Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.


USA Today (“tomorrow the world!” as my favorite piece of newsrack graffiti added) notes that Upton Sinclair‘s 1927 novel, Oil!, is enjoying a nice sales boost as a tie-in to the film There Will Be Blood:

There Will Be Blood is a multiple Oscar nominee, and the movie’s success has rubbed off on the 1927 novel that inspired it, Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Since December, Penguin has gone back to press five times for the movie tie-in paperback with 136,000 copies in print. Anthony Arthur, author of the 2006 Sinclair biography Radical Innocent, has mixed feelings about the movie. “The first 60 minutes were pretty good,” he says, “particularly with the way it shows the technology of bringing in the well.” But then the movie diverges from the novel into “a wild revenge drama.” A socialist, Sinclair wanted his fiction, which included The Jungle, his 1906 novel about Chicago’s slaughterhouses, to influence readers politically. “People who read the book are going to be surprised,” Arthur says.

Project Gutenberg has a large stash of Sinclair’s novels available for free–including his most famous book, The Jungle–but Oil! is not among them.

Is “The Wire” a Novel?

HBO’s series about organizational dysfunction in Baltimore, “The Wire,” debuted its fifth and final season last night. Me, I’m one of the critics who received advance screeners of the season, and I’m holding fire on registering an opinion on it for a little bit yet; I’m working on a piece for City Paper about it. I will say that much of the season scratches the itches I want “The Wire” to scratch, but I’m also wrangling with a few things I’m finding problematic. Getting too deep into that right now involves spoilers, so for now I’ll hold tight.

One thing that I and other critics have been discussing, though, is whether to call “The Wire” a novel. Maud Newton says no: “Watching it is not the same as reading. But I can’t join in pulling out the violins over the (supposed) death of fiction when TV as a form is revealing itself to have this kind of narrative potential.” The New York Times says yes, making much of how the word Dickensian gets batted around in the show. (One episode is titled “The Dickensian Aspect.”)

Me being the third-way fellow that I am, I think both make good points. “The Wire” is certainly in the tradition of social novels like Hard Times, Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle, and John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath. The difference, though, is that those novels had ambitions to affect social change. (And, to some extent, they followed through.) But “Wire” creator David Simon knows he’s in an era when the social novel doesn’t matter the way it used to–one of the chief models for the show, Richard Price‘s Clockers (a novel as Dickensian as American fiction has been in recent years), didn’t do a thing about the crack epidemic it describes, let alone American drug policy. “The Wire” understands that lack of force, and tries to understand the reasons why these stories don’t penetrated the public consciousness anymore. It’s a social novel that acknowledges the toothlessness of the modern social novel.