What Did You Write During the Class War, Daddy?

What does Walter Benn Michaels want? In a frustrating essay in Bookforum, he argues that in recent years American literature has fallen down on the job, mainly because it has failed to get into the business of “criticizing the primacy of markets.” Instead writing novels about, say, the widening income gap, we’ve written much-praised novels that spend too much time looking backward to slavery or the Holocaust—Beloved, The Plot Against America, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are particular failings for Michaels on this front, while American Psycho is praised for at least working off the premise that this country is sickened by its consumerism.

Setting aside for a moment the implied argument that what American literature really needs is a good novel about the widening income gap, the maddening thing about Michaels’ piece is the author’s seemingly arbitrary decisions about what books get to be considered as worthy. If he wants to say that historical novels, by definition, fail to look at the present, that’s fine as far as it goes. (Though The Plot Against America had plenty to say about present-day anti-Semitism and propagandistic administrations.) But, strangely, memoirs are wiped off the table because their stories are not about society but individuals. Margaret Thatcher is quoted to exemplify the problem here; Michaels cites her saying, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So a book like Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior would be too shallow, concerned as it is with just one family; apparently so would Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family (while we’re talking about nonfiction), even though it’s one of the best-researched, most granular portraits of the effects of that widening income gap you’ll ever read—and it was written during the boom years, which according to Michaels caused this current failing in American letters. (I’m sure LeBlanc will be disappointed to hear that during that all those years of reporting in the Bronx she was just playing into Maggie’s hands.)

But The Woman Warrior has a double failing for being a story about immigrants, according to Michaels:

And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages.

Here, I’d love to shove a copy of Ha Jin‘s A Free Life in Michaels’ hands; though he may be obligated to dismiss it for being an immigrant story, it is a story about money for the mortgage. It may not be the Great American Class War Novel he’s dreaming of, but he’s never going to find it if he keeps paging through novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. (Presumably the latter’s portrayal of Newark in American Pastoral didn’t scratch the itch for Michaels in the way he’d prefer.) He’s also not going to find it if he keeps moving the goal posts.

If you’re in New York tonight, you’ll be able to catch a discussion about all this, featuring Michaels, critic-novelist Dale Peck, novelist Susan Straight, and journalist David Simon. Simon’s Great American TV Show, The Wire, is praised by Michaels at the end of his essay, so I have to imagine that at some point during the conversation Richard Price‘s Clockers will come up—the novel was, as Simon has said many times, a key inspiration for The Wire, and a better argument for the book Michaels is looking for than American Psycho. One question I hope somebody asks: Would anything change if we had more novels of the kind Michaels wants? (Assuming, of course, there’s been any drop-off in them.) Would we have better public policy? A better society? Simon, I suspect, would say no—in numerous interviews he’s shied away from any big statements about the show’s impact. Novels simply don’t change the world in that way. Some time back I asked Price about the legacy of Clockers, and he figured the book mainly affected how his books were shelved:

Q: What do you think is Clockers’ legacy?

A: There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers….” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.

So before we get into too many high-flown statements about what responsibility fiction has to society, it’s worth considering whether fiction has any capacity to transform it.

Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

Links: Ain’t That America

The Nobel Prize’s literature judge says that American writers are too “insular.” But what does some dumb foreigner know?

Hubris alert: Big-name venture capitalist Tom Perkins has built a 289-foot yacht called The Maltese Falcon.

In related news, Tom Perrotta dreams of being Sam Spade: “Who wouldn’t want to be a tough-talking private eye?”

Olsson’s, the leading independent bookstore chain in the Washington, D.C. area, closed all five of its stores yesterday after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. A memorial page is up and running.

Junot Diaz is deeply impressed with Richard Price‘s handball skills.

Nicholas Sparks is just pretty darned pleased with everything.

Videos From the 2008 National Book Festival

I shot a few short videos of some of the authors I caught at yesterday’s National Book Festival. Not especially competently, I’m afraid—I’m working with a two-year-old personal digital camera. But the sound is better than I’d expected, and everybody here gets off a good line or two.

Neil Gaiman, responding to a question about whether his ego ever gets in the way of his work (1:36):

Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, reading her poem “Composition” (0:52):

James McBride, discussing one of the obvious models for his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna (2:12):

Geraldine Brooks, discussing the books that first got her interested in reading (2:21):

(The camera conked out before she got to the punchline. She was able to name the emotion she felt; it’s lust.)

