Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Mistakes Were Made

The latest issue of McSweeney’s includes a four-chapter excerpt of Michael Chabon‘s Fountain City, which was intended to be his second novel had he ever been able to finish it. Fountain City had a spectacular concept, but thanks to five years of fruitless labor, it became a spectacular failure: In his introduction, he explains that “over the course of the next half decade I wrote fifteen hundred pages and incorporated into the plot and fabric of the novel everything from messianic Zionism to French cuisine to radical environmental activism. And baseball. Oh, and Japanese monster movies.”

Sounds like fun, but on the evidence of the 70-odd pages Chabon reveals, it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t quit sooner, or how any reader could get to page 100, let alone 1,500. His hero, Harry Klezmer, drifts over two continents, three cities, and a few dozen pages while performing little that resembles a character-defining action. His father encourages him to go to Israel, an offer he declines; he goes to D.C. to meet Foster, his late brother’s partner, and they discuss death in a perfunctory way; he goes to Paris and gets chatted at by the locals. Stuff happens, as stuff in novels do, but Harry is responsible for putting little of that stuff into motion. “At night he flirted unsuccessfully with the female inmates of the hostel,” Chabon writes, which seems preposterous—it’s nearly impossible to imagine him doing something so intentional as flirting with somebody (though, true, it’s easy to imagine him being unsuccessful at it).

In the introduction and the copious footnotes to the chapters, Chabon cops to the problem with this “rather insubstantial hero,” and points out how Harry’s lack of motivation gummed up the plotting. But Chabon still has difficulty pinpointing exactly how his book went off the rails. To hear him tell it in his footnotes, failed fiction is largely due to a kind of misapplication of personal experience—he was suffering less from craft and style problems and more from an inability to make the detritus of his life do the bidding of the great god Theme. Chabon footnotes a casual mention of an Earth First-ish organization, Earth Five-O, by explaining that he initially intended to take a dig at a former college acquaintance, and later “had come to see the idea of ecological restoration, in kabbalistic terms, as tikkun olam—mending the world—and felt that it belonged at the core of my story.” But, he notes: “The history of failure is rife with such tasty and illusive visions.”

Elsewhere, he notes that his own love-hate relationship with Paris may have been part of the problem: “I could not help but write about [the city]; and yet, inevitably, the thought, and then the act, of doing so embarrassed me…. This may, in retrospect, have been one of my fundamental problems with F.C.” And in his concluding remarks he suggests that the whole botched thing was a product of bad timing—if only he had met his wife earlier, he might have found a way to make the novel work. “She read it before she had settled in as my First Reader, as a novelist’s spouse,” he writes. “She read it before she had learned to harness the talent, strength, advocacy, and all the skills of articulate persuasion she had….”

Chabon’s being a bit arch in saying that, I think. But it does suggest that those old feelings of frustration welled up as Chabon went back through his old pages—“grooving on them, just a little bit,” as he writes, but also exasperated over all that effort. If scrutinizing the story’s mechanical failures is too painful (and, to be fair, probably too dull to read about in footnote form), he can at least look back though the manuscript to get in touch with his memories or enthuse about his wife’s smarts as a close reader. If you don’t want to deal with why you changed the first sentence of the novel three times (at least), you can at least tell a few tales about your sexual history, about some important figures from your childhood, about a few amusing coincidences.

One thing Chabon never suggests throughout his notes to Fountain City is that it was wasted effort. “I believe in failure; only failure rings true,” he writes. “Success is an aberration, a random instance devoid of meaning.” He’s probably being a bit arch there too—it’s only his successes that have given him the time and opportunity to address his failures. But believing in failure is much more reasonable; after spending five years toiling on an unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable) novel, believing in success can only feel hubristic.

Links: Status Symbols

Ray Bradbury: “Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor.”

Nathan Englander on his relative disinterest in historical accuracy in fiction: “So if a reader wants to write in and say, ‘There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,’ I’d feel comfortable responding, ‘That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two.'”

