Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Saunders Out Loud

As a rule, I don’t consume audiobooks or listen to podcasts of authors reading their work. But I’ll pay money for a recording of George Saunders reading his story “Victory Lap” last night at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. On the page, the story asks the reader to spend a little time puzzling out how it ought to be read. It concerns two awkward teens and a sinister adult, shifting perspectives from character to character, with various other voices rattling inside their heads; brackets, italics, and interruptions abound, and quotation marks are absent.

Sorting all that out involves a little work. But he trick to the story, Saunders made clear last night, isn’t to fuss with it but to go through it fast. As his rapid delivery made clear, “Victory Lap” is largely about what it means to be an adolescent sorting out your own moral code while being mindful of others’—you’re processing, processing, processing. Add the facts that one character’s life is in danger and that another is on the track team, and the rushed pace captures the kind of anxiety Saunders is concerned with. Of course, it helps that Saunders is a tremendous ventriloquist for his characters; the opening section of the story introduces a host of voices, from Mom to a teacher to a baby deer, and he captures all of them as distinct, comic, and slightly strange, like Disney voice artists who were just a little too off-kilter for Uncle Walt’s purposes.

Saunders wasn’t slickly performing the story, the way some writers do when they read their work. He’d just found a way to fully inhabit the characters he’d imagined; if the audience happened to be entertained at the same time, so much the better. Fiction always tends to come off as funnier when it’s read in front of a crowd—you don’t take wit, even subtle wit, for granted in the everyday world, so it catches you short when you hear it out loud. But it’s still hard to be entertaining. Case in point: George Saunders. In a 2007 New Yorker podcast, he gives an engaged but flat reading of Isaac Babel‘s story “You Must Know Everything.” It may be that Babel’s work doesn’t quite lend itself to the kind of extroverted style that can make a story sound good, but Joshua Ferris didn’t have an easier time of it reading Saunders’ “Adams” for the same podcast last fall. It’s easy enough to sound colloquial as Saunders does, but hard to sound like the characters are living through you. That’s a gift.

The Un-manned

My review of Joshua Ferris‘ second novel, The Unnamed, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The opening:

Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed” is a hero’s journey tale with the heroism scoured clean off it. Its protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, suffers from an affliction in which he walks involuntarily for miles on end, and his constant motion wreaks havoc on his body and, in a way, conventional storytelling. Instead of adventure there is only movement. Instead of revelation there’s only unknowing.

This strategy isn’t automatically a bad thing, but Ferris bungles it; The Unnamed continuously hints that it might have a coherent point about marriage, or illness, or modern life, but the author moves on as soon as something begins to come together. “Must be a metaphor—otherwise just a cheap device,” I scribbled in the margin of one of the opening pages following another one of Farnsworth’s involuntary walks.

It’s ultimately worse than that—the walking is so persistent and so divorced from meaning that if it’s a device, it’s just a device to fill pages. As I mention in the review, Ferris does have a thing or two to say about what it means to fulfill the cultural definition of “manliness,” and how much shaming can be involved when a man doesn’t. His exhausted wife, Jane, thinks “he was a baby and not her husband”; his sullen daughter, Becka, describes life with him as “more or less like she was babysitting him”; and his (exclusively) alpha-male coworkers at a high-powered law firm engage in games of one-upmanship designed to humiliate whoever fails to step up. Tim, feeling punished for his affliction, has a nightmare about having his pants pulled down by a coworker in court, and in one of the novel’s more brutal scenes he’s mocked over the phone by two coworkers determined to stifle his role at the firm. They do childishly, hinting that Tim has recovered his previous reputation and then yanking their kindness away:

“And where did you get the genius—”

Tim thought he heard the start of a guffaw just as Masserly’s voice cut out. His end had gone mute again. Or so it seemed. Sometimes lawyers made phone calls with one finger poised over mute so they could bad-mouth the opposition.

“Did you just hit mute again? Is someone in the office with you?”

“Mute? Look, I was asking where you got the insight to write a motion for summary judgment in Keibler when there’s Horvath. It’s genius. But you know Horvath chapter and verse the way you make implicit the differ—”

There might have been another guffaw, but the line went dead.

And yet, like so much of the novel, the power of the scene is sapped by a lack of clarity and consistency. Ferris never makes clear whether Tim’s idea about a summary judgment is or isn’t worth mocking. (Either way, that scene would’ve been more effective.) And soon enough, Ferris is on to something else that he never quite works through—a murder-mystery subplot, some business about bees that probably should’ve been cut in the final edits, a schizophrenia that afflicts Tim in the closing chapters.

The humiliated man isn’t a character who gets a lot of traction in fiction. There are plenty of wusses, sure, but not as many guys who work through the shame of failing to measure up, the way that the sadly declining George Hurstwood did in Theodore Dreiser‘s Sister Carrie. It’s not so much that I hoped Ferris would write a humiliated-man novel that it seemed like the most promising of the weak options he introduced.

In the February issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason argues [sub req’d] that The Unnamed is largely a failure at the sentence level, that its impact is blunted by language that’s at once showy and imprecise. There’s some of that—“Overcast was riveted to the sky as gray to a battleship” may be the most forced line I’ve read in a novel recently. But the novel’s problems are more structural than rhetorical. The isolation that Tim both suffers and chooses speaks little to the work and family issues that Ferris introduces, and eventually they’re simply abandoned. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, in his admiring review of the novel, writes that “Ferris is interested in the blast radius around the sickness.” If only. The sickness, by novel’s end, is limited exclusively to the guy doing the walking. An implosion doesn’t have a blast radius.

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.


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.”