30 September 2009

Up at The Millions today, I’ve offered my own Top Five  works of fiction since 2000 (none of my selections made The Millions Top 20 Best Fiction of the Millennium list last week).  And I’ve sung the praises of my #6, The Tutor of History, by Nepali novelist Manjushree Thapa.

It’s a book review “sort of,” because it’s also something of a compare-contrast exercise, looking also at three other novels I read recently: Ali Smith‘s The Accidental, Rachel Kushner‘s Telex From Cuba, and Lily Tuck‘s The News From Paraguay (all, incidentally, major award-winners).

I seem to have taken up the cause of under-sung novels, particularly ones that have significant readership outside of the U.S. but are little known here.   Tutor falls into that category.  Later this week, a review I wrote of Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany‘s debut, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, will appear at The Second Pass.

29 September 2009

Swinging back to the literary from the political — though a gentle half-arc swing — I’m excited about Jimmy Carter‘s forthcoming White House diaries, which will be released in October 2010 from Farrar Strauss & Giroux.  Read more about it here.

If you haven’t read any of Carter’s numerous books, I’d recommend his memoir, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, which gave me such a strong sense of what has shaped his values and politics over his lifetime.  Growing up on a farm in the American south on the heels of the Depression, Carter seems to have absorbed the core of his life lessons during those years–which I found both fascinating and heartening.

28 September 2009

A little detour into global affairs today…

I’ve got Afghanistan on the brain, ever since David Brooks wrote in his NY Times Op-Ed piece last week that “historical evidence suggests that…middling strategies just create a situation in which you have enough forces to assume responsibility for a conflict, but not enough to prevail.”  In other words, it’s “all in or all out” — which, in my mind, puts genuine leadership at odds with voter impatience.  If it happens that troop increase and long-term commitment to the Af-Pak War is what’s required, then the Obama presidency, I fear, is at high risk.  It’s aggravating — that the “American people” (whoever that may be) want to be safe from terrorism, but will vote out any political leader who asks for patience and sacrifice to that end.

If it happens that the best course is to pull out, then cries of “broken campaign promises” will be the President’s other potential downfall.

I appreciated Frank Rich‘s piece in the NY Times this past Sunday, in which he exhorted the President to do what he needs to do, regardless of what he said 18 months ago on the campaign trail.

Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now. Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” circumstances have since changed…. [   ] it’s up to the president to decide what he thinks is right for the country’s security, the politics be damned. That he has temporarily pressed the pause button to think it through while others, including some of his own generals, try to lock him in is not a sign of indecisiveness but of confidence and strength.

I’m not sure why mind-changing is considered a sign of weakness or dishonesty in politics.  As if mindless consistency, or any sort of consistency, were an ultimate sign of character. The world changes so quickly these days, faster than Internet media can even keep up.  Why wouldn’t contradiction–saying one thing today, another thing tomorrow–be understood as the way we live now?  It seems to me that the only constant we have anymore is change.

26 September 2009

This statement by John Grisham in the Telegraph last week about his approach to writing makes me realize just how unproductive and illogical it is to make comparisons between or generate debates about the relative value of Grishamesque/Dan Brown thrillers and literary novels that are driven by elements other than pure suspense:

“I know that what I do is not literature… For me, the essential component of fiction is plot. My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible. If I want to achieve that, I can’t allow myself the luxury of distracting him. I have to keep him hanging on and the only way to do it is by using the weapons of suspense. There is no other way. If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people’s character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.”

It’s not even like apples and oranges; it’s like apples and… artichokes? Onions?  I don’t even know.

24 September 2009

Stephen Elliott, author of the recently released The Adderall Diaries, and founding editor of The Rumpus, is “not like God.”  But he’s been doing interviews recently, like this one at SMITH mag.  There’s something in his voice that always arrests me, something in the easy movement between hardness and softness.

It’s a common misperception that for some reason we should be telling stories about other people instead of ourselves. It’s completely wrong because it overlooks the most important person, the reader. Writing a book without accessing your experiences is like building a house without a hammer. The person living in the house doesn’t care whether or not you used a hammer. She only cares if the roof leaks. The book is no more or less valuable because the writer is present within the text. It’s a false concern. It’s like when we were adolescents and we couldn’t wait to denounce our favorite band. It’s not really about anything. It’s just bitter cynicism. And it’s irrelevant…

You can almost feel that the reader is foremost for him even as he answers interview questions, like he’s cutting straight through the main purpose of an interview, i.e. to promote his book, to connect with the reader — let’s just be real, I always feel him saying in the subtext.  Like, what else is there? Which of course is the best way to sell books, i.e. connecting in that real way with readers.  It’s a fascinating sort of loop, if you’re someone who pays attention to these kinds of things, i.e. how authors get involved in the promotion of their own work; and Elliott seems to do it effortlessly (although, that’s the other loop — the appearance of effortlessness which I’m guessing requires quite a bit of effort).

