ABCD Memories

The web’s been around for 15 years or so—enough time to be nostalgic about its olden days. So the news that FEED magazine has placed its archives online was enough to trigger flashbacks to my web-worker stints in San Francisco in the mid-90s, when Suck was essential reading, the only thing Amazon sold was books, and the most exciting thing a magazine could do with its articles on the web was…put them on the web. The most interesting thing about the archives, at first glance, is how many familiar names are there, particularly in the books section: Keith Gessen and Sam Lipsyte discussing Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist; a pre-Talking Points Memo Joshua Micah Marshall laying into Maureen Dowd; Ana Marie Cox considering whether Stephen King‘s online-only short story was the future of literature (nah).

Among the gems is Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “To Heaven Without Dying,” a funny, occasionally defensive consideration of the attention her debut story collection received, and of what she owes her Bengali heritage as a result of it. Lahiri read her press, and though she was mainly bemused by the way Indian critics nitpicked her descriptions of Calcutta and its residents, she took it seriously enough to turn it into an essay on why fiction, not America or India, is “the foreign land of my choosing.” As much as she wants to define herself strictly as a fiction writer, though, she realizes others were going to decide who she was for her:

Once made public, both my book and myself were immediately and copiously categorized. Take, for instance, the various ways I am described: as an American author, as an Indian-American author, as a British-born author, as an Anglo-Indian author, as an NRI (non-resident Indian) author, as an ABCD author (ABCD stands for American born confused “desi” — “desi” meaning Indian — and is an acronym coined by Indian nationals to describe culturally challenged second-generation Indians raised in the U.S.). According to Indian academics, I’ve written something known as “Diaspora fiction”; in the U.S., it’s “immigrant fiction.” In a way, all of this amuses me. The book is what it is, and has been received in ways I have no desire or ability to control. The fact that I am described in two ways or twenty is of no consequence; as it turns out, each of those labels is accurate.

In some ways the piece feels like a rehearsal for her 2003 novel, The Namesake, whose protagonist was also deemed an ABCD and generally had to weather others’ ideas about what category he fell into. The stories in 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth suggest she’s still working it out, but earlier this year she expressed a hope to spare her children the same anxiety, telling an audience at Babson College, “I think the U.S. is made up almost entirely of layers of immigrants…. [T]o be honest, the project of raising children is daunting and you just want your children to be good people, loving people, caring people.”

Links: Very Strange or Very Famous

What kind of writer was Raymond Carver? As the new Library of America collection of his work shows, it’s complicated, largely for reasons having to do with Gordon Lish.

Related: “When Novelists Sober Up”

Portnoy: Gay?

Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian.”

Alice Hoffman on how Fahrenheit 451 rejuvenated her.

A musical about the last days of Ernest Hemingway (“complete with a cheery song about how to load a gun”) stinks, and it’s closing early.

William Kennedy is finishing his first novel since 2002’s Roscoe; it’ll be an addition to the Albany Cycle.

Amitav Ghosh would love to hang out more with his neighbor Jhumpa Lahiri, but she tends to be busy.

An inventive approach to book shelving. But heaven knows where my Robot Chicken DVDs would fit in this scheme.

George Pelecanos‘ UK publisher sure is pushing the Wire angle hard with the cover of his new novel, The Way Home. He’s so popular in England that they let him open for the Pogues:

On that note, I’ll be taking some time off from the blog for a few days, enjoying some time off the grid, listening to music, and spending a little more time reading books than chattering about them. We’ll get this thing plugged back in around the middle of next week.

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.

Links; Housekeeping

David Foster Wallace used his Amherst undergraduate thesis to dismantle a philosophical brand of fatalism. Quite successfully, to hear some scholars tell it.

Tobias Wolff‘s short story “Awake” is available in full on the London Times‘ Web site.

Jhumpa Lahiri
wins a lot of prize money. She gives a lot of it away.

