Links: Cleaning Up

A handy database of what appears to be all the fiction that has run in the New Yorker. Have fun with the tag function: “Dogs” appears 82 times; “Cats” 38 times; “prisoners” seven times; “littering” once.

I haven’t read a romance novel in forever, but I’ll read anything Jessica Tripler writes about the genre. She considers A Visit From the Goon Squad though that filter: “It struck me that the dominant emotion in VGS is one not so often encountered in romance: shame…. [T]he kind of abject shame so many of VGS characters inhabit is not one that makes for a romantic read. I think the difference is that in romance, the shame is either (a) not really earned (it’s really a virtue in disguise), or (b) centers on a character flaw that gets fixed in the narrative (the cop who is afraid of commitment, for example). The shame in VGS is, at one and the same time, both unique to the characters and universal.”

Gertrude Stein gets an iPhone: “Stopping everything is something. Stopping everything and stopping all of that thing is something. Stopping everything and then doing nothing in stopping everything is something.” (via)

Egyptian translator Hala Salah Eldin Hussein: “I have recently been contemplating the value of literature in these times, where your step in Tahrir Square—protesting and demanding civil rights—should be more valuable than translating fiction. Can fiction really take second place after revolutionary activism? How can fiction help us in a time of political unrest? Should I stay in my office finishing this marvelous piece by Susan Straight, or should I just go out with my fellow countrymen, six hours or more every day, in the square? It seems that translating political articles will be of more use to the revolution, but for the time being I’ll keep the belief that a day translating Lorrie Moore or Edward P. Jones will teach me how to be a better human being, I’ll get to see the world in its true colours, I’ll learn about myself, others and humanity.”

Andrew Seal isn’t blogging these days, alas, but his very busy Tumblr, Fuck Yeah, Historiography, is stuffed with gems from texts on American literature, sociology, political history, and more.

Catch-22 at 50. (via)

Lynne Tillman: “I think it’s true that unless human beings experience something, they simply don’t understand what people are going through. Now that I am conscious of the world of chronic pain, when I see somebody walking down the street who’s having trouble, I feel a sadness for them. I notice. I’m very lucky that I could get a hip replacement.” (via)

“If you really want to publish a book one day you will publish a book. The time that you spend getting there is kind of wonderful. Don’t cut it short. The emotional range is valuable.”

Robert Pinsky unearths a document listing three reasonable rules for writing a book review.

On Tobias Wolff‘s debut novel, 1975’s Ugly Rumours, which few know about and which the author himself is disinclined to discuss.

Defending Herman Melville‘s poetry.

We will always want narratives, but will we always want endings?

John Steinbeck‘s affection for Arthurian England.

Dept. of Sausage Making: Stuart Dybek and an editor discuss whether the name of a public housing project in one of his stories needs some additional explanation. (via)

Well put, by Rae Bryant: “One of the masteries in Nabokov’s stories, what I admire so much, is how smoothly the stories turn readers into accomplices.”

Somewhat less well put: “Maybe Vladi­mir Nabokov wasn’t referring to America’s favorite confectionery on a stick when he wrote Lolita,’ but he should have been.”

Close Encounters

Lynne Tillman‘s “Love Sentence,” a story included in her new collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, is a small masterpiece of repetition, taking a single line and prodding it, testing it, circling around it, studying it, finding humor and pathos alike in it. It helps that the sentence in question is “I love you”—a line that gives a writer plenty of room for interpretation. But the story’s central mood is frustration; the narrator is more confused by the line than inspired by it. “Everything Paige thought about love, anything she felt about love, was inadequate and wrong,” Tillman writes in the first sentence, and what follows is an attempt to answer a question about that inadequacy: Is it possible to write about love honestly, in a way that avoids both sentiment and cynicism?

Tillman’s plainspoken style comes in handy for abstractions like this. The stories in Someday are usually built on only the merest skeletons of plot, so the emphasis shifts to individual words; her tone is philosophical, though rarely distant. In “Love Sentence,” the plot is really just a setup for Paige’s musings: She’s thinking about old lovers, using scissors to cut hearts out of paper towels. (It’s a hokey arrangement only if plot were the point; when you’re sorting out the metaphorical power of “love,” might as well behave like a metaphor yourself. Besides, the describes the hearts beautifully, stacked “like honeyed pancakes.”) As she scissors, she falls into a rhythmic kind of thinking. She imagines love letters that are effusive with a kind of desperate desire (“In my dreams I cleave to you, I hold you, your body bent to mine…”), which press up against quotes from writers and musicians that celebrate and diminish love, from Freud to Andrew Marvell to the Troggs. She lays out the various ways she can love somebody: “Oblivously, I love you”; “Awkwardly”; “Commonly”; “Blindly.” Sometimes love is the cute stuff of paper hearts (“Sweetly, I love you”), but usually it’s more frustrating; nobody wants to live full-time in the spaces those adverbs represent.

