Links: Short Subjects

Paul Kincaid has a thoughtful post at Big Other about the distinctions between the novel and the short story: “Over the duration of a novel, duration being time spent in composition or in reading or simply the passage of time within the fiction, there has to be time enough to seek explanation, to make sense…. Within the compass of a story, on the other hand, the unbidden, the whole, there need be no more than that moment that makes no sense, because it is adrift from history and from future, seen separated from what went before and what comes after which are in their turn what gives it context.”

I’ve been reading Steven Millhauser‘s book of new and collected stories, We Others, which comes out next month, and he made a similar point in a 2003 interview with Jim Shepard in Bomb: “But shortness encourages certain effects and not others. It encourages, for instance, the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment. In the little world of the story, many kinds of desirable effect are inherently impossible—say, the gradual elaboration of a psychology, the demonstration of change over time…. As for novels: in their dark hearts, don’t they long to be exhaustive? Novels are hungry, monstrous. Their apparent delicacy is deceptive—they want to devour the world.”

Also at Big Other, which I really should’ve been keeping up with regularly a long time ago: A word-hoard from Annie Proulx‘s The Shipping News.

“1. Mow lawn. 2. Get rid of that fucking hose.”

Novelist David Carkeet recalls a lifetime’s worth of resonant words and phrases that have a way of worming their way into one’s everyday thoughts. Or, as he puts it, “the crap in my head.” (via)

Michael Dirda considers the literary heritage of his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, and invites readers to share their own hometown authors. (To my knowledge, my hometown of Lyons, Illinois, has produced only one author of note, Jack Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia.)

Regarding The Tragedy of Arthur and other novels in which the author is a character: “The game element of art, the puzzle of the construction, distances us from what really greets us every morning, as opposed to that we confront in the turning of the page. These fictional autobiographies flag a form of deception and collusion between reader and writer.”

Frank Wilson isn’t sold on the third rule for book reviewers in Robert Pinsky’s much-circulated Slate piece. The rule in question: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.” Wilson writes, “Certainly reviews that focus exclusively or even principally on Pinsky’s third rule are a waste.” I agree it’s a difficult thing to pull off, especially in a tight word count, and it risks opening the door to off-point political readings and other ramblings. But it does have the benefit of putting the reviewer’s opinion in context. Perhaps it’d be more helpful to revise the rule or add a corollary to it: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about how well the book’s author addressed the thing the book is about.” (Or just dump Pinsky’s rules and go with Updike’s.)

Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” John Barth: let it go.

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V

Writing at the Poetry Foundation blog Harriet, Kenneth Goldsmith points out that the recent spate of books that aggressively “borrow” from other texts may have less to do with the death of the novel, the death of the author, or any other such nonsense. It’s just that today it’s a lot easier to copy and paste:

The previous forms of borrowing in literature, collage and pastiche—taking a word from here, a sentence from there—were developed based on the amount of labor involved. Having to manually retype or hand-copy an entire book on a typewriter is one thing; cutting and pasting an entire book with three keystrokes—select all / copy / paste—is another.

From there, Goldsmith recalls a conversation with a creative writing student who was flummoxed by an assignment in which she had to write a passage in the style of a particular author—in her case, Jack Kerouac. Goldsmith suggests she might have learned more about writing if she had copied out a passage of On the Road, or, better still, the entire book. “Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?” he asks. Probably. But understanding style isn’t really the end goal of the copy-and-paste set—David ShieldsReality Hunger or Ander Monson‘s Vanishing Point are more interested in questioning the identity of the author than the quality of writing. (In a way, they’re actually somewhat against the quality of writing, or at least defiantly disinterested in it—Monson’s “assembloirs,” built from snippets of other memoirs, are designed to call out the same-ness in tone that afflicts such books, stripping away whatever pathos or individuality they might have.) That’s not to say that copying and pasting can’t make for some interesting commentary—just that the commentary will inevitably be about authors, not writing.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

When Jim Met Jack

In 1998 I spent about a half hour in the dressing room of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco interviewing the Jim Carroll, who died of a heart attack last Friday. It happened at the last minute, unsolicited, and I wasn’t very well schooled in his poetry. But I did admire his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, and loved “People Who Died.” So we talked about those things and about his years in the Bay Area, where he finished up that book, got clean, and started his punk band. My recollection of him is hazy—thin, smoking a lot, very engaged, with a voice that’s a strange mix of lilt and gravel. I recall encouraging him to talk more about his days in the town of Bolinas partly because I liked how he pronounced it, stretching the middle syllable out. Boh-leeeen-iss.

I’m not sure how trustworthy the factoids in the brief article that resulted are, though it would be nice if the Dalai Lama were indeed a fan of “People Who Died.” He certainly didn’t sound like he was bragging, and his discussions about his literary heroes generally seemed to be earthbound. Jack Kerouac blurbed The Basketball Diaries, writing that “at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today,” and in 1999 he told an interviewer how he scored that blurb. He wasn’t actually a big reader of Kerouac, but he was a great admirer of the beat poets who circled around him (h/t Steve Silberman):

I got to see him … in New York, between six and eight months before he died. He had to come into New York once in a while to see his agent. He was at Larry Rivers’ house, and of course he was surrounded by all his old friends. I went up to him, and he said he had gotten the manuscript. He said he would write me a letter of introduction. I didn’t want to publish the book then. I wanted to establish myself not as a street writer, but as a poet. What he was essentially doing was giving me a blurb. When I did decide to publish The Basketball Diaries, Anne Waldman solicited a blurb from Burroughs for the jacket of the original edition.

