Links: Stay on Target

Sven Birkerts makes a lovely statement in the American Scholar about why he reads novels: “I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.” Unfortunately, that statement is swaddled in much keening about how the Internet has destroyed our powers of concentration, with little evidence of whether that’s actually the case. He concludes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for.” I’m as susceptible as anyone to online distractions, but isn’t concentration something we’ve always fought for?

Hilary Spurling‘s new Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth, is an interesting biography, even if, like me, you were raised with the notion that Buck wasn’t truly Nobel timber. The book speeds through her later, potboiling years, and Spurling tells the Guardian why: “[W]hat we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.”

Willy Vlautin, author of two admirably spare road-trip novels, The Motel Life and Northline, on his inspirations: “I drive around and listen to ‘Ironweed’ on tape and listen to Tom Waits all day.”

Ruth Franklin takes a close look at the J.D. Salinger letters currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.

There’s a Mark Twain impersonator in Hannibal, Missouri, who doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Mark Twain.

Chasing Beat writers’ history in Mexico City.

Deborah Eisenberg: “One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that you do get to be other people.”

The Chicago Sun-Times asked me to participate in a poll of sorts on which authors belong in the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Ernest Hemingway didn’t get my vote, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Papa doesn’t count as a Chicago author.

Belle Boggs‘ forthcoming story collection, Mattaponi Queen, was a random pull from my to-be-read pile, an activity that usually doesn’t end well. Happily, this time it worked out: Boggs’ stories, mostly set in southern Virginia, are grim, funny, plainspoken, and are unusually attentive to race and class conflicts. Her short story about man pursuing a sex change, “Jonas,” ran a week back at Five Chapters. Her “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” an even better story, is in the latest issue of the Paris Review.

Displeased with a negative review of the new Yann Martel book, a couple of booksellers take to the Huffington Post to complain. “I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste,” they write, then proceed to defend the book based on their own personal tastes.

Roundup: Shooting Script

The film version of Willy Vlautin‘s Northline (reviewed) will be directed by Courtney Hunt (Frozen River); yes, they sent a copy of the book to Paul Newman.

Thank Photoshop for the cover of Donald Roy Pollock‘s Knockemstiff, which shows a sign for the downtrodden Ohio burg riddled with bullet holes. “The actual sign had only one, but they (the publishers) liked the look of it, so they put in several more,” Pollock says.

Keith Gessen attempts to Tumblr some sense out of the current Georgian turmoil. Not that the media are helping: “So information moves very quickly. But Russian fighter planes—even more quickly.” (FWIW, George Friedman‘s article in the New York Review of Books is the clearest assessment of the situation I’ve read.)

Best Westerns

The Charlotte Observer ponders the legacy of William Saroyan, who was born 100 years ago in Fresno, California. Donald Munro writes: “Who can say why Saroyan doesn’t have the name recognition today of, say, his contemporary John Steinbeck?”

Funny you should ask! In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley joins Robert Gottlieb as a member of the Salinas Handwringers Society—a small but apparently growing group of critics who take whacks at Steinbeck’s works yet still find themselves enchanted by them. “Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan…is almost completely forgotten?” Yardley asks, then proposes an answer:

The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Yardley isn’t being cute or glib here—his assessment is couched in a wise reading of Cannery Row, and the whole essay is worth your time.

Staying in the West a little longer: I’m a little out of practice in long-form reviewing, but I wanted a little more room than usual to discuss Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder and Willy Vlautin‘s Northline. My review of both novels is in this week’s City Paper.

Vlautin in Ireland

Willy Vlautin‘s second novel, Northline, is one of my recent favorites–I’ve talked about it before, and I suspect I’ll return to it again after it officially comes out in a few weeks. In the meantime, he talks a little about some of his inspirations for the novel, particularly racist skinheads, in the Galway Advertiser. The World Church of the Creator–an organization that, depressingly, got a lot of attention when I was living in Chicago–plays a bit part Northline‘s story. Vlautin explains:

“The boyfriend is based on about three different guys I grew up with,” he says. “I worked jobs with these really tough work-a-day skinheads guys. When the Mexican immigrants would come into Reno they would get construction jobs because the bosses would hire illegal workers.

“Anyway, I would see these guys that I’d known my whole life get more and more racist and violent. I suppose I wanted to kind of try and understand that situation because it’s a common thread that runs through any country that has lots of different people. The thing that really cemented the character in my mind was when the guy who does a lot of the Richmond Fontaine artwork got stabbed by a skinhead.”

A Man in Reno

Last week, following a writer’s recommendation, I picked up Willy Vlautin‘s The Motel Life, a sweet-sad-simple road story about two brothers in Reno. I enjoyed its simplicity–even the type formatting recalls middle-school reading primers–though that bare-bones style doesn’t recall Raymond Carver as much as critics say. Woody Guthrie lyrics might the better point of comparison–Vlautin loves free-flowing narratives that get told simply, have room for some humor and irony, but are mainly about something gone terribly wrong.

Vlautin, as it happens, is a musician–he plays in the alt-country band Richmond Fontaine–and his second novel, Northline, has just come out in the U.K. (It comes out in the U.S. this summer, in much the same way that The Motel Life came out overseas before arriving here.) The interview with Vlautin in the Guardian suggests another Reno story. Vlautin’s notes that the book has a soundtrack, and features a rare book trailer that I can get behind: