Links: Sheepish

Elizabeth Strout: “My theory is that most people need to be told what to like because they haven’t been given the confidence from a young age to go ahead with their ideas. Everybody has instincts but they get muted at such a young age. So we get used to being told what to like, what to read, what to think.”

Lionel Shriver claims Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit.

Marilynne Robinson‘s 2009 Terry Lectures on man and religion, which seemed to generate some confusion about what she was on about, will be published next month in the book Absence of Mind. Andrew Sullivan has a quote.

Around for a while, but new to me: A gallery of smartly, provocatively designed book covers from the 1950s to the present. I’m not sure you could get away with that 1969 cover of Kurt Vonnegut‘s Mother Night anymore.

Amy Hempel is the guest editor of the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review, which contains an essay with the intriguing title of “How to Write a Good Sentence: A Manual for Writers Who Know How to Write Correct Sentences.”

On a perhaps related note: Michelle Kerns, who’s doing more than anybody to agitate against book reviewing cliches, is going to start quantifying the problem.

Iguana hunting with Ernest Hemingway.

A visit to Zora Neale Hurston‘s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.

Glenn Beck‘s forthcoming novel imagines America consumed by a civil war. It may not win awards or save publishing, but there’s a good chance it’ll generate a nationwide spike in comment threads full of crazy.

Adam Haslett, Lionel Shriver, and the Bygone Age of Order

Much of the praise directed toward Adam Haslett‘s debut novel, Union Atlantic, is focused on how timely it is. One of its lead characters, Doug Fanning, is an investment banker who takes advantage of increasingly slack government financial regulation to make greedy, high-risk bets on the foreign market. It’s not a novel about credit default swaps, which would actually be “timely.” But a work of fiction about investment banks published when investment banks are undergoing a public scourging has been enough to qualify it as on-the-news. “Union Atlantic pulls us into our very own societal and financial nightmare,” as USA Today put it.

That makes it seem a little like Haslett is trying to work up some populist outrage in the book, which he isn’t. The tone of Union Atlantic is too detached for that, and while Haslett makes the folly of Fanning’s enterprise abundantly clear, his prose is mainly concerned with capturing the sheer inevitability of bankers’ greed. Haslett does offer more than a few potent sentences about how corporations have abused the American citizenry. The best one arrives early on: “What had the government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?” But the curious thing about Union Atlantic is that it’s structured not just to sap the power of rallying cries like that, but shades toward arguing against them.

The main reason for that is embodied in the character who ponders that “fire sale” line: Charlotte Graves, the woman angry at the McMansion that Fanning has built next to hers. Charlotte is an aging former teacher, pushed out of her job for agitating about the government a little too fervently, and she’s retreated into a solitary life with her two dogs. When a high-school student appears at her door for some tutoring in American history, Haslett looks at Charlotte from the boy’s point of view, and what she looks like is a poor woman snowed in by stacks of papers and books, rambling about the public trust and taxation law—the civics teacher as Miss Havisham:

From an ancient wingback chair losing feathers through the frayed fabric of its cushion, Nate took in the remarkable state of the room. Every surface from the side tables to the mantlepiece and a good portion of the floor was covered in paper: journals, newspapers, magazines, manila folders overflowing with yellowed documents, the piles adorned with everything from coffee mugs to used plates to stray articles of clothing—red wool gloves, a knitted scarf. And everywhere he looked, books: hardbacks, paperbacks, reference volumes, ancient leather-bound spines with peeling gold lettering, atlases, books of art and photography, biographies, novels, histories, some splayed open, others shut over smaller volumes, the overstuffed bookcases themselves standing against the walls like sagging monuments to some bygone age of order, entirely insufficient now to contain this sea of printed matter.

In time, Charlotte’s increasing separation from contemporary attitudes about government—which are unconcerned with her fusty notions of government’s responsibility to the people—will make her increasingly unhinged. Her two dogs speak to her in the increasingly oppressive voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather, and though her investment-banker neighbor doesn’t come off especially well, Charlotte comes off as worse. To be a greedy banker is to be a fool, Haslett argues, but to be a good citizen is to be a nutjob.

