Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

Links: Ain’t That America

Hilary Hamann on the title of her novel, Anthropology of an American Girl, a 2003 small-press book that has just been republished by Spiegel & Grau: “Cars and cliques and music and movies provide the architecture of the American experience. It would be impossible to describe a psychological coming of age without referring to these influences, because in America these things constitute all the missing pieces: family, religion, culture, history, political ideology.”

Is the last book you read important when it comes to serving on a jury?

Ronald Gottesman, a key editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, died earlier this month.

Dept. of Nonsense: “My real problem with New York is literary. Because the bulk of American literary agencies, publishing, and criticism occurs in New York, authors are rewarded for overindulging in New York as a setting. And when they set their novels in New York, it’s considered acceptable to geographically structure the work in such a way that non-native readers are punished.”

It’s old news now that Mark Twain‘s autobiography will be published earlier this year. But it’s worth noting that some people are excited about what it might reveal about Twain’s gambling habits.

The creators of the literary journal Electric Literature discuss how much hustle is involved in getting an new publication off the ground, especially if you want to include known authors. “Jim Shepherd was up in western Massachusetts, and I rented a car and drove 6 hours so I could buy him a cup of coffee and talk to him about it,” says coeditor Andy Hunter. “Because I knew if I sent him an email, I didn’t have a chance.”

Mary Gaitskill willingly talks trash about her story “An Old Virgin” in the video below. “It’s not bad line-by-line. It’s got some striking images in it. But I feel like mostly when people call my work turgid and dark, they’re really just not being fair or accurate—but, guilty as charged with that story. It’s turgid. It’s totally turgid.”

Links: Research and Development

Nicholas Carr unearths a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon from the New York Times Book Review about the virtues of being a luddite. “If our world survives,” writes Pynchon, “the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.”

Coincidentally, a recent Pynchon symposium at Swarthmore discussed the author and his feelings about the Web: “Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.”

So, then, how well does literature adapt to changing technology?

Walking through Holden Caulfield’s New York.

“Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.”

Angela Jackson discusses her debut novel, Where I Must Go, which is about a young black student at an overwhelmingly white, Northwestern-ish university in the late 60s.

Greil Marcus discusses criticism as “the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.”

Did Mark Twain ever camp on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe? Why did the effort to save his home in New York City fall apart? How did his work become so influential around the world?

Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon has been pulled from a classroom again by an outraged school-board member.

[Victor] LaValle was asked if he’d drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through—a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.”

At a recent panel, London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers “praised blogs as being more relevant than newspapers because of their brevity and the diversity of opinions,” according to a New York Press report. “This point was undercut by her own admission that the only blog she reads regularly is the one written by The London Review of Books.”

On a somewhat related note, I’ve started a series at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, in which I toss a few questions to people who run literary Web sites (i.e. sites that have a strong focus on books and run reviews from a variety of contributors). The first Q&A, with the Rumpus, is up now; a second is in the can and will be online soon. I love to hear your recommendations of sites that ought to be featured, either in the comments or via e-mail.

Links: Stay on Target

Sven Birkerts makes a lovely statement in the American Scholar about why he reads novels: “I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.” Unfortunately, that statement is swaddled in much keening about how the Internet has destroyed our powers of concentration, with little evidence of whether that’s actually the case. He concludes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for.” I’m as susceptible as anyone to online distractions, but isn’t concentration something we’ve always fought for?

Hilary Spurling‘s new Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth, is an interesting biography, even if, like me, you were raised with the notion that Buck wasn’t truly Nobel timber. The book speeds through her later, potboiling years, and Spurling tells the Guardian why: “[W]hat we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.”

Willy Vlautin, author of two admirably spare road-trip novels, The Motel Life and Northline, on his inspirations: “I drive around and listen to ‘Ironweed’ on tape and listen to Tom Waits all day.”

Ruth Franklin takes a close look at the J.D. Salinger letters currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.

There’s a Mark Twain impersonator in Hannibal, Missouri, who doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Mark Twain.

Chasing Beat writers’ history in Mexico City.

Deborah Eisenberg: “One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that you do get to be other people.”

The Chicago Sun-Times asked me to participate in a poll of sorts on which authors belong in the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Ernest Hemingway didn’t get my vote, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Papa doesn’t count as a Chicago author.

