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.

Category-ized Fiction

Jessica at Read React Review is spending the next few days walking through Thomas J. Roberts‘ 1990 book An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, which studies the differences between genre and literary novels, and the points where their readerships diverge and overlap. Jessica (who isn’t divulging her last name, best as I can tell) is an academic and a romance reader, so she brings an interesting perspective to the matter. And though she doesn’t quite say it explicitly, her post opens up the question of how much some of these distinctions have collapsed recently—and how often writers have tried to collapse them.

As Jessica describes it, Thomas breaks down fiction into four categories: At the extremes are classics and “junk fiction” (ie, genre fiction), and in the middle are “serious fiction” (literary fiction, apparently) and “plain fiction” (i.e., bestsellers). Thomas attempts to define who reads what, and Jessica has a lot of fun calling him on his nonsense. What I’m trying to figure out is if the problem here is with Thomas or with the time he was writing in. The past 20 years have been defined by hybridization on all fronts, with plenty of literary novelists rising up from genre writing and literary novelists trying their hand at page-turners.

But these conflations have always been with us, yes? I recently read a forthcoming biography of Pearl S. Buck, and if any writer had a mission to bring sentiment to literary fiction, she was at it in the 1920s. Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, everything else aside, was an episodic page-turner from a literary writer. What may have changed is that such attempts to merge of literary and genre are more intentional. It’s just one data point, but I’m thinking of Sarah Blake‘s The Postmistress, a likable novel about three women during World War II. Its mix of war stories and tales from the home front isn’t cynically devised—indeed, Blake writes engagingly about how Londoners endured the Blitz—but it is intended to whipsaw the reader between the sentimental stuff and the stuff of literary novels. That’s not just my judgment; it’s Blake’s editor’s. In a letter attached to attached to pre-publication copies of The Postmistress, Amy Einhorn writes: “When I started Amy Einhorn Books, my mission statement was to hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial. … Sarah Blake has written a book that has nailed that sweet-spot with a bull’s-eye.”

None of which means that the differences between genre and literary have entirely collapsed, and Jessica points out various cases where literary types fail to read and understand genre on its own terms. But there’s a lot more movement between Thomas’ categories than what Thomas seems to address.

Links: Home and Abroad

A museum dedicated to the life and work of Pearl S. Buck is set to open in her hometown of Zhenjiang, China. Among the papers that will be presented there for an upcoming conference on Buck: One written by Black Eyed Peas’ (his Wikipedia page notes that the Pearl S. Buck Foundation found him a home after his father abandoned him).

Massachusetts now has an official state novel.

If you’re going to Don DeLillo‘s reading at Skidmore College on Tuesday, could you please ask him about his weird statement to the New Yorker‘s book blog about his blogging for the Onion?

Joseph O’Neill
on the cratering of the financial markets, one of the subjects he takes on in his novel Netherland:

“There’s no visible sign of national disaster here. But I think there is this state of complete disorientation about what the future holds among ordinary people, and that disorientation seems to penetrate the expert sectors too. The same happened after 9/11 – the Government didn’t know what it was doing, and again it seems to have no idea. It’s an alarming state of affairs. As for the bailout? I have a friend who is a day trader, fantastic with numbers, and he thinks the necessary figure is more like $4 trillion (£2.27 trillion).”

The New Pearl

At Nextbook, novelist Jennifer Cody Epstein calls for a reassessment of the works of Pearl S. Buck. Epstein argues on behalf of Buck’s best-known work, The Good Earth, but the essay mainly focuses on Buck’s 1948 novel, Peony, about the shrinking population of Chinese Jews in the country. Epstein writes:

Peony also offers a glimpse into what makes Pearl Buck so exceptional among American writers. There’s her extraordinary eye for cultural detail; the almost effortless translation of Eastern culture and practice into tales that are not only factually accurate, but entirely sympathetic to a Western audience. There is her relentless championing of the oppressed, and her unabashed (and religiously unbiased) distrust of triumphalism in any form. In Peony, this is manifest in the old and (not coincidentally) blind rabbi who rants against “the heathen” and steadfastly maintains the unique role of the Israelites. “God has chosen my people,” he cries, “that we may eternally remind mankind of Him, Who alone rules. We are gadfly to man’s souls.” They are words that might well have been uttered by Absalom Sydenstricker, Buck’s missionary father, who for more than half a century tirelessly (if unsuccessfully) urged Chinese men and women to embrace Jesus.