Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”

“A kind of stove to keep that fire safe and useful”

Jeff Baker‘s feature in the Oregonian on Katherine Dunn is the kind of author profile I wish there were more of—a thoughtful, multisourced piece on a writer who truly deserves the long-form treatment (h/t Michael Schaub). Dunn’s most recent novel remains 1989’s brilliant Geek Love, and in the 20 years since she’s been busily writing about boxing, both as a journalist and a fiction writer. Her next novel is tentatively titled “Cut Man,” which will do further harm to her strange original plan to title her books:

“I was reading a lot of European history and I thought Attila the Hun had gotten a bad rap,” she said. “I had this notion that I would write books that over time would spell out ‘Attila.’ I had the A. That’s why the second book was called ‘Truck.’ I wrote a third book called ‘Toad’ that was rejected by my editor in a very ferocious fashion: ‘Nobody in this book is likable!’ Which was discouraging. But at that time I was already into a fourth novel … that would have been published, if it ever had been, as ‘Inquiry.’ So then I would have ATTI … In my ambitious days I even thought I would manage ‘Attila the Hun’ but at least I wanted ‘Attila.'”

Her new book is a collection of her boxing journalism titled One Ring Circus. In June she talked to Guernica magazine about the book and the appeal of the sport:

I hope that it’s an invitation to non-boxing fans to take a look at this very peculiar subculture which is built on and devoted to violence, but has a remarkably friendly and often quite hilarious aspect to it. I think many people nowadays have very little access to information about boxing and so they’re left with Hollywood stereotypes, and I think that far too often that gives them the wrong idea. But I think boxing really is a contribution to human culture, in the sense that humans are the most dangerous predator—probably with the exception of a few microbes—and boxing is one of those forms that human society has developed. It’s a kind of stove to keep that fire safe and useful.