Links: New Deal

Guest editor Claire Messud dedicates the new issue of Guernica to women writers, including Holly Goddard Jones, Porochista Khakpour, and Elliott Holt. In her introductory essay, Messud writes: “Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men…. Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.”

Aleksandar Hemon (also in Guernica): “I think the short story has been revived by these so-called immigrant writers; they do not know what the common lore is so they don’t care about it.”

John Updike never reviewed T.C. Boyle‘s books, and don’t think Boyle didn’t notice. But that that doesn’t mean Updike did him no favors.

This Side of Paradise will be a musical.

So will American Psycho.

Daniel Green has assembled an impressive list of major author interviews (i.e., non newspaper-phoners) that are available online. HTMLGiant wants suggestions for worthy additions to it. (I have one!)

Myla Goldberg: “Writing—it’s sort of the opposite of blogging and tweeting because I’m trying to conceal. I don’t want you to see me.”

Links: She’ll Never Know Your Story Like I Do

Two good links re: Roiphe and then we’ll move on: Andrew Seal uses the essay to dig into John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, while Anne Trubek argues that the foofaraw is a missed opportunity for a more serious discussion about sexism.

Cormac McCarthy had a few notes for the the director and screenwriter of The Road before it was released.

A documentary on Walker Percy is in the works.

Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, Chuck Kinder‘s 2001 “nonfiction novel” about his friendship with Raymond Carver, has been reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The new edition includes letters that Carver wrote to Diane Cicely, now Kinder’s wife.

A appreciation of J.D. Salinger, who recently turned 91, notes that you might occasionally find him in the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College.

The director of Gatz, a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which the entire text of the novel is presented over six and a half-hours, discusses how and why he did it.

John Updike has an agent, finally.

“The book was no fun to write”: Anne Tyler is avoiding the hard sell for her new novel, Noah’s Compass.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Links: AST Company

Responses to the closing of Kirkus Reviews:

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton on the magazine’s children’s book coverage: “What Kirkus did was to treat books for children and adults the same in the same publication.”

Carolhoda Books editorial director Andrew Karre: “[T]here is no circumstance under which no review would have been preferable” to a negative one.

Washington City Paper‘s Mike Riggs: “[T]he Web is peopled with shit-talkers, and most of them do for free what Kirkus charged money for (bad reviews)…. Kirkus was a check against the site’s near-unregulated comment policy.” I attempted to bestow the acronym AST (“Amazon shit-talker”) in the comment thread to that post, arguing that anonymous reviews on Amazon aren’t cut from the same cloth as Kirkus reviews. (Of course, I have a dog in this hunt, and I’m a former City Paper staffer.) Author Joni Rodgers stepped in to argue that critics who write negative reviews are assholes, I lost it a little, and Rodgers proceeded to modify her argument slightly to say that critics who don’t like a book should just shut up about it. All of which may say something about the value of comment threads. At any rate, Rodgers has expanded on her thinking in a blog post, and though she says nice things about me in it, her arguments about Kirkus and book reviewing are no more fact-based or sensible.

Onward:

For the next five days, you can hear BBC’s radio play of Joshua Ferris‘ novel, And Then We Came to the End.

The London Review of BooksChristopher Tayler, like many critics, figures that Paul Auster hasn’t been the same writer in the past ten years. He has a theory about why.

Technology is destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

In related news, technology is really destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

Need more proof? Andre Aciman‘s son is one of the authors of Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

Heroes of American Literature #19: Lillian Hellman.

Roger Ebert assembles a batch of Charles Bukowski-related videos.

Ray Bradbury‘s best efforts to save a Ventura, California, library failed.

John Updike‘s Rabbit, Run turns 50 next year. The John Updike Society is using the anniversary as an opportunity to launch its first conference next year.

Kurt Vonnegut: “You’ll never make a living at being a writer. Hell you may even die trying. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It’s about grace.”

The Leaden Feeling of the Cosmos

The New Yorker‘s litblog, the Book Bench, has posted a lengthy 1978 interview of John Updike by two professors of English at the University of Sarajevo. Updike covers Moby-Dick, his writing routine, authors he enjoys who live outside the United States, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize in literature. But he also expounds on the wave of postmodern authors who were coming into full flower at the time, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:

I really find it not easy to read him; I don’t like the funny names and I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us. I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too. Temperamentally, I just have not been able to read enough Pynchon to pronounce intelligently upon him. Clearly, the man is the darling of literary criticism in America now, especially of collegiate criticism. I am just no expert but all I can say is I have not much enjoyed the Pynchon I have tried to read…. I am not among those who has found much comfort in Pynchon. As to so-called black humor, which is maybe a passé phrase, it did seem to me at its best to be true enough and to correspond with a quality of, at least, American life in the sixties.

By 1978, Gravity’s Rainbow was only five years old—that book, combined with the wave of postmodernists, might have made feel like his own fictional enterprise was on the wane. But even if Updike wasn’t being defensive, he is voicing a fairly common complaint about Pynchon. For all his dark humor, wisdom, and gamesmanship, the line goes, he’s a product of the 60s who doesn’t have much to say about contemporary life—the postmodernist as nostalgist. “For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it,” Robert Goolrick told me a few months back in a conversation about his attempt to track down Pynchon. “I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse…. [B]ut there was a moment when he was completely in sync with the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius.”

No more, perhaps? Is it that his reputation now runs on the dying fumes of the enthusiasm of once-hip boomer critics and readers? Much as I find Pynchon’s persona fascinating, I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it, though I’m an admirer of The Crying of Lot 49. I suspect that Inherent Vice goes down more smoothly, but, being set in the 60s, would only help support the complaint. He’s under no obligation to write a novel set in the present day, of course, but what is it about his work that makes him meaningful and relevant today?

Big, in England

Clearly the Brits are still enchanted by big-name American literary authors—no fewer than three sizable pieces on them populate their Sunday papers. The Times has features on John Irving and Philip Roth, with the Irving piece serving as both a good backgrounder on his career and a fun read as well (he describes his dog’s near-miss with his catheter after he had surgery for prostate cancer). Like the other pieces, it’s marked by its length–few, if any, American newspapers dedicate so much real estate to writers, even known quantities like Irving. And like the others, it also seems framed around the idea that the main job of the American novelist is to sum up America, much in the same way Americans want foreign-born authors to be spokespersons for their native countries. Irving is afforded space to expound on his frustrations with his homeland:

“I am not at all at peace, or even comfortable, living in the United States,” he writes. “Both as an artist and as a liberal, I would not choose to live in the United States, but I am from here, and I have ties here. Yet I would say that the absence of any reconciliation between myself and my own country indicates a much deeper rift than any that exists between my mother and me; this lack of reconciliation, my sense of being deeply alienated from my own country, is one I find very difficult to live with. I am often embarrassed by, sickened by, my own country; I detest bully patriotism; yet I am an American, and I’m not going anywhere.”

While Roth is queried about his opinions on the new president:

“You know, if McCain were President, there would be no health bill to debate; there would be no policy in Afghanistan to reconsider; no economic stimulus package; there would be a deep Depression. So whatever happens is the best that can happen, given the circumstances, you know. So I am still rather high on [Obama]. He’s done remarkably, really. He’s fighting an entrenched army of ignoramuses. He’s not a magician.”

(Me, I’d be curious if he feels validated in his assertion that “if anybody can lose 50 states for the Democrats, I think [Hillary Clinton] can.”)

Roth’s American-ness is the larger theme of the feature—it dwells surprisingly little on Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, ostensibly the reason he consented to an interview in the first place. Indeed, the piece spends more time on the binge of classic American authors Roth went on shortly after returning to the United States from England in 1989, and how it fed into the creative resurgence that started with Sabbath’s Theater:

“When I got back here I had a great rush of enthusiasm, and a great sense that I was at home. I tell you, I was driving over to New Jersey to see my father, about a week after I got back. I must have been daydreaming in the car, and I cut somebody off. And the guy rolled down his window, and said, ‘You f***in’ asshole, you f***in’ son of a bitch!’ — and I said, pour it on! I can’t get enough. I was back in the American stuff. I got re-interested in this place. And then quite consciously I read about 20 American novels, books I’d read in the past. I reread Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, lesser-known writers, too, just to get my American juices flowing again. Then I began writing Sabbath’s Theater. And though it doesn’t seem perhaps like an American book, it is. Very much so.”

Julian Barnesappreciation of John Updike‘s Rabbit novels in the Guardian reveals more about how those expectations of American authors are conceived outside the U.S. Barnes writes of first plowing through the books while touring the country in 1991, and rereading them now in advance of his next U.S. book tour—as if they were Fodor’s guides, just with more sex scenes and Toyota dealerships. A little condescendingly, he writes that conking out in front of the hotel television on that first tour, he felt just like know-nothing Rabbit Angstrom; when I watch the football game this afternoon, I suppose I’ll congratulate myself for feeling a little like Julian Barnes.