Richard Price on writing for The Wire: (0:30):

Richard Price on writing dialogue (0:45):

Roundup: Don’t Talk That Way

In the process of blogging about Richard Price‘s Lush Life for the National Post, police dispatcher Heather Clark seems to have acquired a touch of Price’s rhythms: “I lived with a cop who metaphorically swept away the stress of his world with the comforting, sucking hum of the vacuum cleaner. In our seven years together he hoovered his way through three rugs, and blew the engines on six Dirt Devils (that doesn’t include the busted Bissell brooms). It doesn’t take the pain away, but it sure as hell takes away the caring.” (Lush Life is now out in the U.K., receiving unsurprisingly enthusiastic reviews.)

The Santa Barbara Independent has an expansive feature on Selden EdwardsThe Little Book, a fall big book decades in the making. (h/t Liz)

Novelist Herbert Gold speaks with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles about his new memoir, Still Alive!, which recounts his relationships with Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and other literary folk.

Finally, trust Radar to ask the tough questions. From an interview with Charles Bock:

I’m actually supposed to ask you about Bennington. Apparently, all of the girls there have claw-shaped vaginas that can recite Andrea Dworkin to the tune of “Old Dixie.” Is this true?
That’s really, really funny. I don’t know if Dworkin might be too outdated now. I can tell you this: During my time in the MFA program, I worked like absolute hell to get laid as much as I possibly could. At no time did any woman’s intimate area recite anything to me to the tune of “Old Dixie.”

Canadian Cops: Polite, Literate

In relation to last week’s post about ways to innovate newspaper book sections, Canada’s National Post has an interesting idea—tap readers to blog about their reading of a book that relates to their expertise. The paper’s arts blog, The Ampersand, has invited a Toronto police officer to write about her experience reading Richard Price’s new novel, Lush Life. The first entry shines a little light on how different Toronto cops are from Price’s NYC ones:

When night watch detectives exit a tenement across the street from the scene, Matty watches as “one of them makes slant eyes with her fingertips, i.e., crammed to the rafters with Fooks”. Truly bad form if you’re a policing employee, it would be like openly farting or picking your nose in a five-star dining room. Twenty years ago we may have grunted and made such racial slurs, but that kind of behaviour is verboten “standing order 24” we say (racist comments, etc, etc will be punished, blah blah).

So What Else Is New?

Yesterday the National Book Critics Circle announced its latest Good Reads list—a selection of recently published books recommended by its members. Here’s the fiction list (links and formatting direct from the announcement post on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass):

1. Richard Price, LUSH LIFE, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Knopf
3. Steven Millhauser, DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Knopf
*4. Charles Baxter, THE SOUL THIEF, Pantheon
*4. Peter Carey, HIS ILLEGAL SELF, Knopf
*4. J. M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, Viking
*4. James Collins, BEGINNNER’S GREEK, Little, Brown
*4. Brian Hall, FALL OF FROST, Viking
*4. Roxana Robinson, COST, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
*4. Owen Sheers, RESISTANCE, Nan A. Talese: Doubleday

You won’t have to look far to find somebody argue that this list is stuffed with the usual suspects. That’s a somewhat odd complaint to me, as somebody who spent a couple of years contributing to pop-music polls. I mean, of course these lists are filled with known names—they’re consensus-building exercises. Surprises, practically by definition, aren’t going to rise to the top. And I’m skeptical about consensus-building exercises in the age of the long tail. But something to keep in mind: When I attended a gathering at Politics & Prose a few months back to discuss the last batch of selections, many of the folks who attended found all this stuff surprising, and you don’t show up at Politics & Prose on a balmy Saturday afternoon to listen to book critics natter on unless you care about reading.

This time around, I suspect that most folks with even a casual interest in contemporary literature have heard plenty about Price and Lahiri, and anybody who makes writing about books part of their daily business is thoroughly sick of the pair of ’em by now. That’s not to say that a list of books that a preponderance of critics cared about is valueless, though—if only for folks who might be curious about what critics care about, and transparency is always a good thing.

All that said, I’m an NBCC member, and I was mindful this time around about not being one more person boosting Lush Life—much as I love it, it doesn’t need any more help. My pick was Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder, about which more soon.