Haslett isn’t alone in pursuing this line of thinking. Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, So Much for That, is also “timely”: It centers on Shep Knacker, a well-meaning working stiff whose hopes to retire early on a remote island are wrecked when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, the treatments for which rapidly drain his savings. To provide a sounding board for Shep (and comic relief for the reader), Shriver introduces Shep’s friend Jackson, who’s keeping a running list of funny titles for books that would expose just how thoroughly the U.S. government is taking advantage of the people (CHUMPS: How Behind Our Backs a Bunch of Bums and Bamboozlers Turned America Into a Country Where We Can’t Do Anything or Earn Anything or Say Anything When It Use to Be a Damned Nice Place to Live). “Citizenship as an aspiration was pathetic,” Jackson thinks, but he recognizes that there was once a time when it wasn’t.

Not unlike Union Atlantic‘s Charlotte, Jackson is punished for clinging to the notion that institutions are treating people worse. As the novel moves on, he shifts from conjuring up clever book titles to browbeating his children about America’s formerly rigorous education system and exasperating his wife by rattling off a laundry list of tax abuses:

“Federal unemployment tax, fishing license tax, food license tax, fuel permit tax, gasoline tax, hunting license tax, inheritance tax, inventory tax, IRS interest charges tax (that’s tax on tax), IRS penalties tax (more tax on tax), liquor tax, luxury tax—”

“Honey, that’s enough,” said Carol.

“Marriage license tax, Medicare tax, property tax—”

“Sweetie, we get the picture. Would you please give it a rest?”

“Road usage tax, recreational vehicle tax, sales tax, state income tax—”

“If you don’t shut up right now—!”

“School tax, service charge tax, Social Security tax—”

“—I swear I will drive right out of here without you!”

“Look, pumpkin, hang on one minute, would you? State unemployment tax, telephone federal excise tax—”

This time it was Carol who hit the table, with the full flat of her hand, and it was loud. “What are you so mad about, Jackson? Really? What is so terrible about your life?”

Underlying all this is Jackson’s disastrous decision to undergo penis enlargement surgery. That tactic not only makes for some bracing, difficult scenes—Shriver isn’t the best novelist working today, but she’s among the nerviest—but tidily suggests that caring about government not only saps your sense of virility but makes you a moron to boot.

Yes, Union Atlantic and So Much for That are “timely,” and at a time when fiction has a tough time in the marketplace it’s understandable that their publishers would push that angle. But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant. I suspect that what readers will gravitate to in these novels 10, 20, 50 years from now aren’t how they captured investment banking and healthcare as it existed in the early 21st century, but how they reflected a time when people were deeply anxious about what it meant to be a responsible citizen. And they’ll notice that novelists avoided addressing that anxiety head-on by making responsible citizens residents not so much of America but of crazytown.

Links: The Secret History

At Jewish Ideas Daily, D.G. Myers—who from where I sit sets the standard for rigorous, thoughtful, and provocative litblogging—is in the midst of an ambitious study of landmarks in American Jewish literature, with a focus on lesser-known works. His second essay in the series looks at Ezra Brudno‘s 1904 novel, The Fugitive.

Thomas Doherty‘s excellent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Death of Film Criticism,” is worth reading on its own terms, but there are plenty of obvious parallels to be drawn from it book criticism and arts journalism in general. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that plugging your ears and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist won’t help. Plenty of critics embrace it, of course, and a few just might make a buck off it.

Mary Gaitskill wasn’t a fan of the cover of her 1997 story collection, Because They Wanted To, which featured a large screw. “I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic-looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt.” The paperback cover seems reasonable enough.

Some literary passings get more attention, but few have inspired the range of thoughtful and affecting remembrances the way Barry Hannah‘s death has. A.N. Deverspiece evokes the shock of learning about his death. HTMLGiant gathers a few thoughts from admirers. Justin Taylor recalls Hannah’s influence. Nathan Deuel offers a contrary view. Wells Tower‘s 2008 profile includes the Hannah story “Water Liars.”

Tower, by the way, didn’t wind up winning the Story Prize this week. But Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a fine choice.

Lionel Shriver
talks with the Wall Street Journal about her new novel, So Much for That: “I don’t assume any sentence is good just because I wrote it.”

An American in Tangier, a 1993 documentary on Paul Bowles, is available on the incomparable cultural archive UbuWeb.