Parsing the strangeness of Walker Percy‘s Lost in the Cosmos.

Gerald Early discusses jazz in literature the upsides of urban fiction with the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson. (via)

An in-progress illustrated version of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (via).

Given a sizable enough advance, Michael Chabon would write a nonfiction book on baseball.

A new book of scholarship on Ralph Ellison reveals that the hero of Invisible Man had a wife in early drafts of the novel.

Yiyun Li on why her books haven’t been translated into Chinese: “Just from a literary point of view, my stories rely on space: what you say and what you don’t. It doesn’t work to translate them. I would have to rewrite a lot, which I don’t want to do. I’m not going to rush into that.”

It’s been years since I thought to track down a copy of Cometbus, then a Berkeley-centric fanzine dedicated to the personal essays and fiction by its author, Aaron Cometbus; once upon a time I was in a mood to overstate things and called him the Great Bay Area Writer. Not quite, but I’m happy to hear he’s still writing.

I’m working on a series of Q&As with literary websites for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. The latest one, with C. Max Magee of The Millions, is now up.

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes on Eudora Welty‘s influence: “When I read her book, Delta Wedding, about 30 years ago it taught me the power of literature. She said to me, through that book, ‘Karl, this is worth doing.’ ”

A blogger, perhaps having lost a bar bet, is spending 117 days reading James Patterson: “[W]hen I was timing how long it took me to read each chapter, I realized that they were all readable in under 2 minutes, placing them conveniently within the space of a 2-minute commercial break on television. Coincidence? Maybe.” (via)

A Sense of Where You Are

“For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels,” writes D.G. Myers, lamenting the death of regionalism in American fiction. Myers lays the blame for all that sprawl on writing workshops, though it could just as easily say something about how the explosion of information in the past two generations has broadened writers’ horizons; if nothing else, the research is now easier. I’d also figured that writers’ breadth of interests, geographic or otherwise, mainly reflected the fact that Americans in general have become much more mobile in the past 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t actually the case; a majority of Americans haven’t moved from the state in which they grew up, and a majority of those people—more than a third of the U.S. population—have never moved from their hometown.

Of course, writers are different from the rest of us, and many successful ones will likely have to at least consider leaving town and finding a perch in academia. If that means we have a generation of writers who are promiscuous about place, so be it—I’m not convinced Michael Chabon would be a better writer if he’d ditched his MFA program and decided to focus exclusively on writing about hometown of Columbia, Maryland. But Myers’ post does make me realize that regionalist writers in recent years are hard to come by, and even then they tend not to stick around long. Adam Langer, the last great hope for the great Chicago novelist (or at least the most recent great hope) wrote two sprawling novels about the city and then shifted his focus to New York; Stuart Dybek, the great Chicago hope who preceded him, is now in Michigan.

Being a regionalist writer today seems to mess with your productivity; time was, William Faulkner could write a steady stream of novels and stories about Yoknapatawpha County, but now Marilynne Robinson has a long career with only three novels to show for it. And Edward P. Jones—the name that springs quickest to mind when I think of great contemporary regionalist writers—takes his time as well. Perhaps it’s less stressful to be a polymath with an MFA than a writer interested in the details of a particular place.

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: Has “Cute Butt,” Laps Up Porn

Bloomberg News reviews Curtis Sittenfeld‘s American Wife. Why can’t all book reviews get headlines like this?

Jeffrey Goldberg and Michael Chabon nyuk it up about Sarah Palin and Alaska.

Porter Shreve‘s next novel, When the White House Was Ours, is out soon. I’m not expecting greatness, but it’s next on my list, and I’m hopeful. I interviewed Shreve last year about D.C. charter schools, the subject of the book.

The tentpole article in the latest Bookforum, online now, is an essay by Thomas Frank on Norman Mailer and modern-day punditry, but the whole issue looks worth a read.