[What would you like to tell your happy friends at SMITH Mag?]

That I love you. That you should write for yourself. That the rewards of writing are not material. That you need a through line in your lives. You can’t just go from project to project, from book to mountain. You have to have community, continuity, rituals that keep you even as you change.

This struck me, too: “Some people read to escape; I read to connect.”  This seems to me a rather radical, and lucid, statement, simple as it is — in the wake of Dan Brown‘s new blockbuster release.

Elliott writes at length here about his writer’s journey (i.e. his life journey). “Connect” seems the right word for everything he’s trying to do in his life; keeping the writing and the editing and the promoting as real and as grounded as possible; living with and through depression and financial challenges and addiction while continuing to find genuine joy and focus in reading and writing.  With the critical success of The Adderall Diaries, his promotional savvy, the rising popularity of The Rumpus… I begin to worry a little.  About this writer I know not at all, except through these interviews and personal essays.  If the movie deal comes next, and lots of speaking engagements, and an offer to teach full-time at Prestigious U.; I don’t know…

I worry, Stephen Elliott.  About how you will navigate all this success, as you become a literary commodity; which can be so disconnecting.  But don’t get me wrong: I’m rooting for you.

22 September 2009

I’d been paring down on print periodicals, mostly for financial reasons; but then NPR was offering a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly for its membership premium, and I couldn’t resist.

Some absorbing articles in the September issue:

On Quentin Tarantino‘s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and why it’s high time a Gentile made a Holocaust revenge film (interview by Jeffrey Goldberg)

Caitlin Flanagan‘s (author of To Hell With All That) impassioned ode to Elizabeth Edwards (and evisceration of  Rielle Hunter, via Helen Gurley Brown)

A painful, illuminating, exasperating article by David Goldhill on the problems beneath the problems of the health care system, from the perspective of a free-market capitalist

I found each of these articles upsetting and frustrating, along with challenging and educational.  What more can you ask for…

21 September 2009

Check out the Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far) Top 20 at The Millions this week.  Panelists included:

18 September 2009

…is the fiction podcast.

I love the idea of writers selecting, reading, and discussing stories from the archives, both recent and long past (fiction editor Deborah Treisman‘s light touch as a host, and her gentle, soothing voice, are a pleasure).  Writers have to spend a good amount of their time promoting themselves, so it’s wonderful when there’s a forum for admiring others.

So many writers and stories have come to my attention that I might never have known: Peter Taylor‘s “Porte-Cochere” (1949, read by Marisa Silver), Sergei Dovlatov‘s “The Colonel Says I Love You” (1986, read by David Bezmogis), Stephanie Vaughn‘s “Dog Heaven” (1989, read by Tobias Wolff), James Salter‘s “Last Night” (2002, read by Thomas McGuane), and Maeve Brennan‘s “Christmas Eve” (1972, read by Roddy Doyle), among others.  Each one has left me stunned.

The podcast index can be found here.

16 September 2009

This candid account from Daniel Menaker of what it’s like to try to get a literary novel into the real world — including detail on all the specific mathematical and cultural odds stacked against both editor and author —  was a revelation.

There’s almost only bad news in here, but I found reading it a kind of relief.  The truth is like that sometimes.  It reminds me of a scene in Season 2 of Mad Men, where Betty goes to see her father, whose dementia is advancing, though no one in the family wants to say so; and her childhood nursemaid says to her, “Your father is very very sick,” and Betty responds: “You have no idea how nice it is to hear someone say that.”

13 September 2009

I should leave Lev Grossman’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard,” alone.  I’ve gotten into trouble on this subject before, and I learned that my thoughts on the matter of “the difficult pleasure” vs the easy one are outdated, underdeveloped, and poorly expressed.

But apparently I have a couple of things to attempt to say in response:

First, Grossman equates the “difficult pleasures” argument with an aversion to, specifically, plot.  This is simply inaccurate.  I am currently reading, for instance, the highly-plotted 2666, by Roberto Bolano and could name many examples of literary novels which are well-written, challenge the reader’s mind and soul, and also evolve around, as Grossman puts it, “crisp, dynamic, exciting” plots.