Belle Boggs‘ forthcoming story collection, Mattaponi Queen, was a random pull from my to-be-read pile, an activity that usually doesn’t end well. Happily, this time it worked out: Boggs’ stories, mostly set in southern Virginia, are grim, funny, plainspoken, and are unusually attentive to race and class conflicts. Her short story about man pursuing a sex change, “Jonas,” ran a week back at Five Chapters. Her “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” an even better story, is in the latest issue of the Paris Review.

Displeased with a negative review of the new Yann Martel book, a couple of booksellers take to the Huffington Post to complain. “I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste,” they write, then proceed to defend the book based on their own personal tastes.

Links: Boy Meets Tractor

Incoming Paris Review editor Lorin Stein: “Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.”

Even if Jeffrey Eugenides did teach his own books in class—a practice many students criticize—he says he wouldn’t enjoy much of a windfall from it. “Probably about $10 per semester, if you add it up.”

Reality Hunger‘s “assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s.”

Are vampire novels dead?

Lorrie Moore: “Right now, I’m writing stories about money. I’m very interested in what people will do for money. Money: it’s timeless.”

Debut fiction writer Adam Schuitema rightfully praises his teacher Stuart Dybek‘s The Coast of Chicago: “It’s like a really great album, where the first song makes sense as the first song, the last song makes sense as the last song, and each song gains strength as part of the collection.”

Online excerpts from the new book Letters of Sylvia Beach include the pioneering Paris bookseller’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, and others.

The case for thinking of Walter Mosley as a Jewish author.

How Mark Twain‘s death was covered by the media; and how one Brit spent his time in Hannibal, Missouri, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

Audio of John Updike reading Frank O’Hara‘s “The Day Lady Died.” (via)

Lionel Shriver: “You’re better off not waiting for inspiration. I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate.”

Links: The Hoover Institution

“[Joyce Carol Oates] says she often has to bribe herself to write — dangling an hour or two of gardening as her reward — and gets her best ideas while vacuuming.”

C-SPAN’s new online video library is stuffed full of literary material from the past 20-odd years, including awards programs, conferences, readings and more. Among the videos is a 2004 PEN American Center event featuring Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Francine Prose, and Russell Banks.

Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav are the three finalists for the teaching position at Pomona College once held by David Foster Wallace.

On the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain‘s death, let us remember that he was a pipe aficionado, an early baseball enthusiast, a tourist magnet.

On the first anniversary of John Updike‘s death, let us remember that not everybody is impressed with his work. “He’s a fine realist,” says Yale professor Amy Hungerford. “But he doesn’t push the envelope of the novel. He is simply not on the vanguard of what fiction has to say.”

James Mulholland, who along with a few of his students answered some of my questions about his 9/11 novel course last year, defends the honor of graduate studies in the humanities: “[W]e must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.”

Kurt Vonnegut draws a few charts to explain how narrative works.

The next F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will honor Alice McDermott.

On the evidence of this assortment of photographs, you’re not required to be a smoker to be a Hero of American Literature, but it helps.

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.

Links: If You Really Want to Hear About It

Even if it means I’m forced to change the name of this blog, I have no insights to offer regarding the news that J.D. Salinger has died. Scanning my shelves for copies of his books, I discovered something that may be true for you as well. The books aren’t with me; they’re probably tucked in the shelves of the basement of my parents’ house. Salinger was something that meant a lot to me as a teenager, but I didn’t carry him with me into adulthood, and I can no more articulate his literary worth than I can explain my tween affection for The A-Team and Oran “Juice” Jones. Scanning through the short-story archives that the New Yorker has placed online did jog a few memories, though—“For Esme—With Love and Squalor,” for instance, is a reminder of how far a writer can get by making cynicism and precocity collide.

“Oh my, here am I relegated to a classroom“: What happened when you told Salinger how much you enjoyed teaching his work to high-schoolers.

Before his death, the closest thing to a new Salinger book was an effort to put his final short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” between hard covers. The publisher is now free to explain why the plan fell apart.

The classist in me always found the WASP-y focus of Louis Auchincloss‘ work deeply unappealing, but Terry Teachout argues for the brilliance of the late author’s 1964 novel, The Rector of Justin.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archives of Andre Dubus.

