Links: A Familiar Story

My first thought when I began reading this article about how literary experimentation has been abandoned in favor of plot was Tom McCarthy‘s C. John Lucas then mentions the book, only to assign it the role of an exception that proves the rule. But isn’t that just as true of William GaddisThe Recognitions, the novel that inspired the article in the first place?

Related: Gravity’s Rainbow was exceptional enough to be rejected by Pulitzer Prize board despite the strong support of the fiction committee. Charles Johnson riffs on that and a few other problems, particularly involving race, with that prize.

Also related: “[R]egardless of the pleasures afforded by novels, was there ever a time when most readers turned to them for a refined aesthetic experience rather than the narrative?”

A fine essay on the unlucky life of writer Allan Seager, author of the much-borrowed short story “The Street.” (via)

Reasons to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film version of Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“The top 80% of all published stories in the [Best American Short Stories] 2005 through 2010 as well as notable stories mentioned in the back pages came from the same 42 journals.”

Colson Whitehead: “The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well.” (via)

Connecting the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case with Dinaw Mengestu‘s 2010 novel, How to Read the Air. (Lloyd Jones‘ very good forthcoming novel, Hand Me Down World, hits at some similar themes as well.)

Patrick Kurp on the virtues of reading widely.

“[T]he book review will undoubtedly survive. So will screeds against it, which is only fair: our age is one of constant comment, and the book review must take its lumps as stoically as the books in its pages do.”

On William Burroughs‘ ongoing ill will toward Truman Capote. (via)

A novelist-psychologist argues that “the more fiction you read, the better you are… at understanding other people.”

Lastly, if you’re in the D.C. area, tomorrow marks the very first Indie Lit City Summit, an all-day gathering of indie presses, magazines, and other literary folk from the D.C.-Baltimore region to talk shop and share ideas. The keynote speech will be given by Electric Literature‘s Andy Hunter; more info at the website.

Dale Peck Regrets

A few weeks back I attended an event in New York called “Revise and Recant,” where a few critics confessed to writing reviews that were too harsh, kind, misconceived, and so forth. The most interesting speaker was Dale Peck, who hadn’t arrived to retract one of his infamous self-declared “hatchet jobs,” but to voice regret that his praise for Thomas Pynchon‘s 2006 novel, Against the Day, never wound up in print. He’d been assigned to review the book for the Atlantic, but by the time he’d filed the review the book had been out for something like a year, and the magazine understandably passed.

So instead Peck published the review on his website, though at the time of the New York event the site appeared to be stricken with some sort of malware that cautioned visitors to avoid it at all costs. Those troubles appear to be cleared up now, so “Heresy of Truth” can now be experienced without fear. The piece opens by delivering some decidedly Peckian spankings to what he calls Pynchon’s “early fiction” (“by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon“), but he ultimately cheers Against the Day, in part because it rejects the need to make a grand statement about the world and instead just revels in it:

Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying.

Peck’s praise isn’t quite strong enough to convince me to tackle the 1,000-plus-page beast—his shots at the book’s critics toward the end of the essay make me wonder how much more he enjoyed the book than he enjoyed dismissing the people who didn’t like it much. But the piece does show a charitable, enthusiastic side to Peck that belies his reputation.

“Taking Time and Gathering Distance”

Nick Holdstock‘s n+1 essay about presenting an academic paper on Thomas Pynchon in Poland initially reads like a study in snark—an attempt to mock the kind of people who dedicate too much of their intellectual energy to the writer. After one scholar sputters about Against the Day and the (literally) explosive power of words, Holdstock looks around to see if any of his colleagues are detecting logic in that argument. “[O]n the pad of the man to my left there were no notes, just a drawing of a cat wearing a shirt and tie,” he writes.

But if Holdstock were only interested in mocking, he’d be mocking himself too; he was there to present his own paper, on Inherent Vice. And the core of his essay is actually a sincere conversion narrative about how his early distaste for Pynchon eventually morphed into a deep love for his writing. Working his way through Mason & Dixon, one of the few books to which he had access on a trip to China, he came to appreciate that there’s more than one way to write a good sentence:

At the time I was an acolyte of the Church of Raymond Carver. If I picked up the book again a few days later, it was only out of defiance, an unwillingness to be beaten by what seemed a wilfully impenetrable style. I read slowly, carefully, occasionally out loud, and somewhere along the way my idea of what constituted a Good Sentence changed. Instead of forming clipped phrases that cut, words could be more like unravelling yarn, travelling on wood or carpet, dropping abruptly from stair to stair, taking time and gathering distance.

An appreciation of some of Pynchon’s more elegant sentences follows, though by the end of the essay Holdstock is back to raising his eyebrows at his fellow Pynchon scholars. (One delivers “a narrative of personal confession…full of hard luck—culminating in his time spent frying chickens for KFC.”) Pynchon might be clearer than he’s given credit for, the message goes, but that’ll do nothing to curb the strange intensity of his biggest fans.

Links: Research and Development

Nicholas Carr unearths a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon from the New York Times Book Review about the virtues of being a luddite. “If our world survives,” writes Pynchon, “the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.”

Coincidentally, a recent Pynchon symposium at Swarthmore discussed the author and his feelings about the Web: “Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.”

So, then, how well does literature adapt to changing technology?

Walking through Holden Caulfield’s New York.

“Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.”

Angela Jackson discusses her debut novel, Where I Must Go, which is about a young black student at an overwhelmingly white, Northwestern-ish university in the late 60s.

Greil Marcus discusses criticism as “the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.”

Did Mark Twain ever camp on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe? Why did the effort to save his home in New York City fall apart? How did his work become so influential around the world?

Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon has been pulled from a classroom again by an outraged school-board member.

[Victor] LaValle was asked if he’d drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through—a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.”

At a recent panel, London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers “praised blogs as being more relevant than newspapers because of their brevity and the diversity of opinions,” according to a New York Press report. “This point was undercut by her own admission that the only blog she reads regularly is the one written by The London Review of Books.”

On a somewhat related note, I’ve started a series at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, in which I toss a few questions to people who run literary Web sites (i.e. sites that have a strong focus on books and run reviews from a variety of contributors). The first Q&A, with the Rumpus, is up now; a second is in the can and will be online soon. I love to hear your recommendations of sites that ought to be featured, either in the comments or via e-mail.

Links: Tidying Up Before The Holidays

Edward P. JonesThe Known World is now available in Arabic. (Can’t “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” be translated too?)

J.D. Salinger figured that The Catcher in the Rye was unfilmable. He also noticed when somebody needed a new typewriter ribbon.

One man’s effort to rehabilitate the reputation of James T. Farrell.

Ayn Rand‘s fiction “is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air.”

The frustrations of reading Barry Hannah backwards.

“We live in an era in which unprecedented globalization and economic interdependence, liberal-democratic hegemony, nanotechnology, robotic warfare, the ‘infosphere,’ nuclear proliferation and geoengineering solutions to climate change coexist with the return of powerful autocratic-capitalist states, of a new Great Game in Central Asia, of imperialism in the Middle East, of piracy on the high seas, of rivalry in the Indian Ocean, of a 1929-like market crash, of 1914-style hypernationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, of warlords and failed states, of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, and of a new holy war waged by radical Islamists complete with caliphates and beheadings reminiscent of medieval times. In short, we live in a Thomas Pynchon novel. (via)

The Leaden Feeling of the Cosmos

The New Yorker‘s litblog, the Book Bench, has posted a lengthy 1978 interview of John Updike by two professors of English at the University of Sarajevo. Updike covers Moby-Dick, his writing routine, authors he enjoys who live outside the United States, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize in literature. But he also expounds on the wave of postmodern authors who were coming into full flower at the time, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:

I really find it not easy to read him; I don’t like the funny names and I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us. I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too. Temperamentally, I just have not been able to read enough Pynchon to pronounce intelligently upon him. Clearly, the man is the darling of literary criticism in America now, especially of collegiate criticism. I am just no expert but all I can say is I have not much enjoyed the Pynchon I have tried to read…. I am not among those who has found much comfort in Pynchon. As to so-called black humor, which is maybe a passé phrase, it did seem to me at its best to be true enough and to correspond with a quality of, at least, American life in the sixties.

By 1978, Gravity’s Rainbow was only five years old—that book, combined with the wave of postmodernists, might have made feel like his own fictional enterprise was on the wane. But even if Updike wasn’t being defensive, he is voicing a fairly common complaint about Pynchon. For all his dark humor, wisdom, and gamesmanship, the line goes, he’s a product of the 60s who doesn’t have much to say about contemporary life—the postmodernist as nostalgist. “For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it,” Robert Goolrick told me a few months back in a conversation about his attempt to track down Pynchon. “I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse…. [B]ut there was a moment when he was completely in sync with the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius.”

No more, perhaps? Is it that his reputation now runs on the dying fumes of the enthusiasm of once-hip boomer critics and readers? Much as I find Pynchon’s persona fascinating, I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it, though I’m an admirer of The Crying of Lot 49. I suspect that Inherent Vice goes down more smoothly, but, being set in the 60s, would only help support the complaint. He’s under no obligation to write a novel set in the present day, of course, but what is it about his work that makes him meaningful and relevant today?

Links: Mall Rats

Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, the quintessential big book about Washington power players, turns 50.

Lorrie Moore: “I don’t feel I’m a natural writer. I feel every paragraph I write stinks. But I’m a pretty good editor. I’m not that fluid in getting the sentences out right the first time. There are times when you lose confidence. There are scenes that are hard to write. So I make changes. I am still making changes.”

Audrey Niffenegger recalls her early days in Chicago’s art scene.

Henry Louis Gates recently handed out the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are given to best books about race in the past year. Among the winners is Louise Erdrich, for The Plague of Doves.

New York magazine talks with Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death,” the lead story in his new collection, The Double Life Is Twice as Good, is a genius riff on noir themes matched with Ames’ traditional acts of self-flagellation.

Serpent’s Tail Press (which has published some of my favorite David Goodis noirs) is launching a classics series. It’s an interesting take on classics: Among the first batch of reprints are Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin and George PelecanosShoedog.

An excerpt from Raymond Carver‘s “Beginners,” included in Library of America’s new Carver collection.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, has a new story collection, The Man From Kinvara.

A chat with the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Society in San Francisco.

Tortilla Flat is a good name for a John Steinbeck novel, but a bad name for a Southern California sports bar.

And a Thomas Pynchon scholar picks precisely the wrong guy with whom to cop attitude about television.