Still, Barnes’ heart is in the right place, and his essay reveals some of the pleasures that come out of rereading a writer you thought you already knew well:

Whereas in my first reading I was overwhelmed by Updike’s joy of description, his passionate attentiveness to such things as “the clunky suck of the refrigerator door opening and shutting” – by what he called, in the preface to his The Early Stories, “giving the mundane its beautiful due” – in my second I was increasingly aware of this underlying sense of things being already over, of the tug of dying and death. Thus the whole trajectory of Janice’s life is an attempt to expiate the sin of having accidentally, drunkenly, drowned her baby. And while Harry imagines himself a genial and harmless life-enhancer, others see him quite differently. “Boy, you really have the touch of death, don’t you?” his sort-of-whore girlfriend Ruth says at the end of Rabbit, Run. “Hold still. Just sit there. I see you very clear all of a sudden. You’re Mr Death himself.”

Barnes also writes admiringly of the big questions that the Rabbit novels ask: “What is American power if it can be defeated by the Vietcong; what is American inventiveness if it can be out-invented by the Japanese; what is American wealth when national debt piles up?” Barnes is careful to stress that he doesn’t admire the Rabbit novels solely for their sociological value. But they’re fresh meat for anybody looking for a great summing-up of the country, and that’s a big reason why he picked them up in the first place.

—–

Dept. of Self-Promotion: I wonder what the Brits would make of Pete Dexter, who isn’t a major author of Roth or Updike’s rank, but who’s important all the same. My review of his new novel, Spooner, is in the Chicago Sun-Times. It starts out like this:

About midway through Pete Dexter’s sprawling, funny, deeply frustrating novel, Spooner (Grand Central, $26.99), things take an awful turn for the book’s hero. Warren Spooner, a Philadelphia newspaper columnist, visits a bar to meet a man who feels Spooner mischaracterized his dead brother in print. Up to this point the novel has been largely a comedy of errors, and the bum column is just one more. But the fun stops quick: “[T]en minutes later, he came out of the place with most of his upper teeth sheared off at the gum.”

That teeth-bashing has its basis in fact: Dexter suffered a similar beating in 1981, while working as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Scared off of newspapering, Spooner retreats to an island in Puget Sound to become a writer — much as Dexter has. But brutal truth is no guarantee of coherent fiction. Spooner never sorts out whether it’s a comedy about the writing life, a tender story about the relationship between a man and his stepfather, or a farce about newspapers. It’s equal parts John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, David Goodis and John Kennedy Toole, but little of the Dexter who wrote trim, tough-minded novels like Paris Trout and Brotherly Love.

“Sound feminist or something grounds”

The New York Times‘ book blog, Paper Cuts, points to David Updike‘s eulogy for his father, John Updike, at a March tribute at the New York Public Library. David is, pretty much inevitably, an underrated writer, and his new story collection, Old Girlfriends, is worth tracking down. He’s inherited a lot of his dad’s themes but his stories don’t feel like mimickry, as if having that last name freed him instead of overwhelmed him. (The time-pressed might head straight for “Kinds of Love,” in which a man attends church with the woman with whom he’s having an affair.)

The nice thing about the Paper Cuts post is that it also points to a complete transcript [PDF] of the New York Public Library Tribute. The usual kindnesses were voiced by Knopf and New Yorker cohorts like Sonny Mehta, David Remnick, Roger Angell, and others. But Ann Goldstein, who edited Updike’s book reviews for the magazine, provided some of the most interesting commentary—it’s a window into how Updike came off as somebody openly willing to accept editing without having to change a damn thing. Goldstein reads a couple of examples of his reactions to edits:

From 1992: “My criticism inspires me with an increasing impatience. It seems simultaneously timid and reckless, a callow papering over of an invincible ignorance. Toward the end, on galley 12, I wearily brushed your suggested revisions aside, unable to rise to the occasion and finding my own phrasing more succinct and natural.” (laughter)

From 1989: “I noticed that somebody went through and deleted the Miss on I’m sure sound feminist or something grounds. It just seems a little discourteous to an elderly fellow like me to call her ‘Dillard,’ like some androgynous housekeeper or gruff governess. (laughter) The one beginning the paragraph on galley 9 seemed especially curt. It was our way in the days of Shawn to give all living female authors the courtesy of a Miss or Mrs.—Mrs. Spark, Miss Murdoch—but I am happy to go with the new ways if it seems important.”

Editing, for Updike, was “scraping off the fuzzballs”—something dutiful, fussy, perhaps even a little unnecessary (if you’re Updike, anyway). And though he liked the fussing, according to Goldstein he particularly loved it when a piece needed a quick turnaround—as any writer who’s written for a print publication knows, a signal that your copy won’t be mucked with much. “What fun, this sudden shuttle of proofs back and forth,” he’d tell Goldstein in those moments, “as though I live in the real world after all.”