The crux of this debate has never been about storytelling or non-storytelling, but about good storytelling and bad storytelling.  The foundation of literature is language, and poor use of the language to tell a good story is where my beef begins and ends.  It seems to me Grossman makes the same error of argument that is made repeatedly by genre-defenders: that somehow hoity-toity literary writers have something against a great plot, whereas the real objection is to the idea that a good plot covers a multitude of writing sins (and Ms. Meyers is guilty of entirely too many).  Conversely, I don’t see a lot of people defending a poetically-written pile of nothing-much; all readers crave emotional and intellectual pay-off, via the thoughtfully-crafted journeys of the characters.  I just want those journeys to be told in beautiful, stunning, maybe even strange language (which is not to say fancy language) that effectively renders what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream. If every other description includes three adverbs and the word “sparkle”, my experience of the fictional dream is not continuous.  More aptly put by William Carlos Williams: “Organize the language right.”

Second, there is a problem with the term “difficult.” What do we mean by difficulty when we are talking about literature?  There is James Joyce difficult, and there is Toni Morrison difficult. There is William Vollman difficult, and there is Mary Gaitskill difficult.  There is Dostoevsky difficult and there is Tolstoy difficult.  There is Virginia Woolf difficult and there is Hemingway difficult.  I recently had a conversation with a Danish friend, to whom I confessed having avoided Proust for a long time, for fear of the difficulty.  “There’s really nothing to be afraid of,” he said.  “It’s a pretty easy read.”  Meaning, it’s long, but not hard.  Some have said the same about Bolano.

As examples of books he considers not difficult, Grossman cites Dickens and Thackeray, in which “you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about.”  So it seems to me that “difficult” in Grossman’s literary lexicon refers to a certain density or experimentalism in language and form; something that requires a person to jump out of the register of vernacular-English and conventional time and into the register of something closer to poetry or avant-garde cinema — “typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure.”

Fine, but in this case, we’re really only talking about Joyce, Vollman, maybe Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, a minority of Faulkner’s novels, Beckett,  and a handful of others.

But the difficulty of writers like Morrison, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Chekhov, Annie Proulx… writers who respect the language, in every sense, whose works are not particularly “difficult” to read, strictly speaking; but whose difficulty lies in their essential visions of humanity and the ways in which the stories they tell impel us to see differently, to see better, with, as Carlyle put it, “armed eyesight” — this is a difficulty which refers to something altogether different.  Something in the realm of the moral and spiritual.  Their characters come to endings which are often not happy or neat, but real and true nonetheless; their stories take the reader to unfamiliar and unexpected places that show us a humanity not readily on display in commercial movies, or genre romances, or thrillers in which the good guy always wins.  If Grossman is taking up the cause of “easy” in this realm — then my concern is best expressed by Vaclav Havel:

The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.

Can difficult work, by the latter definition, be entertaining?  I think so.  Does exhilaration — like that which I feel when reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth or the stories of George Saunders or ZZ Packer or Flannery O’Connor — not constitute entertainment?  The “entertainment is king” argument seems to exclude even highly-plotted sexual-tension page-turners like The Age of Innocence and The Golden Bowl these days, because, well, the sentences are just too darn long and jam-packed with all those words.  How reader-unfriendly.

Mr. Grossman seems to equate meaningful with boring, and in its resemblance to a recipe for perpetual adolescence (not innocuous, in the hands of, say, future leaders in the image of the George Bush’s or Hugo Chavez’s playing power games with the lives of millions of innocents) his argument troubles me a great deal.

Next up: my thoughts on Christopher Beha’s response to Grossman’s article, from the blog at n+1.

10 September 2009

It’s easy to get absorbed in writerly solitude, and for that solitude to tip over into isolation.  Beware, beware — the mind begins to turn on you.

So it’s been good to sit with a few friends recently — writers, too — to share, to encourage, and, yes, also, to vent.

One friend recently shared with me that the writing process has become a bit “joyless” for her — because of so much time spent in front of the screen.  The good fortune of being able to write full-time for a while (having earned a grant — hoorah) has an unexpected downside.  She’s decided to attempt to write her next novel draft in longhand.  I can’t wait to hear how it’s going.

At lunch today with another friend, we remind one another that the impossibility of the writing life — its unpredictability, instability, relentless introversion, pressure on the ego in a particular way, strain on relationships — is much of why we pursued it in the first place.  If it was easy, knowable, contained, typical, it would lack that sense of urgent unattainability that fuels us.  It’s a mountain, not a hill; a marathon, not a 10k; and we chose it.  Yes, yes, we tell ourselves.  Now, we remember.

9 September 2009

This article about the changing promotional strategies that publishers are adopting, in light of 50-70% marketing budget cuts, is enlightening.

One thing I’ve been acutely aware of is the weird transitional moment for the relationship between authors and publishers, in light of these changes.  A conversation with my agent gives me the impression that  publishers have generally kept the business of promotions in their own house, meaning it hasn’t seemed productive to let authors in on the fine details of sales & marketing sausage-making.  And yet, if authors are expected to take on more and more of the promotional burden, won’t we/they need to be increasingly let in on how it all works? 

Things that make you go hmmmm…..

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