Kerouac sent me this letter, and said, if your publisher wants a blurb, here. I feel funny about blurbs. Myself, I don’t like to use them. But now, I get sent books from people who want blurbs, and I feel like I should reciprocate. Maybe it is bad form not to, but I usually don’t do it. I try to avoid it. Certainly, that quote from Kerouac has been wonderful for me. I feel he was being very generous. I know he wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t liked the work; I think he felt I was carrying on a certain spirit that was influenced by him. He thought I was carrying a torch, and in a spiritual sense, I was.

The Old Story About the Hot New Thing

Bill Wasik‘s new book, a study of online viral culture titled And Then There’s This, has a brief digression about the changing nature of literary celebrity. The launchpad for his discussion is the New York Times‘ much-maligned 2006 effort to name the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years, which was mainly a surprise-free celebration of old hands like DeLillo, Morrison, Updike, and so on. The flaw with the project, Wasik argues, wasn’t strictly fuddy-duddyism at the Times or the peculiarities of the people who were polled. The real issue has to do with what Wasik calls the rise of “niche sensationalism”—the creation, roughly in the past two decades, of a culture that celebrates young authors not for how talented they are but for how well they capture the zeitgeist. Which means that young authors now, even the very good ones, have no hope of being canonized, since they’re useful only for defining a moment that has since passed. (“Marisha Pessl? Wasn’t she somebody a couple of years ago?”)

Exhibit A for Wasik’s argument is “The Grunge American Novel,” a 1996 profile of David Foster Wallace published just as Infinite Jest was cementing his place as a major talent. The article is new to me, and it’s just as bad as Wasik says it is; Frank Bruni gives us Wallace coated with a goo of distrust and flameout-in-the-making, as if Wallace’s every motion were a canny pose designed to attract the interest of a New York Times reporter—as if following up a couple of admired but relatively obscure Pynchonesque books with a tricky thousand-page-plus novel was all some kind of prank the guy was pulling. (“He often wears a bandanna wrapped tightly around his head, as if to avoid combing his shoulder-length hair and to coddle his febrile mind,” Bruni writes. Maybe, one’s tempted to say, he just likes bandannas. And yet, Bruni writes, this bandanna thing has got to be some sort of act, because, as his investigations have uncovered, Wallace works out and uses toothpaste. The piece is truly something.)

Wallace eventually transcended such skepticism—by the time of his death last year, no reasonable person could argue that he was just some guy who got the cool kids excited back in 1996. But Wasik figures that now the media can behave no other way when it comes to covering writers: “Literature has become such a niche obsession that the only way to publish stories about it is through niche sensationalism; a new writer who can speak to some lost demographic (usually the young) is the only thing in the little world of American letters that can be called big news…. The media mind is about parasitism. And the paradigmatic act of media parasitism, one should always remember, is to sup vampirically at the neck of young, doomed fame.”

Wasik’s point is well-taken. But I still wonder if the hot-new-thing argument that he makes is all that new. From Bruni’s piece: “A decade ago, it was McInerney. Decades earlier, Mailer.” The theme of a young author rising up to speak the truth about how we really are goes back at least to the Beats. Indeed, the Times‘ famously breathless review of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road in 1957 calls out the same problem back then that Wasik argues plagues us today: Kerouac’s novel arrives “in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).” Was the way that Wallace’s intentions were manipulated and misinterpreted any different than the way that Kerouac’s was? The speed with which young authors are digested by the media maw is certainly faster now, but I suspect the appetite for them hasn’t much changed.

Retracing the Road

People do this a lot, right? There are certainly enough Jack Kerouac fans out there, and the whole point of On the Road was to inspire readers to take their own trips. But I can’t recall anybody doing what Rev. Angus Stuart, an Anglican priest living in Vancouver, has planned—starting next Monday he and a friend will retrace the trip that the second part of Kerouac’s novel covers (inspired by the trip that Kerouac and Neal Cassady took 40 years ago). They’ll start in Lowell, Mass. to pay tribute to the author before officially kicking off the trip in New York. He’s set up a blog to cover the journey, and he explains to the Vancouver Sun that he doesn’t see a disconnect between a man of the cloth undertaking a journey modeled after one full of cursing, carousing, and so forth:

“The immorality of the book? That was just the backdrop,” [Stuart says…. “On another level, and this has become more apparent to me as I’ve reread it, it’s a parable of life.”

To Stuart, the parable can be many things — that one must strive to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Stuart said, quoting Thoreau; that the path of excess, he said, quoting William Blake, leads to wisdom; that life is a gift not to be squandered; that you may find your home by leaving it. Whatever it is, what is important is the going.

1958: A Pretty Good Year

Gregory McNamee, writing at the Britannica Blog, notes that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac‘s novel The Dharma Bums. That factoid, combined with the news that the book shares an anniversary with with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, prompted me to see what other novels came out in 1958. Among the notables: Our Man in Havana, The Leopard, Dr. No, and Candy were all published that year. So was Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, not the writer’s finest hour but the book of his that I have the most affection for.

McNamee’s brief case for the worth of The Dharma Bums ends with a brief video taken from a marathon reading from the book in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., in October—part of the town’s annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival.

Beats: An Accounting

The Brits have funny ideas about American culture if they think that Smokey and the Bandit is somehow part of the Beat legacy. (Hey, why not RV, then? Kenny Rogers’ Six Pack?) But I appreciate the London Times asking—in the wake of the universally scathing reviews of the Jack Kerouac-William S. Burroughs collaboration, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tankswhat useful legacy the Beats actually have. Not much, on the evidence presented here, though the story is pretty fluffy. Still, it gets at a couple of the relevant issues about the Beat influence on American literature and culture, and calls out what is indeed one of the worst Beat lines: Kerouac’s “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The Independent recently ran a more substantive piece about the genesis of the Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration and its final publication. Which leads me to ask: Are the Brits the only people who care about the Beat legacy anymore?