The young, brilliant, intellectually and sexually tormented Susan Sontag.

Care to go on a train ride with Paul Theroux?

Bantam is reprinting Ernest Callenbach‘s ’70s cult novel, Ecotopia, which imagined a world of slow food and recycling bins years before such things got traction in American life. (Also: Nice to see the byline of Scott Timberg, who was recently laid off by the Los Angeles Times.)

Denis Johnson doesn’t have a damned clue what the future of the book is, and it’s anybody’s guess why he was invited onto a panel to discuss the matter. “He admitted to an audience member who wondered how much of the panel’s resistance to digital media was old fogeyism, ‘I think I can give you an exact figure on that: 87 percent. We’ve become irrelevant. We no longer point the way for the culture, but we’ll always be important to individuals. That’s the communication and always has been — between one individual, the writer, and another, the reader.'”


Some News About Me

When I started this blog in January, I stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, told myself that I would feed it at least once daily. Eventually I eased up on the throttle and took Saturdays off, then wound up using that day to update the D.C.-Area Readings list. (Some great events have recently been announced, by the way, especially the Nextbook reading series at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, featuring Etgar Keret and Rivka Galchen, among others.) Running a blog is addictive, not just because it forces you to keep an eye on a beat but because it introduces you to a whole crowd of friendly, supportive people. I’m flattered by the attention and subscribers and support my effort has received—especially from the litbloggers who welcomed my arrival to the blogosphere despite the fact that I showed up about five years late.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that things may get unsettled here in the coming weeks and months. Dec. 19 will be my last day at Washington City Paper, where I’ve worked for the past two years (following two years at its sister paper, the Chicago Reader). Starting in January I’ll be working at Associations Now, a magazine published by the D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives & the Center for Association Leadership. I’m excited about the change: I’ll be joining a group of smart people doing idea-driven journalism, working at a glossy, learning more about the nonprofit world, and hopefully finding a use for some of my more egghead-y reading on networks and organizational theory—subjects one winds up absorbing osmotically when there’s a sociologist in the house.

Happily, my new employer has no problem with my freelancing and blogging, though updates may not come as often as usual—the day job always comes first, and I’ll be spending some time getting up to speed with the new one. (And anyway, book reviewing and blogging has always been a sideline for me. With very rare exceptions, I never read or wrote about books at the office. The blogging was always completely separate.) The upside to all this, for me, is that it’s an opportunity for me to rethink this whole enterprise. If Twitter is teaching us anything, it’s that link journalism via blog has its limits; seeing as 90 percent of what this blog does is link journalism, I’ve been pondering what to do here in the way of interviews, essays, and more. (N.B.: I’ve updated the page for authors and publicists, both of whom are welcome to contact me directly regarding ARCs, readings, and interviews.)

I’ll see how things work out in the coming months. In the meantime, thanks to the many folks who read these posts, wrote in, suggested links, and commented. I’ll make this confounded thing work one way or another.

Weiland on State by State

Matt Weiland talks up the new collection he edited with Sean Wilsey, State by State, with the Rake, in the process pointing out what’s both good and bad about the book:

We wanted to make a book as cacophonous and messy and interesting as the nation itself, and that meant allowing writers to do their own thing and go off their own way. It’s kind of the way it feels driving across the country – wind in your hair, and windows rolled down, and everything – and you just bump into different landmarks and different topography and different sorts of people.

So we wanted different sorts of writers, too. Not just novelists, but also journalists and graphic novelists, and we have a musician, and a filmmaker, and of course a cook. We also wanted it to vary in terms of the style of the pieces. There’s Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant piece about New York, for instance, which is in the form of dramatic dialogue. We had no idea he was going to do that. It was terrific. And the unlikeliest piece, I think, was Craig Taylor’s. He wrote about Delaware, and it’s an oral history, like Studs Terkel’s great books.

