The Apparently Empty Theater

HTMLGiant’s Catherine Lacey points to Wallace Stegner‘s 1959 essay “To a Young Writer,” which is part buck-up-little-camper speech, part warning about the degradations of the publishing industry. It’s beautifully written, though, and something of a classic—so much so that for the low, low price of $790 you can own a limited edition of the essay in book form, built of wood and cloth and calfskin and handmade paper.

Lacey was struck by what Stegner’s piece had to say about self-indulgence. I was struck by what it had to say about critics:

Some good reviews you undoubtedly will get, but also many routine plus-minus ones that will destroy you with their impercipience, and a few flip ones by bright young men who will patronize you in five hundred words or spend their space telling how trying was the heat on the New Haven as they read this book on the commuters’ special.

And especially struck by Stegner’s points about the audience for literary fiction, which suggest that little has changed (or rather, that things back then weren’t much different or “better” than they are now):

The readers do exist. Jacques Barzun confidently guesses that there are at least thirty thousand of them in the United States, though they may have to be found vertically through many years rather than horizontally in any one publishing season, and though the hope of your reaching them all is about like the possibility of your tracking down all the surviving elk in America. But any of them you find you will treasure. This audience, by and large, will listen to what you say and not demand that you say what everyone else is saying or what some fashionable school or clique says you should say. They are there, scattered through the apparently empty theater, listening and making very little noise. Be grateful for them. But however grateful you are, never, never, never write to please them.

Still, I think Lacey herself gets in the best line about writing: “Good writing goes deeper than the self; it isn’t about you, in particular,” she writes. “It’s a hole that you dug through yourself using words like pick-axes until you reached everyone else, or at least a lot of other people.”

Links: Archive Search

Virginia Quarterly Review looks back on its early history with Wallace Stegner, including some manuscript scans.

Speaking of: Stegner’s daughter-in-law, novelist Lynn Stegner, is working on an anthology about what it means to grow up in the West with another writer, Russell Rowland. You say you haven’t read anything by Rowland? Don’t be so sure.

Peter Osnos visits a Beijing bookstore and looks approvingly on the many Western books available to him. “The neuralgic issue of censorship is confined to a substantial but specific range of books both in Chinese and from abroad,” Osnos writes. He and Ha Jin need to have a chat.

Mark Twain‘s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, has announced that 2010 will be the “Year of Twain,” marking the centennial of his death and 175th birthday. A dedicated Web site will cover all the exciting events happening next year; for now, you’ll have to settle for the Oak Ridge Boys, who hit town August 22.

Litchfield, New Hampshire, is still squabbling over how to put what stories on its reading lists after parents pitched a fit over the likes of David Sedaris and Laura Lippman appearing in the curriculum. “The stories are not appropriate ‘for developing minds that are very impressionable,'” a parent tells the Nashua Telegraph. One can only imagine the impression that high-school students get from watching their parents wring their hands in public.

Elsewhere in New Hampshire, parents are concerned about John Irving‘s A Prayer for Owen Meany. So, maybe just be careful about bringing books into New Hampshire for a while.

“I see from this paper’s letters section that various well-meaning but clueless liberals are upset by my recent assertion that Ernest Hemingway was on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.”

Somebody posing as Jay Murray Siskind, a professor in Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace for the journal Modernism/Modernity. The joke was so funny that pretty much nobody got it for five years.

Wired‘s interactive map to Thomas Pynchon‘s Los Angeles has gone global.

And Andrew Sean Greer figures you can stop asking him about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button any time now.

The Great Mormon Novel

A couple weeks back Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Mormon Times, wrote about a conversation he once had with the novelist Wallace Stegner. Stegner suggested that Johnston try his hand at writing the Great Mormon Novel:

“I don’t have the scope or range to do it,” I said.

“You don’t have to make it large,” he said. “Just get things right.”

He said he thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it “part way” back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.

From there, Johnston speculates that there’s little chance that an important novel about Mormonism would be produced by somebody within the church—unlike, say, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic who still felt free to explore the boundaries of her faith. This has stoked some crankiness among a couple of writers at A Motley Vision, a Mormon arts blog. William Morris makes the valid point that the Great American Novel in general is a “worn out cliche that barely anybody has the energy for anymore and for Mormons to take up the idea is for us to prove yet again our status as belated moderns. S.P. Bailey, meanwhile, notes out that Graham Greene and O’Connor “were serious Christians who refused to speak the language of their own flock. They told Christian stories in the terms of 20C fiction, and gained literary acceptance in the process.”

That’s another good point; you could combine Bailey’s and Morris’ assertions and also realize that O’Connor was free to write an excellent novel about sin and faith, Wise Blood, without feeling much pressure to write a Great Catholic Novel. What’s left undiscussed, though, is whether there’s any competition whatsoever for the title of a Great Mormon Novel, or even great Mormon novelist. Orson Scott Card is the only mainstream Mormon fiction writer I know of, but I’ve never read his work; some commenters on Morris’ post mention Brady Udall‘s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, a novel I haven’t looked at since I read it in 2001 and evokes no strong memories of greatness. Is there a novel that addresses Mormonism with thought and care?