A guide to the J.D. Salinger letters now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Paul Theroux isn’t impressed with John Edwards‘ charitable efforts in Haiti.

Lots of folks get suckered into Ayn Rand‘s philosophy as teenagers. Count George Saunders among them.

Missouri legislators are planning to rename a stretch of highway in Saint Louis after Mark Twain, having decided that Mark McGwire doesn’t deserve the honor. A radio station doesn’t think Twain deserves it either, so a petition is making the rounds. Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith seems to be getting most of the votes, though I’d feel skittish driving on a highway named after somebody known for backflips.

Her Last Resort

Lionel Shriver‘s new novel gives substantial space to a resort on a remote island she once visited. During her trip, the same resort let her stay there for free. Is this a problem?

The London Times thinks so: A story notes that she visited Pemba Island for a Times travel story last year, and later used that trip as fodder for So Much for That, set to publish in March:

[Shriver] has broken new ground by getting a holiday company and a resort to fund her research for her new novel, So Much for That.

Those who turn to the acknowledgments section buried at the back of the book, which is published in March, will find her thank-you note for the hospitality at the resort.

As is often the case, the travel piece doesn’t mention that the Times covered her travel expenses or that she got her room gratis. (The more authoritative version of the story on Lexis-Nexis notes that she “travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours Travel,” but doesn’t make clear who covered what.) The acknowledgments page of So Much for That—which, being located at the back of the book, isn’t so very hard to find—is vague as well. She thanks the owners of Fundu Lagoon, a resort on Pemba Island, for “enabling me to be obscenely pampered with sundowners, coconut curries, and lemon-grass oil massages all under the hilariously respectable guise of ‘research.'”

“Pemba is mentioned every few pages while Fundu Lagoon gets eight direct mentions, even down to the price of the superior suite,” the Times writer notes. This is true enough, though it skews Shriver’s intentions. (What follows in the remainder of this paragraph likely qualifies as a spoiler, though this particular plot point isn’t hard to guess early on, the event is signaled well in advance, and it doesn’t qualify as the most shocking or provocative event to take place in the tail end of the novel. Not by a long shot.) To read the Times story is to think that Shriver has written a travel brochure for Pemba Island and its sole resort. But if her message were reduced to a slogan, it’d be something like: “Pemba: A pretty good place to take your loved ones to die, if they can handle the long, nerve-wracking effort to get there. And you’ll be busting your ass if you decide to stay.”

The resort is indeed described as sumptuous, but the role of the resort itself is minor compared to the main reason why the characters are there: Because it can be a torment to live in a country where corporations make it difficult to be a decent citizen and a decent person at the same. It can be easier to fulfill the American Dream in a third-world country, Shriver argues, than in the United States of America. And even then, living well means plenty of physical labor. Nobody’s getting lemon-grass oil massages by the novel’s end.

Shriver responded to the Times critique a few days later in the Guardian. She mostly reacts to the snippy tone of the piece, but the key point is this: “Fundu Lagoon allowed a free stay, as it does for any travel writer…. Fundu never offered me anything in ­exchange for a ­mention in my novel.” Those would have been excellent sentences to include in the acknowledgments, if only to defuse criticism like the Times‘ in advance. Given the option to disclose or not disclose such things, disclosure is always the better option; certainly, it would be disappointing to learn that she had arranged a pay-for-play deal with the resort. But then, the book she wrote probably would’ve been quite different; it would’ve been a story about a fantasy resort, when what she wrote is a story about what you have to do when the fantasy-resort life is something you can’t hope to afford.

(h/t Edward Champion, via Twitter)

Lionel Shriver’s Good Timing

I’m currently reading Lionel Shriver‘s forthcoming novel, So Much for That, which publishes in March. I’ll have more to say on it when the time comes, but for now it’s enough to say that the novel is intimately concerned with the wallet-draining powers of healthcare in America—which is to say it’s very timely. But that’s just a happy accident, Shriver writes in Standpoint magazine, and she expresses her hopes for the book in the context of recent Congressional healthcare debates with her usual dark humor:

[T]hese last few months, I’ve found myself in the perverse position of praying, in defiance of my own passionate support for legislation of this very sort, that Congressional healthcare reform would get hopelessly bogged down in internecine squabbles — just so long as no bill passed until after my release date. Sounds selfish? Hell, yes! That book was a lot of work!

