Links: McInerney, Gessen, Mailer, and Other Fights

Michael Kinsley makes a case for Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City, which seems odd.

Jonathan Yardley makes a case for Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which seems even more odd.

Meanwhile, the journal that Gessen edits, n+1, is getting into some kind of slapfight with Nextbook.

Novelist Stephen Elliott (who I wrote about way back when) is busily blogging at

Not one of [Richard] Yates‘ books ever sold more than 12,000 copies. The author suffered a lifetime in near-poverty writing skillfully honest fiction that many magazines deemed too harsh and cruel to publish. He collected one rejection slip after another, and tortured himself over such critiques as his ‘mean-spirited view of things,’ from the New Yorker, whose fiction editor Roger Angell finally told the writer to give up and stop submitting, because he’d never get in.”

“Seven False Starts About the Death of [David Foster] Wallace”

The closing of Newsweek‘s excellent profile of Barney Rosset mentions Maidstone (not “Maidenhead”), a film perhaps best-known for spawning an on-set fight between Rip Torn and writer-director Norman Mailer. Let’s go to the tape (the fun starts about 90 seconds in):

Roundup: Shooting Script

The film version of Willy Vlautin‘s Northline (reviewed) will be directed by Courtney Hunt (Frozen River); yes, they sent a copy of the book to Paul Newman.

Thank Photoshop for the cover of Donald Roy Pollock‘s Knockemstiff, which shows a sign for the downtrodden Ohio burg riddled with bullet holes. “The actual sign had only one, but they (the publishers) liked the look of it, so they put in several more,” Pollock says.

Keith Gessen attempts to Tumblr some sense out of the current Georgian turmoil. Not that the media are helping: “So information moves very quickly. But Russian fighter planes—even more quickly.” (FWIW, George Friedman‘s article in the New York Review of Books is the clearest assessment of the situation I’ve read.)

Our Fascinating Russian-Americans

I’m not sure how you get away with writing a lengthy piece on big-deal Russian-American novelists without once mentioning Olga Grushin; perhaps only the Russian-American novelists living in New York count. Still, Emily Gould‘s awful-titled piece on the alleged trend for Russia! is an interesting read, even if a lot of the quotes from Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen suggest they’re wary of her thesis that these writers are (ironic caps Gould’s) So Hot Right Now. (Gessen, for his part, is resistant to be included in this grouping, and no agent or publisher is quoted.) And Gould’s riff on Lara Vapnyar seems to argue that Russian-American authors have truly arrived only because you can now treat them with easy condescension:

[Vapnyar] is the most authentically Russian member of the club for the simple reason that her spoken English is still somewhat wobbly. She’s been able to distill that linguistic insecurity into an emphatically plain, nearly featureless writing style the New Yorker fell in love with. It gave her a career: “I had never written fiction before, in any language, and I spoke English with a monstrous accent and tons of grammatical mistakes,” she reminisces in a recent essay. It also made her a few enemies. “When my first story appeared in the New Yorker… one of my American friends said, ‘What should I do to get published in the New Yorker? Screw up my English?’” (This magazine’s editor once opined in a public forum that Vapnyar’s fiction “gets published for the same reason Thai elephants’ paintings get exhibited in galleries”; he has since recanted, and even translated one of Vapnyar’s short stories into Russian).

Roundup: Short and Sweet

This time, Kevin J. Hayes is looking for recommendations of great American short stories, particularly ones of 21st-century vintage. Nobody in the comments has gotten around to mentioning Nelson Algren, George Saunders, Edward P. Jones, and Jhumpa Lahiri, but I’m sure that’ll be rectified soon. And though it’s probably more specific to my interest in noir than in great American literature, but I’ve long been a fan of Dashiell Hammett‘s stories, particularly “The Scorched Face.”

Keith Gessen reviews Richard Cook‘s biography of Alfred Kazin in the London Review of Books.

John Updike‘s speech on American art, “The Clarity of Things,” which I attended in D.C. (and wrote about) is now available at the New York Review of Books‘ Web site. This is a case where it really helps to pick up a hard copy of the issue, which includes reproductions of many of the works under discussion.

And, bringing this full-circle, I have a review of Leni Zumas‘ short-story collection, Farewell Navigator, in this week’s Washington City Paper. If you’re in town, Zumas reads at Politics & Prose on Saturday.

Oh, and One More Thing: That event in Lansing, Michigan, I mentioned last week? The one with Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison? It’s not happening, uh, two days ago. It takes place July 10. So there’s still time to get on board. Apologies for the error, and thanks to the folks at the Michigan Humanities Council for bringing the mistake to my attention.

Road Burn

Keith Gessen went on a book tour and all he got was a stupid feeling of uselessness. He writes in the Stranger:

What’s the point of a book tour? Publishers don’t believe in them anymore, and given the amount of money my publisher blew on my hotel rooms, I can see why. And airline travel, let’s face it, is immoral. But there’s still got to be something valuable about going out to face the people and reading to them directly from your book, taking their friendly questions (from the internet, you’d think I’d be confronted in every town by at least one screaming blogger; in fact, on the whole tour, not a single angry question)—something must happen to them from that. Or maybe only to you. That is, to me.

