Links: Bright-Sided

Drew Johnson‘s spirited defense of O. Henry on the hundredth anniversary of his death: “[I]t’s worth remembering that this is a register with which all writers have terrible difficulty. For all the contempt lavished on stories which crudely bring on the tears, my nagging sense is that the skills to traverse the terrain of ‘The Last Leaf’ or ‘Magi’ are widely lacking—and so we hide behind the ‘happiness shows white on the page’ excuses. It’s hard to think of happy stories.”

Falling hard for the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces.

E.L. Doctorow on how Ragtime might resemble a rag: “In the way it plays off personal lives against historical forces, you could make the claim, I suppose, that the historical forces are the basic stride or the inevitable irrepressible beat, and the attempt to escape history is the syncopated right hand.”

Peter Matthiessen recalls visiting Prague in 1948.

What’s killing fiction? MFA programs? Publishing house editors? Anybody willing to step up and blame readers?

Benjamin Percy recalls his early admiration for Stephen King‘s The Gunslinger.

Richard Price‘s novel Lush Life has inspired a series of art exhibits on the Lower East Side.

“Grocery store owners, it seems, have more dignity, more potential for sympathy, and more substance, than politicians, at least if you’re an up and coming novelist.

Jeffrey Eugenides
isn’t very excited about the upcoming film version of his short story “Baster.”

Any appropriate name for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have a Don DeLillo-like affect.

Writing about American sports fiction, Benjamin Markovitz notes that “[John] Updike probably chose basketball for Rabbit because it’s less Waspy than tennis or golf. Even so, the class lines in American sports are not fixed. Basketball is played by inner-city blacks and rural whites. American football grew up on the playing fields of east coast prep schools, but early on it also became a way out of poverty for the working classes.” This may explain why fiction writers find sports so useful for their purposes—and why the Great American Lacrosse Novel will probably never be written.

Brady Udall
on researching his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist: “I figured I’d meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hair-dos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace.”

I’m mindful of the fact that all the writers mentioned in this links post are men. I don’t think all of them are purveyors of manfiction, though. On a related note: Are female authors in movies always broken/weepy types?

Links: That Settles That

Peter Matthiessen took the fiction prize at last night’s National Book Awards….

…at which Maxine Hong Kingston announced that she’s on page 173 of a poem.

College kids love Chuck Klosterman, would appreciate if he would stop chewing cough drops so they could hear him.

Ross Miller is nowhere near done with his biography of Philip Roth. But he knows his subject well: “Philip Roth probably knows as much about his own life as I do,” Miller said. “Possibly even less. He cannot remember what’s invention and what’s memory.”

The Last (?) Word on the Shadow Country Controversy

The happily resurrected MobyLives points to a story in today’s New York Times about the debate over whether Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country qualifies as a “new” novel, seeing as it compresses and reworks three of his previous works. (I’ve mentioned this last month, and back in April, when Michael Dirda defended the enterprise in the New York Review of Books.) National Book Award executive director Harold Augenbraum effectively douses the flames:

“We allow collections of previously published material,” he said. “Collected poems, collected essays, short-story collections — books like that. We don’t allow reprints, but we didn’t consider this a reprint. There’s a lot of new writing here.”

But the story is largely an appreciation of the 81-year-old Matthiessen, who speaks out on the matter toward the end of the piece:

“I brought forward some characters, and gave them a voice,” he explained. “Like Henry Short, a black man who probably fired the first shot. I dropped others. I also dropped a lot of historical stuff and cut 40 years out of the time span. But a lot of the changes were just deepening, or I use the rather pretentious word ‘distilling.’ ”

Links: Below the Fold

You already know how the story ends, but Rolling Stone‘s David Foster Wallace feature still has a heartbreaking ending.

Dennis Johnson‘s point is well taken, though.

Danielle Steel has a blog, desperate writers spot opportunity to plug their books in the comments.

Throwing another log onto the fire regarding the micro-controversy that Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country doesn’t deserve an NBA nomination because it’s not really a new novel: “He began laughing as he read his own words, admitting that he hadn’t read the book for a long time.”

Dennis Cooper is keeping busy with hand puppets.

And Jonathan Franzen doesn’t want you to get off your damn cell phone so much as he wants you to stop saying “I love you” into it. The whole of modern American culture is all about TMI, he says:

[J]ust as I can’t help blaming cellular technology when people pour parental or filial affection into their phones and rudeness onto every stranger within earshot, I can’t help blaming media technology for the national foregrounding of the personal. Unlike in, say, 1941, when the United States responded to a terrible attack with collective resolve and discipline and sacrifice, in 2001 we had terrific visuals. We had amateur footage and could break it down frame by frame. We had screens to bring the violence raw into every bedroom in the country, and voice mail to record the desperate final calls of the doomed, and late-model psychology to explicate and heal our trauma. But as for what the attacks actually signified, and what a sensible response to them might look like, attitudes varied. This was the wonderful thing about digital technology: No more hurtful censoring of anybody’s feelings! Everybody entitled to express his or her own opinion! Whether or not Saddam Hussein had personally bought plane tickets for the hijackers therefore remained open to lively debate. What everybody agreed to agree on, instead, was that the families of 9/11’s victims had a right to approve or veto plans for the memorial at Ground Zero. And everybody could share in the pain experienced by the families of the fallen cops and firefighters. And everybody agreed that irony was dead. The bad, empty irony of the ’90s was simply “no longer possible” post-9/11; we’d stepped forward into a new age of sincerity.