Shriver’s larger point is a more considered one: It’s unfair to expect novelists to somehow “bring the news” when they need the time to think about and imagine the situation in which they’re living, not to mention go through the various time-consuming machinations required to bring a book to print. (So Much for That is mostly set in 2005.) “[I]if any budding novelists out there are searching for material that’s bound to be all too germane for years and years to come?” asks Shriver. “Here’s a tip: write about Afghanistan.”

Or write about money. Last month, Shriver was shortlisted for the BBC’s National Short Story Award, for her story “Exchange Rates.” The full story isn’t available online, but the excerpt in the video below captures some of the ranting tone that powers So Much for That. Shriver didn’t win or come in second, which means she earned £500 for her efforts. Good enough for a few pens:

Kirkus Reviews, 1933-2009

Update, March 28, 2013: This post was written when it appeared that Kirkus would be shuttered for good. Happily, that hasn’t happened. But out of respect for the publication’s policy of keeping the identity of a book’s reviewer anonymous, I’ve edited this post to remove references to specific books I’ve reviewed for the publication.

This one hurts: Kirkus Reviews has been shuttered. I regularly reviewed books for the publication for most of the past five years—mostly fiction, though I recently had more nonfiction assignments. Why the shift? Beats the heck out of me—in all the time I wrote for Kirkus , I never got a clear idea of the publication’s inner workings. The books arrived. I reviewed them. More books arrived.

I understand why some people felt that reviewing for Kirkus was a grind. The format had a Tayloristic rigidity—short summary sentence, review graf, pithy final-assessment sentence, all of it clocking in at 350 words, tops. Though the editors there knew my general interests, I didn’t get a vote on what was sent to me to review. In short, it wasn’t a job for reviewers who cared only about books they felt pretty certain they’d like. Which speaks to the most contentious and, I think, admirable aspect of the magazine—that Kirkus‘ reviews were more negative than positive. Conventional wisdom argues that this is because the reviews were written by large passels of smug know-nothings who used their anonymity as a blunt instrument. I prefer to think Kirkus served an uncomfortable truth—most books are mediocre. For my part, I can say that I never wrote a negative review that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my name on, and that only rarely did I feel compelled to fire both barrels.

Did all those negative reviews have any kind of impact? On authors’ emotions, sure: A few have taken the news of the publication’s closing to register their unhappiness with it. If nothing else, Kirkus may have been the most powerful and fearsome hurt-feelings generator in the history of publishing. But my lukewarm review of what would become a New York Times best book of the year sure didn’t influence much. And, contrary to Kirkus hate-everything reputation, I never received a directive about what tone to take, and I did write my fair share of positive, even starred reviews. In my more self-congratulatory moments, I like to imagine that I did a little something for a debut novel that seemed to get a goodly amount of attention following my rave, and one book-review editor at a national newspaper has told me he decided to cover another novel largely on the strength of my Kirkus endorsement.

But I didn’t keep reviewing for Kirkus because I was hoping to have some kind of effect on book sales. I kept writing because, for one thing, adhering to those strict demands required a certain skill—writing short while fitting everything you want to say is tough, and I enjoyed honing that craft. (It wasn’t bad training for blogging.) But I mostly kept doing it, and kept loving doing it despite all those crummy books, because it built an element of surprise into my reading habit. I blog about American fiction because it’s the category I love best and the one I figure I can blog about most consistently without feeling like I want to shove my head in a blender. But I don’t feel obligated to stay in that category, and Kirkus assignments forced me out of my comfort zone. I think every critic could stand to pick out a book at random every so often, just to test one’s prejudices; it’s a time-consuming exercise, but it helps give you clearer sense of your likes and dislikes. If I can’t have that experience as a reviewer, I’ll pursue it as a reader.

My wife once asked me if it ever felt like a burden, getting all of those books in the mail—nearly all of them falling short of what I’d consider very good. I replied by saying that I always had high hopes that the next batch of books might contain one I’d really, really like. You have to allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised every so often. When getting that package of books in the mail stopped feeling at least a little bit like Christmas, I’d know it was time to get out of the book-review racket. In all the time I reviewed for Kirkus, I never lost that feeling.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?