 14), Jayne Anne Phillips (Jan. 23), and former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. (Jan. 26). Be well, and happy holidays.

Links: International Anthem

Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 may be the Great American Novel.” Well, can’t blame a critic for trying.

In related news, on Sunday National Book Award chief Harold Augenbraum will appear on WordSmitten, where, if the rhetoric of the accompanying press release is to be trusted, he will all but strap on the brass knuckles and set to pummeling Horace Engdahl live on air. Actually, looks like he will arrive brandishing…a reading list.

Speaking of which: A recommended reading list for Barack Obama includes a pair of novels—David Lozell Martin‘s Our American King and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?—as well as Tobias Wolff‘s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War.

Toni Morrison responds to John Updike‘s review of A Mercy: “‘He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don’t know what’s going on,’ she says softly, a smile on her lips and a spark in her eye. ‘I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!'”

One of the more entertaining sections of William Least Heat-Moon‘s new book, Roads to Quoz, is a defense of the Beats framed around his visit with Jim Canary, the caretaker of the scroll version of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. “Sometimes I wish he would have written on sheets, but then I wouldn’t have had this job,” Canary tells the Loyola University Phoenix.

Links: Don’t Quote Me

Per Wästberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature, spoke at Harvard last week, playing it both ways regarding his colleague Horace Engdahl: American literature is provincial, yes, but: “[Engdahl] said many things out of frustration at the end of an interview…that were not wise,” Wästberg said. “I regret that.”

Lionel Shriver to fiction writers who don’t use quotation marks because doing so would compromise the elegance of your dialogue or some other such horsehockey: “Knock it off!”

Richard Russo talks about working with Paul Newman, abandoning academia, and, mostly, his writing habits, which he gets at by way of the habits of John Cheever, who wrote in a basement storage room:

“He brought a sandwich and sat there in his underwear,” Russo remarked. “Mid-day he’d have his sandwich, edit what he had written, retype it and put it into a box. At 5 he’d get dressed and ride up in the elevator with the same people. He did this five days a week. I don’t necessarily recommend that routine, but the point of the story is that writing’s a job and you have to treat it like any other job. There will be times if you’re talented and lucky where you will be visited by inspiration, but you’ll discover it doesn’t change your habits all that much.”

Links: Selling Points

A Cape Cod home that was once owned by John Dos Passos and regularly played host to parties featuring the likes of Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Arthur Schlesinger is up for sale.

A teach-the-controversy idea worth getting behind: A Chicago-area school had students stage a debate over whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in schools.

After all, who the hell knows what’s going to get high-schoolers interested in reading these days?

Would Horace Engdahl‘s bloviations have been more acceptable coming from an American?

Richard Russo knows Main Street. Main Street is a friend of his. A Sarah Palin, he says, is no Main Streeter: “”Her view doesn’t work in either small-town world, the nostalgic one or the more realistic one. She just misses both points.”

Links: Foot Traffic

The New York Times has a sad obituary for Charles Wright, who wrote three novels about black street life in New York City between the early ’60s and early ’70s; after that his life was largely defined by his alcoholism. Mercury House’s page for its reprint of 1966’s The Wig quotes from Ishmael Reed‘s introduction:

“Charles Wright’s THE WIG marked a change in African-American fiction. All of us who wanted to ‘experiment,’ as we were seeing our painter and musician friends experiment, used it as a model. Though some would call me the literary son of Ralph Ellison, in the 1960s I was the younger brother of Charles Wright.”

Henry Kisor, my old editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who’s now writing mysteries, gets a little testy at a proposal that authors boycott for the sake of preserving independent bookstores:

As an author I’m going to support whoever sells me. If an indie likes my book enough to put it in the front of the store and invites me to come and do an autographing, I’ll happily do so. So will I if the store is Barnes & Noble or Borders. And I will most certainly maintain my relationships with and other online retailers — before, during and after my books have sold through. That’s how the world, not just Main Street in Podunk, becomes — and stays — aware of them.

Lastly, I thought I didn’t need to read one more word on the Nobel Prize foofaraw, but Inside Higher Ed’s Scott McLemee does a nice job collecting assessments of it from a range of scholars, publishers, editors, writers, and bloggers. Including this bit from Stanford professor Franco Moretti:

“Engdahl seems to me to be perfectly right. But unfortunately I am traveling, and cannot do any better than that. Sorry.”

Engdahl-gate: One More View

I’d promised myself I’d lay off the whole Americans-are-too-insular thing—plenty has already been said, and it’s already pretty clear to just about everybody that Horace Engdahl is being silly, intentionally or unintentionally. But I’m calling attention to Lionel Shriver‘s points in Forbes, partly because she wrote one of my favorite novels of 2007, The Post-Birthday World, partly because she has a unique perspective as an American author who doesn’t spend much time in America, and partly because she does a better job of calling bullshit on all this than anything else I’ve read:

Fifty-some mostly American authors attended [“Festival America” in Vincennes, France] (not, alas, the enviable junket it appears, but two days of wearying, unpaid back-to-back appearances in “debates” with goofball and, I’m afraid, typically French topics like, “American Women: Citizens of the World?”–don’t get me started … ). The complexion of these participants, literally and figuratively, exemplified the extravagantly permeable nature of the American literary scene that has resulted from high levels of immigration from all over the world.

The writers Dinaw Mengestu (from Ethiopia), Nami Mun (from Korea) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (from Nigeria) and Mohsin Hamid (from Pakistan), to cite but a few, have all found safe haven in the U.S., and last weekend joined a variety of more mainstream writers like Richard Russo, Amy Bloom and Tobias Wolfe. If the American literary world is sealed off from influences elsewhere, it must be protecting itself not with Saran Wrap, but with some ludicrously inappropriate material like fish-netting with big holes in it.

Now, if somebody at Forbes could just correct the spelling of Tobias Wolff‘s name…

Links: Engdahl-gate

Here’s video of Nobel Prize literature judge Horace Engdahl responding to a question about what American literature he reads by saying, “All of ’em, any of ’em that have been in front of me over all these years.” Just kidding, he’s chatting about famous non-American author Doris Lessing:

Some more responses in the past 24 hours:

Harvard English prof James Engell, in the Harvard Crimson: “[I]t is not clear what [Engdahl] is talking about. Is he talking about American publishers, American writers, American institutions?”

Michael Dirda in the Guardian: “My general reaction is that he is just betraying an insular attitude towards a very diverse country.”

At the American Prospect, Dana Goldstein echoes that sentiment, calling out Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, Denis Johnson, and Annie Proulx for special attention.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller, who’s apparently no longer getting edited: “There is a sweep and a vigor and a swagger and a dash about the United States, even amid our woes, and our literature reflects that. Shrinking violets, we’re not. We aim high, dream big—and sometimes, tumble hard. But we love a good comeback story.”

And Engdahl himself tells a Swedish paper that he hasn’t read the article that caused the foofaraw in the first place:

In a letter to newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Engdahl said he had not yet read the article but had the impression he had been misunderstood.

“The Nobel Prize is not an international competition but a reward for individual authors. It is important to remember this when feelings of national pride are running high,” he said.