Which may explain why so much promotion of authors these days try to avoid all that travel. A story on covers some of those efforts—BookVideos, Titlepage, and 30-minute features produced by Powell’s Books. As Susan Choi puts it, “I think a lot of us have that experience of stumping around the country trying to connect with our readers, but we can’t be everywhere, and the people who read our books are scattered around.”


I had a good time reading Keith Gessen‘s ruminations about Jonathan Richman and being a Bostonian in the Guardian, which is more than I can say for extended portions his novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, which I review in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. (I didn’t get too far into the complex business of how the novel’s characters are largely drawn from Gessen’s life. That’s partly a function of the space allotted for the review, but it mainly speaks to my feeling that, while it’s nice to know if a novel is a roman a clef, the text ultimately is only as good as what’s in it. Ten years from now, you shouldn’t demand that a reader Google up all of this foofaraw in order to better appreciate a work, and any writer who thinks you should isn’t dealing fairly with his or her readers. Scott McLemee sagely addresses all this in his latest column for Inside Higher Ed.)

Anyway! Jonathan Richman! Gessen writes:

The Modern Lovers sounds as if it could have been made yesterday. The music is stripped of everything but the most essential rock instrumentation, and sometimes, as on “Pablo Picasso” (“Some guys try to pick up girls,” it begins, almost ominously, “and get called assholes. / This never happened to / Pablo Picasso. / He would walk down the street, / women could not resist his stare. / Consequently Pablo Picasso / was never called an asshole”) or “I’m Straight”, Richman is barely even singing. Between this and the lyrics, which are funny, self-effacing, often flat-out pleading, all traces of the rock god have been eliminated. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to the fact that John Cale, the VU’s visionary bassist, produced half the album in 1972, but most of it must have been there to begin with. The Modern Lovers is modern in the sense of being continuously modern, of having managed to fall out of time. It seems as if Richman is naked, and speaking directly and immediately to you.

Roundup: Drives Like a Dream

You may have heard this week that luxury-car-maker Lexus has gotten into the business of publishing fiction—branded fiction about one of their new models, written by nine different authors. Jane Smiley and Curtis Sittenfeld are among the best-known novelists participating; I spoke with Richard McCann, the author of the second chapter of the novel, about his work on the project for Washington City Paper‘s blog, City Desk.

I’m with Keith Gessen, speaking about his own novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, with the Oregonian: “Honestly? It’s a very flawed book in a lot of ways. It’s like half a novel. The impulse at the beginning was short stories, and the last half is more like a novel. As a novel, it has serious flaws, structural deformities that result from it taking so long to finish.”

The Wall Street Journal reviews Michael Zaid‘s The Secret of Fame, a book-length study of literary reputations. Here we learn that—surprise!—Philip Roth might be a shade neurotic about his reputation: ” On the jacket flaps of Philip Roth’s recent books we are told that, apart from winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Roth has won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters—the “Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others.” Mr. Roth wouldn’t have mentioned the award’s previous winners if he hadn’t been anxious about his status, aware that most literary prizes – unlike a businessman’s bank account – possess uncertain value.”

In the NYTBR NYRB Michael Dirda celebrates Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country, a reworking of three of his previous linked Everglades-set novels into one volume:

From this spotty and sometimes contradictory historical record enhanced by contemporary rumors and the recollections of old-timers, Peter Matthiessen has fashioned a novel of Faulknerian power and darkness, one that embraces the American experience from the time of the Civil War to the first years of the Depression. Its themes are those that brand us as Americans to this day: the belief in self-transformation and renewal, the hunger for property and respectability, perfervid patriotism and xenophobia, the legacy of the Civil War, ongoing racial fears and anxieties, rampant greed, the rape of our wild places, psychological and physical violence in the family, the cowboy cult of manliness and swagger. And, not least, of course, our need for self-exculpation. The end justifies the means. It was him or me. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life + 1

The Harvard Crimson interviews Keith Gessen, a founding editor of n+1 and author of the new novel All the Sad Young Literary Men (about which more soon). Says Gessen:

One of the things about American literature is that it’s always been slightly embarrassed by itself. It’s always been a problem that the idea of intellectual work, the idea of reading and writing in particular being real work, is still foreign to American culture. It’s always been a bit of an embarrassment compared to the active, dynamic, business-driven culture. But I don’t feel that way at all. Obviously, a lot of stuff we learned in college is not terribly useful, and yet a lot of it is incredibly interesting and helps us understand the world we’ve created, the world that also has been thrust upon us. This is my own project—to try to understand the world that we’re living in. And if that means using Weber or Foucault, that’s fine, that’s helpful.