Housekeeping note: I’ve been away for the past few days, recovering some of my very rusty French in Montreal. I had a very good time, but that meant a few things around here have gone neglected—most prominently the D.C.-area readings listings, which should be back to normal by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.

Links: Get It Right

I’ve just finished Marlon James‘ second novel, The Book of Night Women, which is every bit as good as Maud Newton says it is. (If you’re in D.C., he reads at Borders L Street on March 3.)

An excellent blog post by Dave Tabler on the contretemps between Sinclair Lewis and William Stidger, the model for Elmer Gantry. (h/t Whet Moser)

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner‘s birth. The New York TimesTimothy Egan recalls how Stegner was screwed over by the Times.

The film version of Revolutionary Road tanked at the box office, but the book’s doing fine.

Scott Esposito crowdsourced his decision about which John Barth book to read first.

Michael Dirda writes an appreciation of John Updike for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And that’s it: I’m done with John Updike appreciations until the biography comes out.

Links: Remember When

While assembling this post, I’ve been listening to the Saul Bellow episode in Yaddo’s Yaddocast series (h/t TEV), and it’s a nice 20-minute primer on the writer’s life and thought. The lineup for podcasts and interviews is impressive: Not just writers but artists like Martin Puryear, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, and more.

Edmund White
has a thoughtful appreciation of Glenway Wescott in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. It’s not online, unfortunately, but the New York Times catches up with White and his newfound acclaim as a dramatist.

D.C. restaurant/bookstore/Democrat-apparatchik-hangout Busboys & Poets enjoyed an uptick in book-sale revenue of more than 800 percent just before President Obama’s inauguration.

Tomorrow night Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate debuts an hourlong documentary it produced about Wallace Stegner. No word if it’ll get wider play, but the Web site for the program includes transcripts with interviewees, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas McGuane, and Carl Brandt.

I’ve just finished Laila Lalami‘s debut novel, Secret Son, a carefully turned story about a young man who’s shuttled up and down the class ladder in contemporary Casablanca after he learns the identity of his father. Lalami’s characterizations and descriptions have depth and grit—it thoughtfully maps the city’s slums, palatial hotels, and extremist hangouts. But it’s more a story about class than place, and in showing how the poor are often victim of circumstance it has the wide-open feeling of a fable. (Which is a long way of saying she earns the right to invoke The Great Gatsby in the early pages.) I bring this up mainly because I was pleased to learn that she’ll be appearing on a pair of panels in D.C. next month about Arab literature. Mark your calendars.

Many of the discussions following John Updike‘s death have brought up the question of who’s left?—what real competitors did Updike really have who can claim the role of great American novelist? Philip Roth‘s name gets bandied about the most. But the list of others mentioned rarely seems to include Joyce Carol Oates, which surprises me. Her work mirrors his in many ways: Both covered small-town life, both were fixated on both intimate relationships and history, both were prolific as fiction writers and critics. Oates, in her appreciation of Updike for the New Yorker, is more demure about their connection. I’m also surprised they weren’t closer friends.

And while I don’t think anybody needs more Updike-related links, I do think it’s important to note that he was admired by both stoners and snappy dressers.

That Stegner Fellow

I lived for eight years in San Francisco, a famously beautiful city that famously has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to getting respect from the alleged “East Coast establishment.” The San Francisco Chronicle once ran a Sunday magazine piece about the Bay Area’s culture of young writers, and the story’s author found multiple ways to say, “You won’t find this kind of writing in that snobby/elitist/hermetically sealed New York culture!” I suspect most of the writers profiled now live in Brooklyn.

Anyway, one of the main talking points in this debate, at least when it comes to books, is Wallace Stegner, who wrote one of Northern California’s defining novels, Angle of Repose. You heard about it often out in San Francisco, where it’s the point of reference for any novel about the American west that picks up themes of pioneering and the environment; on the East Coast, you’ll hear nary a peep about it. The New York Times gets at this divide a little in a piece on a writers’ gathering dedicated to Stegner in Point Reyes, Calif.:

The East’s perceived dismissal of Stegner’s Western-ness was another leitmotif during the conference. [Stegner biographer] Mr. [Philip L.] Fradkin made repeated references to the failure of The New York Times Book Review to publish a review of “Angle of Repose” — and the dismissive column about it in The Times (“a Pontiac in the age of Apollo, an Ed Muskie in the fiction sweepstakes”) written by John Leonard after the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Remembering Stegner

Carlin Romano reviews Philip A. Fradkin‘s biography Wallace Stegner and the American West:

[D]oes Stegner merit a third full-scale biography? He does. First, his 13 novels, eight nonfiction books, and 242 articles, including “The Wilderness Letter” (1961), a modern manifesto for conservationists, carry weight. While Stegner didn’t, like Saul Bellow, consistently turn out masterpieces, novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose (1971) and The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) endure as quality work, as do a number of his nonfiction books.

The review notes a recent controversy over the release of Stegner’s written-for-the-money history of a Saudi oil firm. The Washington Post story on that book is here.