(H/T Sarah Weinman)

9,000 Hours With Salvatore Scibona

I’ve only read one of the fiction finalists for the National Book AwardMarilynne Robinson‘s Home—so I don’t have much to say about the mini-controversy over whether Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country should have been considered. (Back in May, Michael Dirda argued in the New York Review of Books that the novel should be considered distinct from the three previously published novels that feed it.) In confess, though, that Salvatore Scibona‘s The End is news to me completely. The Daily Iowan recently caught up with Scibona, an alum of the Iowa Writers Workshop, who explained what went into making the novel:

His début novel, The End, is the product of 10 years of consistent, dedicated effort during which he committed to writing three hours a day, six days a week. I’ll save you the arithmetic: That amounts to more than 9,000 hours exerted to create a single 300-page novel….

The End describes a community of Italian immigrants living in Ohio in 1953. The novel centers on a baker named Rocco Lagrassa, but also gives voice to five other characters as a single day unfolds in their lives. The effect, as Scibona described it, is a “haunted sense of déjà vu” as the reader’s understanding of Rocco’s world becomes increasingly complex and informed….

“The characters are all made up,” Scibona said. “I’m sure I take little snippets of things people say, and sometimes I’ll borrow a nose or hair from somebody, but in terms of the souls of the characters, I try really hard to let them emerge on their own terms.”

Roundup: Get Me Rewrite

The Southwest Florida News-Press catches up with Peter Matthiessen on Shadow Country, his recent reworking of three previous novels. Money quote: “In the Watson story, there are so many things that I wanted to talk about – the frontier, indigenous people, the loss of wildlife and landscape, and the growing, growing corporate greed that takes over everything. And when I put it out in unsatisfactory form as far as I was concerned, instead of turning to a new thing, I realized I wanted to get this right because it’s a very important American story. I had to know that this book exists in its proper form somewhere.”

Orson Scott Card speaks to School Library Journal about YA lit, Mormonism, his alleged homophobia, his massive output, and more.

Four books have been added to the NEA’s Big Read program: Louise Erdrich‘s Love Medicine, Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried, Thornton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town, and a collection of poetry and stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

Your moment of zen: Voice of America Special English’s latest author feature is on Louisa May Alcott.

Roundup: Drives Like a Dream

You may have heard this week that luxury-car-maker Lexus has gotten into the business of publishing fiction—branded fiction about one of their new models, written by nine different authors. Jane Smiley and Curtis Sittenfeld are among the best-known novelists participating; I spoke with Richard McCann, the author of the second chapter of the novel, about his work on the project for Washington City Paper‘s blog, City Desk.

I’m with Keith Gessen, speaking about his own novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, with the Oregonian: “Honestly? It’s a very flawed book in a lot of ways. It’s like half a novel. The impulse at the beginning was short stories, and the last half is more like a novel. As a novel, it has serious flaws, structural deformities that result from it taking so long to finish.”

The Wall Street Journal reviews Michael Zaid‘s The Secret of Fame, a book-length study of literary reputations. Here we learn that—surprise!—Philip Roth might be a shade neurotic about his reputation: ” On the jacket flaps of Philip Roth’s recent books we are told that, apart from winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Roth has won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters—the “Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others.” Mr. Roth wouldn’t have mentioned the award’s previous winners if he hadn’t been anxious about his status, aware that most literary prizes – unlike a businessman’s bank account – possess uncertain value.”

In the NYTBR NYRB Michael Dirda celebrates Peter Matthiessen‘s Shadow Country, a reworking of three of his previous linked Everglades-set novels into one volume:

From this spotty and sometimes contradictory historical record enhanced by contemporary rumors and the recollections of old-timers, Peter Matthiessen has fashioned a novel of Faulknerian power and darkness, one that embraces the American experience from the time of the Civil War to the first years of the Depression. Its themes are those that brand us as Americans to this day: the belief in self-transformation and renewal, the hunger for property and respectability, perfervid patriotism and xenophobia, the legacy of the Civil War, ongoing racial fears and anxieties, rampant greed, the rape of our wild places, psychological and physical violence in the family, the cowboy cult of manliness and swagger. And, not least, of course, our need for self-exculpation. The end justifies the means. It was him or me. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

More on Doc

An essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review follows up on the story of Harold L. Humes, the eccentric novelist who’s the subject of a new documentary, Doc. Much of the piece reworks information in an earlier Times article, but it does bring the news that we may be hearing more soon about the odd intersection of Humes, Peter Matthiessen, the CIA, and the Paris Review (Matthiessen has acknowledged that he used his Paris Review gig as a CIA cover):

The C.I.A. thread is discussed in greater detail by Matthiessen and others in “George Being George,” an oral biography of [longtime Paris Review editor George] Plimpton scheduled to appear this fall, said Nelson Aldrich, who compiled the volume for Random House. Aldrich worked as an editor at The Paris Review in 1957 and subsequently as a public relations functionary at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He concurred that the literary magazine had never received money from the congress, though he noted that Julius Fleischmann, a literary socialite and known conduit to the congress, had donated $1,000 to The Paris Review in its early years. Aldrich said it was Fleischmann, not his front foundation, that gave the money, “although who knows, he might have gotten it from his foundation.” (Aldrich married Humes’s former wife, Anna Lou, in 1967.)

Doc Doc

Doc, a documentary about novelist and Paris Review cofounder Harold Louis Humes, opens in New York this week. The New York Times review is here; the paper’s 2007 feature on the making of the documentary is here.

I haven’t seen the film (directed by his daughter Immy), or read Humes’ two novels, but there are lots of intriguing details in the articles: Peter Matthiessen was apparently a CIA agent using his Paris Review gig as a cover; Humes was Norman Mailer‘s campaign manager during his ill-fated mayoral run; he suffered from mental illness and believed he single-handedly prevented World War III.

As the official site for the film points out, Humes’ two novels–The Underground City and Men Die–have been reissued by Modern Library. (Click here for a trailer.)