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.”

All the Pretty Horses

Jaimy Gordon‘s Lord of Misrule is this year’s National Book Award winner in fiction, and there are a few obvious reasons why. It’s a finely considered portrait of a particular time and place—specifically a downtrodden West Virginia racetrack in the 1970s, where scam artists drive boatlike Cadillacs and everybody is placing too much hope on some B-list horse or other. Another part of the novel’s appeal is that its scam artists aren’t particularly artistic; Gordon has an shrewd eye for the emotional and financial clumsiness of each of her characters, and she’s skilled at exposing their foibles without holding them up to mockery. Mostly: Toward the end, when a group of two-bit mobsters and track habitues squabble over a ridiculous abduction, it’s hard not to think of William Faulkner‘s “Spotted Horses,” another horse story that featured people so thickheaded that part of the fun was recognizing that a) these scheming characters all deserved each other and b) you weren’t them.

But what’s mostly interesting about Lord of Misrule—the only thing that conceivably could have catapulted it to prizewinning status—is how it sounds. Early on, Maggie, the ostensible heroine of the novel, examines a horse:

The right front cannon bone on the black horse resembled an old ragged galosh right down to the lumpy buckles. Blister, cautery, everything had been done. And in Maggie’s eyes he had a giant prehistoric head—armor plated, scarred like a box and ugly as a rhinoceros.

That gets at Gordon’s feel for alliteration, rhythm, and (especially) simile—she has a tremendous knack for the image that exposes the rot and contempt in the world she describes. (“The game was funny, not funny ha-ha, funny like green lunchmeat.” “Natalie, the New Rochelle auto parts chainstore divorcee, with her big pink open mouth like a toilet seat.”) But those quotes don’t quite get at the dreamlike quality that Gordon strives for, how she counterbalances the petty despair of most her characters with the strangely attractive world of the track and the horses. Maggie again:

The racetrack asleep at night is a live and spooky place, especially if you think somebody might jump out at you, and she did think so—small world that ends at a fence, the dark blue restless air fragrant with medicinals, Absorbine, liniment, pine tar—everywhere light chains clanking, water buckets creaking and sloshing, round glimmers of water, horses masticating or snorting out dust, straw rustling, skinny cats glimpsed everywhere but only for a moment, always in motion, noiseless.

Better still is how she writes about the horses themselves: One stands “in his bucket of ice as cool as a Tiffany cocktail stirrer, dreaming in black jewelry eyes of emerald alfalfa and clover of Burmese jade.” But Gordon’s ambition extends beyond just crafting a prose poem about horse racing—she’s also chosen to pick up the additional task of weaving her own voice into the voices of her other characters. Chapters focused on Maggie’s boyfriend, Tommy, tend to be narrated in second person—a way to intimately show how his sense of ownership of horses extends to women as well. (“…you could get to her through her body. It was a black, rich, well-watered way, between rock faces. The word podzol came to mind. The word humus. Soil. Slut.”) With Medicine Ed, an aging black groom, Gordon plays with dialect (“And then he forgot about drinking, found he grew ponderful in the evenings on his own anymore, didn’t need no likka, no nothing”)—but tentatively, never diving so deep into his character that she has to choose between his voice and hers.

Reviewing the novel for the Washington Post, Jane Smiley suggested that this range of voices “allows for immediacy but not for perspective. The wisdom these characters offer is limited by the narrowness of their world.” But that narrowness is largely the point—Gordon’s task is to make her characters sympathetic in spite of their behavior, in spite of their lack of understanding of a world away from the track. (Only Maggie appears to have once lived a life not defined by horses, writing about food for a newspaper supplement.) What Gordon has really sacrificed in focusing so much on voice isn’t “perspective” so much as plot. Ultimately the story turns on little more than the outcomes of particular races, and Gordon herself admits to the preposterousness of the kidnapping storyline in the final third of the novel: “Nowadays you couldn’t just let some Black Bart tie you to the railroad tracks and walk away and leave you. The age demanded signs of a struggle even from a corpse.” And Black Bart-ish it is. Of course, it’s not just “the age” that demands signs of a struggle—novels demand it too. But Lord of Misrule‘s chief flaw is that it can’t quite couple a convincing struggle to the beauty of its language.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

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.

Time and Twain

I confess I missed Time magazine’s recent big to-do over Mark Twain, partly because it spurs some guilt. Mr. Clemens isn’t exactly a blind spot in my reading—I’ve read the essential novels, and more than a handful of short stories and essays—but I’ve also missed plenty, and I wasn’t much in the mood for a reminder when Time‘s cover package came out. David Kipen‘s approving blog post on Time’s efforts notes that I have plenty of cheats when it comes to catching up on Twain—particularly, which has an entire page dedicated to quotes on Teddy Roosevelt alone. Kipen’s post also notes that, news to me, Jane Smiley prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Huckleberry Finn. Smiley clarified this point in a 1998 interview:

People seem to remember my saying that Huck Finn is a lesser novel than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin should be taken as the greatest American novel. I didn’t say that. I just said that I didn’t think Huck Finn was the greatest novel ever written and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was better than its reputation.