News Feed as Archive

Ruth Franklin, commenting on the New York Timesarticle on John Updike‘s papers, writes that such collections are inevitably disappointing:

[T]the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there.

And there’ll be plenty more not-there in future archives, she notes; after all, there’s no paper trail when writers draft their novels in Word. “What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art,” she writes. “And that process leaves no trace.” But it may be that the lack of evidence of excisions and changes may be replaced with a whole new set of data points relating to the writing process. Assuming people get smart about archiving, there’ll be plenty of blog posts, Tweets, and Facebook updates for literary biographers to trawl through in the future, and those updates will be more precise to boot. Where once Updike hung onto a Planters Peanut Bar wrapper for some reason at some point, we can now know that a future brilliant writer, at 2:15 a.m. on July 2, 2008, liked a Diet Coke-and-Mentos video.

That bit of information, in itself, isn’t very meaningful. (Unless, I suppose, this hypothetical brilliant writer’s most powerful work involves Diet Coke and Mentos.) But all that online activity, with the authority of timestamping, might make for a kind of a negative portrait—an image of the writer when he or she wasn’t writing that hints as much at the “alchemy” as any other assortment of writerly detritus. And if there’ll be less evidence of the careful revisions that Updike’s archive displays, there’ll probably be more commentary about the process than what Updike bothered to write down. The ephemera will be there; we just won’t have to find shelf space for it.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Links: For Want of a Blurb…

Novelist Robert Girardi, author of Amelia’s Ghost Madeleine’s Ghost, has run into some bad luck of late and is now working janitorial and maintenance jobs in the D.C. area—though I can only work up so much sympathy for a guy who wound up in jail after “he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle [his wife] to the floor.” Girardi fumes that he’s been unfairly neglected by the Washington Post—“You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher”—but there are some problems even a book review can’t solve.

Independent publisher MacAdam/Cage, which seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, is apparently active again, sending out galleys and saying it plans to put out some of the books it had delayed. The MacAdam/Cage website suggests the revival is not yet complete—the homepage is still pushing Brendan Short‘s Dream City, which came out in 2008—but I’m hoping that Jack PendarvisShut Up, Ugly eventually hits shelves.

Southern Methodist University Press isn’t quite saved from the chopping block, but its existence now seems a bit more secure than it did a week ago. Ron Hogan has spent the past week at Beatrice catching up with some of the writers SMU Press publishes.

Annie Proulx sees a bit of her life in Wyoming in the wood sculptures of British artist David Nash.

Lionel Shriver values her life at around $20,000. “They have actually put a literal price on human life in [Britain]; it is worth $15,000 a year… I thought that was a little on the low side. If it were a matter of my life I might throw in an extra five grand.”

Julia Keller sounds a dissenting note about Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, advocating instead for Susan Fromberg Schaeffer‘s 1989 novel, Buffalo Afternoon.

John Waters has some suggestions for a high-school reading list; his heart is in the right place, though it’s doubtful he’d get much teaching work. “You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about ‘The Life of Benjamin Franklin’; I wanted to read ‘Naked Lunch.’

If Curtis Sittenfeld is going set a book in Wisconsin, shouldn’t she know better than to use a non-word like “Wisconsonian”?

John Updike‘s typewriter will be auctioned next month. A study of the ribbon reveals that he used the machine to inform his typist that “her services will no longer be needed because he purchased a word processor.”

Links: Boy Meets Tractor

Incoming Paris Review editor Lorin Stein: “Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.”

Even if Jeffrey Eugenides did teach his own books in class—a practice many students criticize—he says he wouldn’t enjoy much of a windfall from it. “Probably about $10 per semester, if you add it up.”

Reality Hunger‘s “assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s.”

Are vampire novels dead?

Lorrie Moore: “Right now, I’m writing stories about money. I’m very interested in what people will do for money. Money: it’s timeless.”

Debut fiction writer Adam Schuitema rightfully praises his teacher Stuart Dybek‘s The Coast of Chicago: “It’s like a really great album, where the first song makes sense as the first song, the last song makes sense as the last song, and each song gains strength as part of the collection.”

Online excerpts from the new book Letters of Sylvia Beach include the pioneering Paris bookseller’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, and others.

The case for thinking of Walter Mosley as a Jewish author.

How Mark Twain‘s death was covered by the media; and how one Brit spent his time in Hannibal, Missouri, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

Audio of John Updike reading Frank O’Hara‘s “The Day Lady Died.” (via)

Lionel Shriver: “You’re better off not waiting for inspiration. I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate.”

Links: The Hoover Institution

“[Joyce Carol Oates] says she often has to bribe herself to write — dangling an hour or two of gardening as her reward — and gets her best ideas while vacuuming.”

C-SPAN’s new online video library is stuffed full of literary material from the past 20-odd years, including awards programs, conferences, readings and more. Among the videos is a 2004 PEN American Center event featuring Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Francine Prose, and Russell Banks.

Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav are the three finalists for the teaching position at Pomona College once held by David Foster Wallace.

On the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain‘s death, let us remember that he was a pipe aficionado, an early baseball enthusiast, a tourist magnet.

On the first anniversary of John Updike‘s death, let us remember that not everybody is impressed with his work. “He’s a fine realist,” says Yale professor Amy Hungerford. “But he doesn’t push the envelope of the novel. He is simply not on the vanguard of what fiction has to say.”

James Mulholland, who along with a few of his students answered some of my questions about his 9/11 novel course last year, defends the honor of graduate studies in the humanities: “[W]e must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.”

Kurt Vonnegut draws a few charts to explain how narrative works.

The next F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will honor Alice McDermott.

On the evidence of this assortment of photographs, you’re not required to be a smoker to be a Hero of American Literature, but it helps.

“Sad smelling”

After announcing yesterday that it had acquired the papers of David Foster Wallace, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin posted a few articles and images to give people a sense of what it has on its hands. It may be that only serious Wallace scholars give a damn about what words he circled in the dictionary, but his scribblings inside his books are fascinating, in part because they put your squinting ability to the test—he seemingly found a sweet spot between handwriting that was legible to himself but that few others could parse.

The jottings don’t appear to be anything serious—anybody who’s drawing vampire fangs on Cormac McCarthy‘s author photo is just goofing around before getting down to business, and it’s reassuring that Wallace puttered just like the rest of us schlubs. But it’s clear that he used the first couple of pages of his paperback copy of Rabbit, Run to work out his frustrations with John Updike. “Sad smelling,” he writes. On the next page, in capital letters: “RABBIT MOURNS HIMSELF.” It’s easy to think of these scribblings as early notes toward his 1997 essay on the “Great Male Narcissists”, in which he explored his love-hate relationship with Updike, writing, “[E]ven since Rabbit Is Rich—as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding indication that the author understood that they were repellent—I’ve continued to read Mr. Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.”

Earlier this year Katie Roiphe used that essay to make an example of the post-Updike generation of novelists, who in her estimation have failed to appropriately write about penises or something—that Wallace’s attack on Updike’s narcissism was a kind of narcissism itself. But Wallace’s issue with Updike wasn’t so much with sex as with Updike’s seeming inability to recognize that his characters’ sexual obsessions could be flaws and not amusing traits; when Wallace saw a genuinely good writer behave this way, his synapses fried. He explained this a little more casually in an extended 1996 interview with David Lipsky, to be published next month as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace:

Updike, I think, has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got an ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you just have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.

You really do, don’t you?

Yeah, I think he’s a nasty person.

The BBC’s American Archive

Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:

One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.

Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.

All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:

I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.