Links: Last Words

You likely don’t need to hear one more commentary about the Huckleberry Finn foofaraw, but consider reading Jon Clinch‘s, as somebody who spent a lot of time attempting to inhabit Twain’s world in his 2007 novel, Finn.

What happened to the literary prodigy Barbara Follett? (via)

Granta‘s 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue, which featured stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Carter, and many more, is claimed as the best single issue of a literary magazine ever. (via)

Two editors discuss their discovery of three previously undocumented Zora Neale Hurston stories.

Toward a complete guide to Dashiell Hammett‘s Baltimore haunts.

On the growth of David Foster Wallace studies.

Richard Ford on his home state, where he’s returning to teach: “I think the state, in the hands and eyes of its writers, has a lot that needs to be explained. Writers are imaginative explainers. There’s a lot of received wisdom, history, a lot of drama in the fabric that is Mississippi that could be seen not to make a whole lot of sense.”

Why Paul Theroux will not be writing an autobiography.

The National Book Critics Circle gathers up some recommendations for books that should be back in print; I put in for Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel I wrote about here last spring.

“[T]he relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”

Paul Auster is a potato, not a tropical flower. Allow him to explain:

Happy Thanksgiving

Robertson Davies: I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

Interviewer: I hope you don’t think New Yorker writers are representative of American culture across the board.

Davies: Perhaps not. I just see their stories every week because I’ve been taking the magazine forever and I haven’t the wits to stop.

— From a Paris Review interview with Davies, Spring 1989

(Davies may be susceptible to the “typical New Yorker story” fallacy, but it’s a funny riff all the same. We celebrated Thanksgiving with Joseph Heller last year.)

Old-Fashioned Linking

A couple of commenters on my post Sunday about short stories took up the topic of “linked” collections, and how publishers and readers might favor them because they have a “unity” of tone and (sometimes) plot. I’m fine with the structure when it works—in, say Vincent Lam‘s Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures or the linked sets of stories in Amy Bloom‘s Where the God of Love Hangs Out—less so when it’s hokum like Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge. But it’s worth remembering that the linked collection isn’t a new concept that publishers have whipped up in the past few years. Ernest Hemingway‘s posthumous 1972 collection, The Nick Adams Stories, has just been translated into Hebrew, giving Israeli writer Uzi Weil an opportunity to expound in Haaretz on the book, which he calls “the most elusive book and the simplest book I have ever read.” Weil’s prose gets a little humid, but this passage gets at why the linked collection works for him:

Between one story and another there is so much that is unsaid. That doesn’t need to be said. But the stories themselves sparkle in the light of truth, leaving you no choice but to fill in with your imagination, with your own heart and soul, what is unsaid. And this act of completion is what makes reading the Nick Adams stories so very, very different. Because it appears to be a novel about the life of a man, from childhood to adulthood. But unlike any novel ever written, it depicts the points before and after the “important points.” It doesn’t tell you what happened to Nick and his wife. You fill that in yourself. It’s like he’s saying: What does it matter, just what happened exactly? That’s what you call “the tyranny of the plot.” Forget “the plot.” Come, let me tell you about a certain moment in a hotel, a year after his love died.

It’s been so long since I’ve read any Hemingway—and I recall reading only a handful of the Nick Adams stories—that I can’t comment on how successfully he pulled any of that off. For what it’s worth, at the time it was published, the New York Times didn’t seem to think much of this linked-stories business. Richard R. Lingeman concluded his review by writing: “Nick Adams unites them in name only and the best of the stories stand alone, not as links in a chain. ‘The Nick Adams Stories’ neither add nor detract from Hemingway’s memory, and it is good to have a collection of the good ones, but this present arrangement does not create any new synergism.”

Inspirational Verse

The difference between the America of films, magazines, and packaged goods, and the America of Faulkner, Hawthorne, Saul Bellow, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Melville—I stab the names with a pin, hitting on past as well as present, because the then in every country is contained in its now—is extraordinary. (It is interesting that that marvelous American invention, sick humor, is based on this very difference: life as you’ve been told to want it, and life as it is.) One can’t explain away the gap in terms of the difference between art and commercialism. For though shamelessly used by commerce, the American image is also held up by Americans in high and serious places, political ones, for example. The image exalts youth, success, unquestioning patriotism, the love of a good man/woman, the confidence of freedom and of being right. The best of American writers are concerned with the difficulty of fulfillment; the corruption of integrity; the struggle for moral standards in public as well as private life; the truth of love, whatever its form, hetero- or homosexual, the battle of the individual against the might of society; and the doubt that one is right.

Nadine Gordimer, 1963

Going Fourth

The Brooklyn Paper brings word of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, which awards $50,000 to the person who’s written the best fourth published work of fiction. (The story keeps saying “novel,” but the official guidelines are more general.) Up for the debut prize are Chris Abani, Aleksandar Hemon, Jim Krusoe, and Arthur Phillips. Phillips tells the paper what a fourth book means for a writer:

“The fourth novel certainly represents a psychological change in a career,” he said. “With the fourth book, I feel like I’m treated as a writer who has been around for a while — and who, if he is going to keep sticking around, is going to have to do something else to keep getting people’s attention.”