He’s spot-on about Taylor’s piece, and it may say something that the best piece in a book about America was written by a Brit. As I pointed out elsewhere, the better essays in State by State are the reported ones, and on that front the pieces by fiction writers tend to be letdowns (Myla Goldberg and Jhumpa Lahiri being, surprisingly, the worst offenders). But more than anything else the book is a bit of a mess—for every nicely turned piece by Ha Jin or Alison Bechdel there’s a clunker, none worse than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh‘s odd Ugly American piece, for which the state of South Dakota deserves an apology. (“‘Look at us,’ I shouted. ‘We’re trout fishing in South Dakota!'”)

L. Rust Hills and the Death of the Short Story

Two stories worth pressing against each other. First, today’s news that L. Rust Hills, former fiction editor at Esquire, has died. Hills provided a home in Esquire‘s pages for Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and many more. But:

When he was first hired at Esquire, in 1957, the magazine’s fiction had turned away from its original lofty aspirations; once the home of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, by the late 1950s it had shifted more toward adventure stories for adventure’s sake.

That’s a detail worth noting in relation to Stephen Amidon‘s interesting recent meditation on the death of the short story in the Times (U.K.):

Even in America, the readership for short stories is undergoing a significant contraction. Fewer large-circulation magazines are publishing fiction, and those that do fail to pay enough to keep writers in the black. (The New Yorker pays a dollar a word for first-timers, which means you can’t even buy a car if you are lucky enough to place a short story there.) Lahiri notwithstanding, New York publishers are increasingly less likely to take a chance on a short-story collection.

It’d be facile to extrapolate any big statement from this—to either say that the short story is on its deathbed, or that these things are cyclical. Esquire still publishes fiction (gives it its own silo on its Web site, in fact), yet people don’t read as much as they used to; it’s complicated. But there’s little question that a book like Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth is an outlier, that by and large the short-story collection doesn’t have the prized place it did, say, 20 years ago. It may be that Lahiri is one of the few working writers today who feel the form is a destination, not a launchpad. It may be there are fewer magazine editors today who care to curate the form. Money’s probably involved, too. In any case, Amidon’s piece is worth reading as a cautionary essay—a warning that while the short story will never die, it’s at risk of becoming a niche enterprise.

Jhumpa Lahiri Isn’t Doing Anything Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth—still in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list—isn’t out in the U.K. yet. The Guardian assembles a primer on Lahiri’s success, though I want to say that Edward Helmore is overreaching with his argument that her work signals a seachange in American fiction:

But can Lahiri’s stories—along with those of immigrant authors such as Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Gary Shteyngart (from Russia) and Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic)—supplant the white male authors who informed US culture throughout the 20th century? In the era of globalisation, are immigrant stories the more compelling, relevant and energetic? Part of the answer lies with the US education system, which is making renewed efforts to make room for authors like Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee and Khaled Hosseini.

I get the argument: There’s only so many times you can hear Updike/Roth/Chabon/McCarthy bolted to lists of great American authors before you start thinking that you’re in a world exclusive to white men. But like the “Bob Dylan Is Back!” story that gets written every time he puts out a new album, “Our Newly Diverse American Fiction!” is a story that’s been told repeatedly for decades now. You heard it with Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Amy Tan, and more; the shelves of my home growing up were filled with Harry Mark Petrakis books (no Wikipedia page for him!), and he began writing in the ’50s. Were journalists writing trend pieces in 1918? If so, you might’ve heard something about My Antonia wresting American literature from the urbane fists of Henry James.

None of the authors I’ve just listed claim the place that Roth alone does, and it’s fair to speculate about why that is. But the real story isn’t about the immigrant narrative being something new, but why it’s often played a B-team role. After all, even Updike recognizes the value of the assimilation narrative, even if he wasn’t enthusiastic about my favorite novel of last year, Ha Jin‘s A Free Life. As long as those stories stay in the shadows, the ones that grab some sales heat will be extolled, wrongly, as something shockingly new.