But why bother writing about a subject that’s been written about forever? That’s the question Tillman wants to play with, and part of Paige’s frustration is that she knows that her emotions are nothing new even when she very much wants them to be. “[S]ensation maintained that her love was unique,” she writes, but she knows love isn’t sensation alone. To indulge in that sensation is to be willfully ignorant; to distance herself from it is to be cold-hearted. “[L]ove wouldn’t leave her alone,” she writes.

That kind of push and pull between thought and emotion, particularly in the midst of relationships, is a hallmark of the stories in the collection. The relationships in “The Substitute” and “Chartreuse” thrive, in a sickly way, on their instability. The woman in “More Sex” considers the old saw about men thinking about sex every seven minutes and considers the TV and film stars she might want to have sex with—not to any real erotic purpose, but as a kind of resignation. “[W]anting to have sex with men she couldn’t have…was also all right, because she could easily have sex with men she didn’t necessarily want.” “Love Sentence” appears toward the end of the book, as if it were a last-ditch attempt to settle the matter, even though it can’t possibly be settled.

None of this makes for high drama in Tillman’s stories, at least not overtly. As Jessica Winter nicely put it in a review of Tillman’s 2006 novel, American Genius, “She ignites conflict and crisis not with the usual powder of incident and dialogue, but with the twists and sharp U-turns of internal thought.” This may play out more routinely in her other work (reissues through Red Lemonade are forthcoming), but I’m struck at how capably she addresses the emotional contradictions in “Love Sentence” without being willfully opaque or sentimental. By the time she’s done, the line “I love you” has been tested and analyzed plenty, but she ends by stressing the point that it’s nearly impossible to strip it of its power.

It’s interesting to learn that a story so careful and so affecting was initially something of a gag. She recently explained to Artforum how the original version, published in 1994, came together:

At the time, I thought it would be best to start by dissecting the sentence “I love you,” which led to my thinking about death sentence, the death sentence, and several other puns. In the 1980s and the early ’90s, there was a particular emphasis on writing with puns and other language games. Usually I let something stay as it was written, but in this case, the amount of punning unsettled me a bit. I thought that I went overboard, in unnecessary ways. Perhaps I was just being a little too tongue in cheek—I guess my tongue was outside my cheek, too.

So, she continues, she rewrote. As a writer gets older, Tillman writes, “You have more of a sense of what the problems and possibilities are.” I’m sure the original “Love Sentence” isn’t awful, but I’m glad she cared to apply her increasing sense of problem and possibility to it.

Links: Speaking Terms

Cormac McCarthy on working with scientists in his role as writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute: “I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.” (via)

Peter Mountford‘s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, centers on a duplicitous, craven low-level hedge-fund employee. It was apparently a tough sell: “An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made.” It’s a good first novel; review forthcoming.

“‘What a phenomenon people are!’ exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. ‘If you meet—if you really meet a person, how interesting.'”

The Civil War deeply influenced American literature, even if there is no great Civil War novel, writes Craig Fehrman. Plus, an interesting sidebar on photography and Nathaniel Hawthorne at Fehrman’s blog.

“Big wet sky of the republic over the big wet land”: Nelson Algren‘s poetry.

A member of the committee that gives the Nobel Prize in literature says that Horace Engdahl‘s 2008 comments about “insular” Americans was taken out of context. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America,” says Kjell Espmark.

Lynne Tillman, whose new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, I’m enjoying, chats with Lydia Davis. The interview is focused on her 2006 novel, American Genius, but much of what she says about the use of autobiographical material applies to the new book: “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.” (via)

An excellent piece on New York novels by Tom LeClair, who’s concerned about the future of the form: “I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism.”

“No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris.”

Walter Mosley‘s Devil in a Blue Dress conjures up the tone and style of much older hard-boiled detective fiction—which, for Rohan Maitzen, makes it a bit less appealing.

“[I]n the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story.” A few examples to the contrary follow. (via)

A report from a reading by E.L. Doctorow at the George Washington University:

“How much of what you write is true?” called a voice from the crowd.
“Does it sound true?” replied Doctorow.
“Well, yes.”
“Then it is true.”