Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

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.

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Bad Bet

Narrative magazine’s Web site has an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on her literary mentors—a lengthy piece, considering her argument is that she’s had few such people in her life. (Even her first husband, Raymond Smith, read almost none of her fiction.) She’s had childhood guides, yes, like her grandmother; and she’s had sparring partners like John Gardner, with whom she had extended debates in the 70s about whether writing fiction is or should be moral. But people who guided her writing and career with a mind to support and improve it? Nary a one—and though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, such is the fate of many writers who grow up in hardscrabble communities, where literary support systems are hard to come by. You’re not sui generis because you’re arrogant; you’re that way because there’s nobody around to set a path for you.

To that end Oates gets in an interesting story about her relationship with Donald Barthelme, who appears in this anecdote to eagerly flay himself over sales. The suggestion being that this is what you get when you care too much about what others think:

No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment—no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs —than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet—for $100—and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet—no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment—Ray’s, mine, his wife’s—Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor—he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus—whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life—if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, “He hasn’t? Not ever? I thought . . .”

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, “No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him.”

(h/t Edan Lepucki)

Links: Sad State of Affairs

Happy Friday! Here’s a guide to depressing novels.

Jonathan Lethem recalls his longtime relationship with the works of Philip K. Dick (via i09).

NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank talks with Washington City Paper about its reissue of Don Carpenter‘s excellent debut novel, Hard Rain Falling.

The Road director John Hillcoat is looking to film The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant‘s bracing 2008 novel about Virginia bootleggers.

Newark, New Jersey, makes its pitch to be a “major cultural capital” by landing a major poetry conference. Jayne Anne Phillips approves.

Meanwhile in Newark, Amiri Baraka turns 75.

Flavorwire has a Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates, who reveals that she’s working on a memoir titled The Seige: A Widow’s First Six Months.

Liked the book? Buy the handbag.

Elmore Leonard will receive PEN USA’s lifetime achievement award.

Why Vladimir Nabokov‘s unfinished novel The Original of Laura won’t be available as an e-book.

The case for Alice McDermott as an important Catholic novelist.

James Ellroy: “I distrust people who do not err on the side of action. And there’s a distinction between being conflicted and being ambivalent. Ambivalence connotes wishy-washiness, being conflicted connotes a clash of dramatic choices. And so I despise the idea of shades of grey or ambiguity standing as ultimate moral value or literary value.

Links: The Secret History

Joyce Carol Oates recalls the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s “unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour” at Chappaquiddick, and questions whether decades of good behavior as a senator atones for it. This is the “WORST THING I HAVE EVER READ” in the eyes of some, but hey, 26 comments.

The great Jack Pendarvis on how Woody Allen shaped his identity—until he discovered Roy Blount Jr.

Jonathan Lethem tells the Jewish Daily Forward that he’s working on a novel set in Queens during the 50s and 60s.

A brief guide to academic revenge novels.

News to me: Steve Albini writes short stories. He certainly knows how to write a strong opening to an article.

Kevin Canty explains why so many of his story titles are taken from songs. “Nothing mysterious about this,” he says. “I just stink at coming up with titles and somebody’s already done the work for you when they write the song. Why work when you can steal?

Colum McCann
is heading off on a European tour to promote his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, along with musician Joe Hurley, who’s written an EP of songs based on characters in the novel.

Nelson Algren‘s first meeting with Simone de Beauvoir.

Lastly, is your last name Portnoy? Do you have a complaint about something Dan Froomkin wrote? Hoo boy, does Froomkin have a comeback for you!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Rae-Jolene Smith

Yesterday novelist Nora Roberts greeted fans and signed books at the offices of the Washington Post. I didn’t go—I haven’t read any of her books, so I wouldn’t get much out of it except for watching the spectacle—but the Post‘s Book World fiction editor, Ron Charles, covered it thoroughly, both via Twitter and video. (Disclosure: I’ve contributed to the Post a few times, and he’s worked on my copy.) At one point during the event Roberts was asked why she uses multiple pseudonyms, to which she responded by quoting something her agent told her: “It’s marketing. There’s Pepsi, there’s Diet Pepsi, and there’s Caffeine Free Pepsi.”

Pity be upon the writer who feels compelled to whip up a persona that’s equivalent to Caffeine Free Pepsi, a drink I imagine people consume only because some medical authority has guilted them into doing so. But there are more noble reasons for writing pseudonymously. In 1987 Joyce Carol Oates wrote a lengthy rumination on the history of literary pseudonyms and writers’ motivations for using them; Marian Evans (aka George Eliot) did it to escape the sexism of her era, while Doris Lessing wanted to test what kind of critical response she’d get if she wrote something under a name that wasn’t her own.

And Joyce Carol Oates herself? Her piece dodges that question, despite the fact that earlier that year the New York Times revealed that she was getting ready to publish a mystery, Lives of the Twins, under the name Rosamond Smith. She told that Times that, much like Lessing, “I wanted to escape from my own identity.” A contrite-sounding Oates told the paper, “That’s the last time I’ll try to use a pseudonym.”

