Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.

Paul Harding’s Conversion

I haven’t read Paul Harding‘s debut novel, Tinkers, and I have only the vaguest memory of the band he used to play drums for, Cold Water Flat. (I want to say I saw them open for, say, Buffalo Tom, back in 1995, but I was going to three or four shows a week back then, and much of that period is now a blur.) But I found his interview with Bookslut interesting on a number of levels. So few musicians seem to successfully make the shift to fiction (Wesley Stace, Nick Cave, and Willy Vlautin being a few exceptions that prove the rule), but Harding also took the matter seriously, studying at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa with Marilynne Robinson. A strong sense of discipline comes through reading the interview with Harding, especially when it comes to reading: By knowing Robinson, he began devouring theology books that seem to inform Tinkers, though it’s not a book about religion:

[I’m read a lot of theology] [p]artially because of my friendship with Marilynne Robinson. Probably practically speaking that’s why I started. The thing that sustains me is the quality of the theological writing that I read. I grew up kind of an off-handed atheist. A middle class white boy charging around with my copy of Good and Evil, and I never really thought about [religion] until I’d been Marilynne Robinson’s student for some time. It occurred to me one day that this writer I admired was also one of the most profoundly religious people I’ve ever come across. I thought there can’t be a complete disconnect. She’s very much identified with Calvin, so I read a lot of Calvin, and then I started reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I’ve just been doggedly chewing on the Church Dogmatics for the past five years. It’s gratifying on every single level that you could want as a writer of fiction, as a person who contemplates. It’s just some of the most vigorous, consistently world class thinking and writing. It absolutely helps me with my own fiction writing.

Robinson blurbed Tinkers, which certainly helped the novel, published by the indie Bellvue Literary Press, get some attention. But it also helped that the publisher bent over backwards to help booksellers get the word out, as Pat Holt detailed back in March. Lise Solomon, a sales rep for the book distributor Consortium, told Holt:

“The buyer at Book Passage in Marin County loved ‘Tinkers’ so much that she asked if there was any way Bellevue could print a hardcover edition for the store’s First Edition Club. The publisher did a short run of 500 copies, which sold out quickly, and ended up printing another 500. Then Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (the Northwest rep loves the book, too) asked about selling its own proprietary hardcover edition, too, and Bellevue printed 750 copies that presold out quickly.

“But most stores responded to the trade paperback. They were willing to bring in 4-12 copies of an unknown author from an unknown press.”