The paper also has a tongue-in-cheek chart on other famous fourth novels. A few more fourth fictions, while we’re at it (“checked” against Wikipedia, so inaccuracy may be pervasive):

Joyce Carol Oates, A Garden of Earthly Delights
Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star
Paul Auster, The Locked Room
Russell Banks, Hamilton Stark
Ha Jin, Waiting
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief

Not much to extrapolate from that list; there’s one of Jin’s best novels, but also DeLillo’s worst. The best that can perhaps be said is that by the time the fourth book rolls around you may be poised for some kind of breakthrough: Chabon’s fifth book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. But plenty of writers I admire (Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, Nathan Englander) haven’t even published their fourth books yet, so it’s not much of a benchmark for success or acclaim; as far as I can tell, Ben Marcus and Heidi Julavits haven’t hit book number four, and they got to help judge the award.


On that note, I’m off for the better part of a week, working and traveling. Figure we’ll be dark here until next Thursday, though I’ll likely pop up on Twitter (@mathitak) from time to time.

Keeping it Simple With Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem‘s forthcoming novel, Chronic City, appears to be a return to sensibilities of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude—dense characterizations matched to a strong sense of New York’s history. According to the promotional patter on Random House’s Web site, the story focuses on Chase Insteadman and “Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning.” As Lethem told Comic Book Resources last July:

[I]t’s set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.

So far so good—or at least, not You Don’t Love Me Yet, his clunky, thin 2007 novel about an LA rock band. In the latest issue of Stop Smiling magazine (packed with interviews with, among others, Roberto Bolano, Alex Ross, Paul Auster, and Junot Diaz), Lethem registers an unusual defense of that novel:

I was ready to throw off any sense that I was going to write sprawling social novels set in Brooklyn and become the Brooklyn Faulkner. Neither Motherless nor Fortress exactly fits that description, but the accumulated image of the two books seemed to project that.

I don’t know if it would have been easy or hard for someone else to follow through with it, but it was totally out of the question for me. And really, for anyone who had even glanced at the earlier work that’d be obvious. But there were a lot of people—an important critical framework—which had never glanced at the earlier work. YDLMY was a way to shrug that off with a degree of self-destructive glee, to say I’m going to disappoint people on a number of different levels so we can start over again about expectations.

Is it overly reductionist to summarize this as, “I purposefully wrote a crummy novel so critics wouldn’t expect too much from me?” Either Lethem was overthinking his reputation or thinking too little about readers; in any event, it seems like he wasted too much energy being concerned about critics.

On a related note (at least in terms of avoiding big, ambitious novels), Lethem is going to spend the month of April running a Twitter feed for Brooklyn Museum as part of an ongoing series where artists commandeer a Twitter handle operated by the museum (@1stfans). Lethem explains what he’s planning on the museum’s blog:

I’ve finished a novel, to be published in October, called Chronic City, in which the object in question is called a “chaldron.” During the years of this book’s writing I found myself by chance repeatedly drawn into collaborations with a series of other artists or art-presenters (see: Jennifer Palladino, Matthew Ritchie, and THE THING) and in each case I used it to further the foolish postulate that “chaldrons” were a part of the world outside the novel, an error shared by my book’s characters. On the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed you’ll overhear tweets from a group of deluded aspirants to chaldron-ownership, as they debate strategies for winning a chaldron in an on-line auction.

You’ll likely have to pay for the privilege of reading Lethem’s Tweets: The feed is locked, a premium of joining the museum’s 1stfans “socially networked museum membership.”

New in D.C. Readings

The winter doldrums finally appear to be ending, at least in terms of upcoming book events in the D.C. area. Next week looks particularly solid: Crisis editor Jabari Asim speaks on What Obama Means Sunday at Politics & Prose, and sociologist Dalton Conley speaks there Monday night. (I have a brief review of Conley’s new book, Elsewhere, U.S.A., in this week’s Washington City Paper; the book itself is something of a disappointment, but Conley is an engaging thinker and researcher on class and social trends.) Journalist and Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks next Friday (note the new date) at College Park’s Vertigo Books. And, because all things Lincoln-related are pretty much unavoidable in this town, former senator George McGovern speaks not once but twice next week about Honest Abe.

One date of note a little further ahead: On February 28, American Independent Writers and George Mason University’s MFA program in creative writing will host a day-long seminar on fiction writing. A few of my favorite local writers and bloggers will be in attendance, including Louis Bayard, Alan Cheuse, and Art & Literature blogger Art Taylor. And, for what it’s worth, me too: I’ll be speaking on a panel titled “New Media and Publishing Creative Writing” with No Tell Books honcho Reb Livingston, poet Bernadette Geyer, and fiction writer and teacher Laura Ellen Scott. Should be fun. If you happen read this blog and plan to attend, please say hello.

The more time I spend compiling this calendar, the more aware I become of events and venues I’m missing. As always, if you know of a reading that ought to be on this page, please let me know.

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.