Links: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.

Overlooked and Underappreciated

Earlier this week A.N. Devers asked her followers on Twitter to weigh in on great American novelists who are overlooked in some way. She was inspired to do so by a piece in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke calling out unconscious gender bias among book critics, but the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist hashtag quickly acquired a mix of male and female writers: The final list of authors she assembled includes J.F. Powers, Pervical Everett, and John Crowley in addition to Dawn Powell, Kathryn Davis, and Joy Williams.

It wasn’t such a bad way to kill a few minutes, and because I had D.C. novelists on my mind lately, I put in a word, yet again, for Ward Just. This got a response from Janice Harayda, former Cleveland Plain Dealer books editor and founder of One-Minute Book Reviews, who wondered if a writer who tends to get lots of praise lavished on him by the likes of the Washington Post can really be considered overlooked.

I responded that a writer can still be overlooked even if he or she gets stacks of positive press—once again, there’s little evidence that reviews sell books—and that Just was something of an unusual case. For all that positive press, he’s never won a major award, and though his style and themes (Henry James-ian, thinky but accessible, interested in both political and personal affairs) suggest he could’ve had John Updike‘s audience, he rarely comes up in conversation, online or otherwise. I wouldn’t make it a rallying cry or anything, but sometimes older white-guy authors fail to get the readers they deserve too; the marketplace is full of injustices, and they’re not exclusively a function of gender.

In any event, I tried to compress all that in a tweet, to which Harayda responded that authors like Just aren’t so much “overlooked” as “underappreciated.” The distinction between the two terms wasn’t quite clear to me, so I dropped Harayda a line asking if she could take a moment to clarify. She did better than that, both explaining the difference between the terms and challenging some of the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist responses. Here’s Harayda:

What troubled me about some of the Twitter suggestions was this: Until about 20 years or so ago, entire groups of people truly were overlooked by the publishing industry: gays, blacks, and Latinos and other ethnic groups. In some cases, they had almost no voice, because they couldn’t get published. Black women are one example. The breakthrough for them came with the publication of Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale in 1995. Until that sold well, black female writers of popular fiction simply could not get published. At all. I’m not exaggerating. A year or so before Waiting to Exhale came out, I covered a Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention as background for a 7-part series for the Plain Dealer on how romance novels were changing. And it was heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the black women there. The only firm that would publish them was a small press that was started because nobody else would take on black female romance novelists. The major publishers were telling black female writers of popular fiction things like—this is a direct quote—“Black people don’t read.”

Apart from issues such as race or sex, entire classes of novels are routinely “overlooked” in important areas like prize-giving—for example, comic novels, which have always been taken less seriously than tragedies even if they’re just as good. Let’s face it: Would P.G. Wodehouse stand a chance at a Man Booker Prize? And variations on this principle are still affecting writers. Virtually every week at the Plain Dealer I saw good novels that weren’t going to get reviewed, by us or most other places, just because there wasn’t space.

Contrast such situations to that of some of the people mentioned on Twitter yesterday, such as J.P. Marquand and J.F. Powers. They are both good writers, and, yes, may deserve more readers today. But Marquand won a Pulitzer and Powers, a National Book Award. Is this really being “overlooked”? If so, it feeds into the Manichean view that grips publishing today: You’re a peacock or a you’re feather duster. There’s less and less middle ground. Your books are bestsellers or you’re “overlooked,” a duality works against authors. You mentioned Ward Just, who has had a distinguished career without gaining the stature or sales of Updike. I believe you that he deserves more readers. But if the reception Just has had amounts to being “overlooked,” many writers would kill for it. And it doesn’t seem to me that Just is overlooked because his books haven’t had Updike’s sales or nobody talks about him for the Nobel. Everybody doesn’t have to hit it big in all categories. To my mind, the people who are “overlooked” are not those who have won big prizes, but those who never had a chance at them either because they couldn’t get published or because they wrote books of high literary merit in categories unfashionable with prize judges or readers.

Point taken—Just, like many others on the list, isn’t suffering so much from a poverty of attention as a lack of readers to match that attention. Though I’m not sure what changes that. Maybe it doesn’t require changing. What if the appetite for realist Catholic fiction by J.F. Powers is precisely at the level it ought to be today, even if it’s less than it once was? Is Powers then “overlooked,” or are his books simply meeting their market?

The Creeps

New York Review Books has a habit of pulling me away from my regularly scheduled reading by putting out something that’s unfamiliar to me, well-written, and hits a lot of my pleasure points–last year Kenneth Fearing‘s The Big Clock, Elaine Dundy‘s The Dud Avocado, and The Stories of J. F. Powers all did a number on me. The Philadelphia Enquirer Inquirer points to another promising title, Robert Montgomery Bird‘s 1836 novel about metempsychosis, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. From Edward Pettit‘s review:

Poe wrote that the novel is “a farce of very pretty finesse.” True, but Bird’s humor is also sharp, even cynically driven. He leaves no social group (not even slaves) unscathed. Although I am suspicious of his characterization of the issues of slavery, it fits the broader purpose of his novel, which is to dissipate the delusions of a corrupt society. Sheppard Lee’s imposture of his fellow citizens mirrors the false pretenses of a nation. Bird’s richly nuanced novel wears the dramatic mask of comedy, but underneath lies the mask of tragedy.

(Side note: Christopher Looby, who wrote the introduction to the book, was my BA thesis advisor.)