Investigating Philip K. Dick‘s final years in Orange County.

Handicapping a literary Super Bowl between Louisiana (Truman Capote, Walker Percy) and Indiana (Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Dreiser).

American writers may be helping Indian literature fall into a rut.

But at least one Indian interviewer figures the country can learn from Raymond Carver. (via HTMLGiant)

A new biography on the final years of Mark Twain‘s life squashes rumors that he was a pedophile. Also: a close study of Twain’s politics. (via Reason magazine)

Ha Jin: “On the one hand, it is a miserable life, because there’s so much anxiety. But on the other hand, if I don’t write, I feel ill.”

Links: Aisle Seats

Every so often, somebody online shows up to announce a surprising discovery: Roger Ebert is a pretty good writer! Such is the curse of being a TV celebrity, I suppose, where his closest peers have been Gene Shalit and Michael Medved—if you’re running with those clowns, small wonder people reduce to some kind of Fatty McThumb caricature. It may help to have grown up in a Chicago household that received the Sun-Times on weekends to contradict that reputation for shallowness. (The uninitiated or the unconvinced can pick up his 2006 collection, Awake in the Dark.) At any rate, HTMLGiant is the latest to bring the news, inspired by some of his recent personal essays on subjects like cancer and abstinence directives on college campuses. If it takes Ebert’s Twitter feed to get bloggers enthusing, so be it, but even given his emergence as a sharp cultural commentator in recent years, his skill and talent has always been there.

Case in point (and more directly relevant to this blog): The death of Erich Segal prompted Ebert to dig up his 1970 review of Love Story, which includes this gem of an opening:

I read Love Story one morning in about fourteen minutes flat, out of simple curiosity. I wanted to discover why five and a half million people had actually bought it. I wasn’t successful. I was so put off by Erich Segal’s writing style, in fact, that I hardly wanted to see the movie at all. Segal’s prose style is so revoltingly coy — sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can — that his story is fatally infected.

Mark Twain was similarly talented at writing a good lede for a newspaper.

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways is so despairing of the fate of literary magazines that he resorts to absolutisms and strange steams of thought: Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia.

Where, Wesley Morris asks, “are any of the promising films to be made from hundreds of years of black writing?”

Yiyun Li doesn’t feel her novel, The Vagrants, is entirely a downer: “There are actually some very funny moments. I was laughing, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Some of the reviewers picked up on the lightness. I’d say about one-sixth of reviewers picked that up, and I was very happy for them.”

Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis is behind a collection of short stories but writers in Spartansburg, South Carolina.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is working on short stories set in his native Wisconsin, as well as “a novel involving a love triangle, set in Pakistan in the early 1970s, involving a farmer who is married to an American.”

N. Scott Momaday, in a lengthy interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, on winning the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, 1969’s House Made of Dawn: “I was too young to receive it. It was a good thing, all in all. The benefits were very great and continue to be, but I don’t know, I think that if I had won it at 45 instead of 35 or whatever I was, it would have been somehow more appropriate.”

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is still in the habit of giving books to his players. Among the authors he’s selected are Larry Watson, Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie, and Roberto Bolano.

Lastly, the National Book Critics Circle recently announced eight new board members. I’m honored to be among them.

Links: What’s Good for the Country

Detroit receives little care and attention from anybody, including fiction writers. But Brad Leithauser and Susan Messer both have new historical novels set in the city.

Being a midlist author is no way to make money. (While we’re at it, neither is being a midlist rock band.)

Jack Pendarvis‘ always-entertaining blog advent calendar is up and running.

The Atlantic has assembled its literary interviews—with authors like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, and more—in one handy place.

Mark Twain‘s house smells like a haunted house, according to somebody who claims some expertise in these things.

Maybe the New York Times needs a reviewer dedicated to exclusively covering books from independent presses. Though that would imply that books from small presses are somehow inherently different from mainstream books—pursuing such a strategy would wreck the argument that the best small-press books deserve a seat at the adult table, yes?

In the meantime, the Times keeps on crushing the will of debut novelists.

“If [Walt] Whitman wore jeans, he wore them because they were the clothes of the rebellious, not because they were the affordable uniform of the pretty.”

But whatever. These days nobody knows who the hell Ernest Hemingway was anyhow.