Time would prove her a liar: She wound up writing eight novels as Smith and three suspense novels as Lauren Kelly. At this point the word is out about Oates’ pseudonyms, so they now serve less as escape hatches and more as ways to signal that she’s tinkering with genre. A report from a reading in Paris earlier this month shows she’s been a longtime scholar of crime stories:

When asked about the relationship between her work and detective fiction, she responded “I don’t write thrillers, exactly” and went on to list many different genres and subgenres of detective fiction. “I’ve never written a thriller and I’m not drawn to the genre,” she said before going on to explain what she views as the action structure of the thriller. “The genre I like is psychological mystery/suspense which I think is very true to life.” For her, this genre is written from the point of view of one person, sometimes a detective, and represents the position we are often in when confronted with something mysterious.

But the Rosamond Smith novel wasn’t the first time Oates used a pseudonym. In 1975 she was writing stories as “Rae-Jolene Smith” and sending them out to literary reviews as she would with works under her own name. As she wrote in her journal, this led to a brief moment of worry on her part:

A story written and sent out under a pseudonym wound up being accepted by a distinguished literary journal that had just, a few days before, accepted one of “my” stories, sent to the editors by Blanche [Gregory, Oates’ agent]. Had I known she sent them a story, I wouldn’t have sent them the other…! A coincidence; how interesting it would be if both appeared in the in the same issue.

No dice; a footnote in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 points out that while both stories appeared in the Yale Review, they didn’t appear in the same issue. But Oates would eventually get her interesting moment—sort of. The 1977 edition of The Best American Short Stories included an Oates story, “Gay”; tucked in the back, in the “Roll of Honor” listing other stories that fell under consideration for the book but which fell short for some reason or another, was a listing for story by Rae-Jolene Smith titled “The Buried Self.”

Joyce Carol Oates’ Rough Year

Joyce Carol Oates is making the interview rounds again—she’s about to release a new story collection, Dear Husband, which, oddly, doesn’t get mentioned in Chauncey Mabe‘s interview with her for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Doubly odd, because Topic A is the death of Oates’ husband, Raymond J. Smith, last year:

An English professor, scholar and editor of The Ontario Review, Smith shielded Oates, helping make her prodigious output possible.

“I’m living alone now, so I’m literally taking care of the household things he did,” Oates says. “He took care of them well, but really quietly. Suddenly all the finances fell to me, which is stressful.”

Though she notes in the interview that her infamous productivity has gone down since Smith’s death, this is still a busy year for her: A film version of her novella, Rape: A Love Story, is in the works, the Oates Web site Celestial Timepiece is making much of the fact that 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of her first published professional work, and more novels are in the pipeline. In September she’ll publish Little Bird of Heaven, which she described to San Diego CityBeat last November as “a love story in the guise of a mystery; or a mystery in the guise of a love story. Mostly it is an elegy mourning the passing of a way of life in a small city in upstate New York, hard hit by the economic recession of recent decades.” And in January 2010 she’s publish A Fair Maiden, a novel about a young girl who becomes a painter’s model.

At any rate, the pleasure in writing is still there for her, based on a few comments she made to the UK Guardian recently. You have to do it for love, she says, because there’s little point in doing it for money: “A prose fiction writer’s hourly wage, broken down into units, would be in the modest range of the US minimum wage of the 1950s—approximately $1 per hour.”

Links: Remember When

While assembling this post, I’ve been listening to the Saul Bellow episode in Yaddo’s Yaddocast series (h/t TEV), and it’s a nice 20-minute primer on the writer’s life and thought. The lineup for podcasts and interviews is impressive: Not just writers but artists like Martin Puryear, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, and more.

Edmund White
has a thoughtful appreciation of Glenway Wescott in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. It’s not online, unfortunately, but the New York Times catches up with White and his newfound acclaim as a dramatist.

D.C. restaurant/bookstore/Democrat-apparatchik-hangout Busboys & Poets enjoyed an uptick in book-sale revenue of more than 800 percent just before President Obama’s inauguration.

Tomorrow night Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate debuts an hourlong documentary it produced about Wallace Stegner. No word if it’ll get wider play, but the Web site for the program includes transcripts with interviewees, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas McGuane, and Carl Brandt.

I’ve just finished Laila Lalami‘s debut novel, Secret Son, a carefully turned story about a young man who’s shuttled up and down the class ladder in contemporary Casablanca after he learns the identity of his father. Lalami’s characterizations and descriptions have depth and grit—it thoughtfully maps the city’s slums, palatial hotels, and extremist hangouts. But it’s more a story about class than place, and in showing how the poor are often victim of circumstance it has the wide-open feeling of a fable. (Which is a long way of saying she earns the right to invoke The Great Gatsby in the early pages.) I bring this up mainly because I was pleased to learn that she’ll be appearing on a pair of panels in D.C. next month about Arab literature. Mark your calendars.

Many of the discussions following John Updike‘s death have brought up the question of who’s left?—what real competitors did Updike really have who can claim the role of great American novelist? Philip Roth‘s name gets bandied about the most. But the list of others mentioned rarely seems to include Joyce Carol Oates, which surprises me. Her work mirrors his in many ways: Both covered small-town life, both were fixated on both intimate relationships and history, both were prolific as fiction writers and critics. Oates, in her appreciation of Updike for the New Yorker, is more demure about their connection. I’m also surprised they weren’t closer friends.

And while I don’t think anybody needs more Updike-related links, I do think it’s important to note that he was admired by both stoners and snappy dressers.

Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)