If Timmy Doesn’t Get His Finger Paints, the Terrorists Win

Art increases the sense of our common humanity. The imagination of the artist is, therefore, a profoundly moral imagination: the easier it is for you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, the more difficult it then becomes to do that person harm. If you want to make a torturer, first kill his imagination. If you want to create a nation that will stand by and allow torture to be practiced in its name, then go ahead and kill its imagination, too. You could start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performing arts.

— From Michael Chabon‘s introduction (PDF) to Barack Obama‘s arts policy statement (PDF). Apologies to those for whom this is old news. It’s only just now hit my radar. (via)

It’s a Dystopian Novel, People

I don’t entirely disagree with James Lewisreview of Michael Chabon‘s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in the American Thinker. “Plotwise the novel is shapeless, as if the writer could not restrain himself and trim the excess,” he writes, and it’s a fair complaint. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay managed to be sleek and epic simultaneously, while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union clangs about, its deeply imagined world not quite connecting to its dry, overextended plotting. The remainder of Lewis’ review, though, is an interestingly rageoholic misreading:

There is no love unspoiled by hate in this book, there is no joy or pleasure, no innocence and playfulness, no music and dancing, there are no High Holidays, there are no happy children in Chabon’s imaginative world.

This is a bit like complaining that Robocop didn’t have enough love scenes. The American Thinker is a repository of right-wing vitriol, and its book reviews are clearly no different. (Lewis introduces Chabon to the reader by calling him “an American Leftwing atheistic Yiddishist, living, significantly, in Berkeley, California.”) Yet what struck me about this post is that I haven’t stumbled over much like it—I thought that there would be more of this nuttiness, both among critics and commenters, when the novel came out. Same goes for Philip Roth‘s The Plot Against America, another successful novel about a Jewish dystopia that didn’t seem to ruffle many feathers. Maybe the novel doesn’t have the power to provoke that it once did?

The Continuing Genre War

In the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Saler shrewdly connects David Hajdu‘s history of the ’50s comic-book scare, The Ten-Cent Plague and Michael Chabon‘s collection of essays, Maps & Legends. Both throw light on the difficulties that genre fiction has had getting critical approval. Chabon attempts to collapse genre-bound distinctions, writing, “All literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction.” But not everybody’s hearing it. Saler writes:

Skirmishes do continue. Like Japanese soldiers fighting the Second World War long after it ended, some still draw a cordon sanitaire around “literature” to protect it from “genre”, regardless of how closely the two commingle. Jeanette Winterson proclaims “I hate science fiction”, even though her recent The Stone Gods includes robots and a post-apocalyptic future. Certain critics still insist that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize primarily for The Golden Notebook (1962), even though this Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention considers her futurist “Canopus in Argus” novels “to be some of my best work”. (David Langford gleefully tracks anti-genre comments at

That Ansible link is well worth clicking on—it disputes the notion that most people understand that comics and science fiction are more than just kids’ stuff. The people who get the nuances are the people who least need convincing—folks who’ve already read Maus, Fun Home, etc.

The Secret History

Gawker’s science-fiction blog, io9, has a chart-based study of sci-fi trends in mainstream literary novels. Charlie Jane Anders proposes three types of novels—“alternate history,” “time warp,” and “post-apocalyptic”—which means The Road, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and more are all fair game for discussion. I don’t think that the resulting chart really argues for a one-to-one relationship between current events and related fiction, but it’s an interesting idea to put out there. It’s certainly true that we got a lot of novels about broken-down Latin American countries in 2007 (Lost City Radio, A Far Country, and The Ministry of Special Cases, to name three), and those books certainly felt like responses to the United States’ political predicaments; add a category for “dystopia” and you may have something here. Anyway, Anders writes:

And then was a boom in post-apocalyptic fiction in more recent years, with three huge classics of the genre hitting in 2006. In particular, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has become the poster-child for the literary-authors-going-speculative trend. These books coincided with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and a worsening Iraq conflict. But there’s been a lull in the post-apocalyptic genre since then as well.