Different From You and Me

The last thing New York needs is a book commemorating how important it is, but I’ve had more fun than I expected flipping through The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, a collection of historical essays published by Cambridge University Press last May. (A similar collection on Los Angeles comes out later this month; nothing on Chicago or Washington, D.C., is in the works, unfortunately, according to a CUP publicist.) Martha Nadell delivers a brief survey of Brooklyn literature that’s useful for people like me, who know the borough only as an abstraction; Daniel Kaye‘s essay on the intersection of New York punk musicians and poets makes clear that Patti Smith‘s and Richard Hell‘s literary pretensions didn’t come out of nowhere. My favorite piece so far, though, is Caleb Crain‘s “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” an entertaining and too-brief look at what the impossibly wealthy wrote about in the 1850s.

What were their concerns? Among other things, fashion; the unfortunate narrowness of the average New York townhouse; and the corrosive effects of polka dancing on young women. In the case of Charles Astor Bristed (grandson of John Jacob Astor), the right way to mix a drink was high on the agenda too. He fictionalized the lives of himself and his peers in his 1852 book, The Upper Ten Thousand, but unlike most novels about the upper class there’s no Wolfe-ian satire involved. Crain explains:

It does not seem to have occurred to Bristed that readers who happened to lack a trust fund might find his tone off-putting. “There is something peculiarly disagreeable in an American crowd,” he complained, when Masters and Ashburner visited a racetrack, “from the fact that no class had any distinctive dress. The gentleman and the workingman, or the ‘loafer,’ wear clothes of the same kind, only in one case they are new and clean, and in the other, old and dirty.” It is so vexing of the poor to resist wearing something nicely distinctive, like sackcloth.

Best as I can tell, The Upper Ten Thousand is more a collection of fictionalized sketches than a proper novel, which makes sense—what kind of conflict could somebody with such a friction-free existence come up with? Writing about money without writing about the class distinctions it inevitably generates isn’t just unusual, it’s practically un-American. (This may explain why Louis Auchincloss‘ death last January was dutifully noted by obituary writers but not dwelled on much by essayists. Who could relate?) And strictly for the purposes of fiction, writing about the wealthy out of any larger context may make a reader wonder why you’re bothering. That’s a point William Skidelsky makes in the Guardian discussing Jonathan Dee‘s new novel, The Privileges, which is set among New York’s moneyed class. Dee tells Skidlesky that The Privileges wasn’t meant to be social commentary. But if it isn’t that, then what is it? “As Dee says, conventional tales about the greedy rich getting their comeuppances are boring,” Skidelsky writes. “But his book does have a slightly high-handed feel, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to get into the mucky business of deciding what to admire and what to dislike.” I haven’t read The Privileges, so I’m not sure how valid that assessment is, but it seems sensible. It may be more an issue with our culture than our fiction, but stories about the non-wealthy can afford to avoid discussing class; fiction about the rich doesn’t have that luxury.

Links: Plain Dealing

“Let’s keep it simple and clear prose-wise shall we?”: How David Foster Wallace marked up one student’s paper.

A similar point by David Mamet, though in a different context: “IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.” (The aggressive use of all-caps suggests to me that Mamet might actually be on the side of the always-be-closing jerk in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Jonathan Dee describes how reading the interviews published by his one-time employer, The Paris Review, helped him as a writer: “I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.”

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Levi Asher at David Shieldsreading in D.C. Tuesday night. (He is, in fact, the person who tipped me off to it.) He delivers his own assessment of the reading, along with a defense of Reality Hunger.

Not unrelated to Shields’ comments about the Internet and book length, Charlie Stross offers some insights into the reasons why books are as long as they are, and what the future might mean for the bulky novel. (via The Rumpus)

Brooks Peters revisits Hubert Creekmore‘s 1948 novel, The Welcome, a curious novel about homosexuality that dares not speak the name of its central theme.

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his list of ten favorite books, which includes Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Junot Diaz‘s Drown. Funny kicker: “I really need to read some books about white people. My canon is culturally biased and reflects the perspective of sheltered African-American who is embarrassingly ignorant of the White Experience.”

The Clifton Fadiman Medal, which goes to an older work of fiction that merits more attention, has been awarded to Jamaica Kincaid‘s 1985 novel, Annie John.

Jim Shepard on writing outlines for stories, even if you don’t trust them: “That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I’d be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that’s evidence that the thing is dead.”

Earlier this month I spoke on a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle about the next ten years in book culture, though it quickly became a session on what the next ten years means for book reviewers. Video of that panel is now up; I can’t bear to watch, though HTMLGiant’s summary suggests my points got over well enough. What the video probably doesn’t capture is the sight of the audience collectively fishing for pens when I mentioned the Millions and the Rumpus. There’s work to do.