So What Else Is New?

Yesterday the National Book Critics Circle announced its latest Good Reads list—a selection of recently published books recommended by its members. Here’s the fiction list (links and formatting direct from the announcement post on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass):

1. Richard Price, LUSH LIFE, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Knopf
3. Steven Millhauser, DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Knopf
*4. Charles Baxter, THE SOUL THIEF, Pantheon
*4. Peter Carey, HIS ILLEGAL SELF, Knopf
*4. J. M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, Viking
*4. James Collins, BEGINNNER’S GREEK, Little, Brown
*4. Brian Hall, FALL OF FROST, Viking
*4. Roxana Robinson, COST, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
*4. Owen Sheers, RESISTANCE, Nan A. Talese: Doubleday

You won’t have to look far to find somebody argue that this list is stuffed with the usual suspects. That’s a somewhat odd complaint to me, as somebody who spent a couple of years contributing to pop-music polls. I mean, of course these lists are filled with known names—they’re consensus-building exercises. Surprises, practically by definition, aren’t going to rise to the top. And I’m skeptical about consensus-building exercises in the age of the long tail. But something to keep in mind: When I attended a gathering at Politics & Prose a few months back to discuss the last batch of selections, many of the folks who attended found all this stuff surprising, and you don’t show up at Politics & Prose on a balmy Saturday afternoon to listen to book critics natter on unless you care about reading.

This time around, I suspect that most folks with even a casual interest in contemporary literature have heard plenty about Price and Lahiri, and anybody who makes writing about books part of their daily business is thoroughly sick of the pair of ’em by now. That’s not to say that a list of books that a preponderance of critics cared about is valueless, though—if only for folks who might be curious about what critics care about, and transparency is always a good thing.

All that said, I’m an NBCC member, and I was mindful this time around about not being one more person boosting Lush Life—much as I love it, it doesn’t need any more help. My pick was Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder, about which more soon.

Act Naturally

The film rights to Philip Roth‘s forthcoming novel, Indignation, have been picked up by Scott Rudin, who coproduced the film version of Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men. It’s a seven-figure deal, something that apparently doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to with novels, according to a Variety report:

The money paid for these books and articles is modest compared to the market boom of the mid- to late 1990s, when Pat Conroy’s “Beach Music” sold to Paramount for north of $5 million and Michael Crichton’s “Airframe” went to Disney for $10 million. Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” fetched $3 million from New Line in 2000.

None of those pics has yet been made. As such, it’s highly unusual for the majors to get whipped into a frenzy that results in a seven-figure upfront deal for a book author.

And a quick DoSP note: I have a brief review of Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth in City Paper, buried in the back of its massive Best-Of issue, which I’d highly recommend as a handy, only-mildly-snarky-this-time guide to the District.

Roundup: Mission Accomplished

  • Dave Eggers speaks at TED about the success of his 826 Valencia project.
  • That’s not just a white suit–that’s a heavily armored ego-protecting shell. Tom Wolfe says the critiques of I Am Charlotte Simmons only prove he’s Pete Rose: “”I feel like Pete Rose did when his batting average dipped from something like .331 to .308, and he said, ‘That’s not bad for a guy entering his fourth decade.’ “
  • The latest issue of Bookforum is now online. Hard to figure out where to start but I gravitated to the Jhumpa Lahiri interview, in which she discusses immigrant fiction and the Indian writer pigeonhole:

I get frustrated by this tendency to flatten whole segments of the population, like the Indian immigrant or the Jewish immigrant. I know these are just words and phrases, but I think people tend to see these other groups as a people. They are “other,” and it’s harder to see the nuances and the variations because they’re just a group of people. I have been sensitive to it my whole life, and annoyed by it. As a writer, I didn’t set out to represent a certain group of people, but I acknowledge that I write about Indians and Indian Americans. And I hope at least in writing about these characters, you can prevent those generalizations.