Links: Aisle Seats

Every so often, somebody online shows up to announce a surprising discovery: Roger Ebert is a pretty good writer! Such is the curse of being a TV celebrity, I suppose, where his closest peers have been Gene Shalit and Michael Medved—if you’re running with those clowns, small wonder people reduce to some kind of Fatty McThumb caricature. It may help to have grown up in a Chicago household that received the Sun-Times on weekends to contradict that reputation for shallowness. (The uninitiated or the unconvinced can pick up his 2006 collection, Awake in the Dark.) At any rate, HTMLGiant is the latest to bring the news, inspired by some of his recent personal essays on subjects like cancer and abstinence directives on college campuses. If it takes Ebert’s Twitter feed to get bloggers enthusing, so be it, but even given his emergence as a sharp cultural commentator in recent years, his skill and talent has always been there.

Case in point (and more directly relevant to this blog): The death of Erich Segal prompted Ebert to dig up his 1970 review of Love Story, which includes this gem of an opening:

I read Love Story one morning in about fourteen minutes flat, out of simple curiosity. I wanted to discover why five and a half million people had actually bought it. I wasn’t successful. I was so put off by Erich Segal’s writing style, in fact, that I hardly wanted to see the movie at all. Segal’s prose style is so revoltingly coy — sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can — that his story is fatally infected.

Mark Twain was similarly talented at writing a good lede for a newspaper.

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways is so despairing of the fate of literary magazines that he resorts to absolutisms and strange steams of thought: Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia.

Where, Wesley Morris asks, “are any of the promising films to be made from hundreds of years of black writing?”

Yiyun Li doesn’t feel her novel, The Vagrants, is entirely a downer: “There are actually some very funny moments. I was laughing, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Some of the reviewers picked up on the lightness. I’d say about one-sixth of reviewers picked that up, and I was very happy for them.”

Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis is behind a collection of short stories but writers in Spartansburg, South Carolina.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is working on short stories set in his native Wisconsin, as well as “a novel involving a love triangle, set in Pakistan in the early 1970s, involving a farmer who is married to an American.”

N. Scott Momaday, in a lengthy interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, on winning the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, 1969′s House Made of Dawn: “I was too young to receive it. It was a good thing, all in all. The benefits were very great and continue to be, but I don’t know, I think that if I had won it at 45 instead of 35 or whatever I was, it would have been somehow more appropriate.”

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is still in the habit of giving books to his players. Among the authors he’s selected are Larry Watson, Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie, and Roberto Bolano.

Lastly, the National Book Critics Circle recently announced eight new board members. I’m honored to be among them.

12 responses to “Links: Aisle Seats

  1. Congratulations on your election, Mark.

  2. Really. Congrats indeed.

    Did you note the comment string, Mark, on Genoway’s piece? I think he’s done wonderful things with VQR, but his argument is incoherent… and he looks awful hypocritical when he criticizes the ‘post-modern’, navel-gazing, uncourageous writers of today, who won’t write about big things like War because they’re so busy huddling in safety– and then it turns out he’s lobbing this missive from the shelter of academia where he gets paid $134,000 a year to edit a literary magazine of moderate circulation and influence.

    • I did scan that comment string, Mike, but I don’t ascribe a whole lot of importance to Genoways’ salary. For one thing, I don’t know what he does with his money—maybe he gives most of it away, or puts lots of it back into the magazine, as opposed to using it to “shelter” himself from what’s really going on in the world. And focusing on income puts you on a slippery slope that I have no interest in getting on. What income level is appropriate for somebody working at a literary magazine? What amount of income automatically makes you out of touch with literary culture? Does having money automatically make you uncaring about global affairs? Is being an editor in poverty better than being a comfortably middle-class editor? And what evidence do you have that this applies to Genoways? At any rate, I can take issue with the incoherence of Genoways’ argument without dragging his salary into the discussion.

      • Mark Athitakis

        Also, thank you to everybody who passed along kind words about my joining the NBCC board! It’s much appreciated.

  3. Your ‘summary’ of Genoways’ argument is a hoot!

  4. It seems hypocritical for Genoways to admonish writers to get out of the same academia that has clearly been very good to him. If he followed his own advice, he’d quit the VQR job and go start up an online journal from scratch.

    • Well, it’s hard to say what he’s even recommending. He tells writers to get out of academia (even though he presents little evidence that writing programs are either a cause or effect of the timidity he bemoans), but also wants university presidents to stop shutting down literary magazines (even though Genoways acknowledges their growing irrelevance). If everybody followed his advice, he’d have his magazine but be left with nothing to fill it with. The piece is effective as a cri de coeur, but not as an actual prescription for anything.

  5. That sounds less like a slippery slope you don’t want to get on than a point on a slippery slope you’re unwilling to accept. Since I already got on, I think I ought to point out that most meaningful argument is a matter of drawing lines on slippery slopes. I wasn’t impugning Genoways character, and as I said, I think he does good things as an editor– it’s not about whether his salary is commensurate with his work. But if you’re going to bring it up, Mark, do you REALLY think that Mr. Genoways gives away most of his salary, or that he uses his personal salary, paid by the magazine, to fund the magazine? That’s the question, of course– the discussion isn’t about whether Genoways is a good person or a good editor as measured by his salary or his charitable giving. The point is that what he does, where he does it, and for how much does have an impact on his argument. After all, his claim to authority in the piece was predicated on his work as editor of VQR. What I’m saying is that it is hypocritical to criticize the support of academia when you’re supported by academia in a manner that’s rare and generous. Until last year, my friend John Witte, a poet (you could say ‘the poet’ in the sense that he has three books, and has had his work appear everywhere) edited the Northwest Review, a job he put forty to fifty hours a week into. He did so for the last 25 years. He also taught a class each quarter on editorial process. For that work, he was paid an adjunct’s salary– last year, perhaps $ 30,000 a year when he stopped, and far less before. If wanted to speak of the problems with the shelter of academia and the meager funds available and young writers who don’t get out into the world and write about what’s important, I would not make the same call of hypocrisy (though if it were the same argument, I would find it just as risibly incoherent).

    • Let me put it this way: What salary would be acceptable for Genoways to have so that his criticism of academia wouldn’t be hypocritical? I mean, I want a specific dollar figure.

      I’m not trying to be cute here, and I’m not trying to play apologist for Genoways’ clunky argument. But unless somebody lay out for me about how his salary (or anybody’s salary) makes him a hypocrite, I think his salary just adds needless noise to the discussion. I’m as classist as anybody, but I wouldn’t reflexively argue that the best-paid writers are the most out-of-touch ones—or break out the condescending argument that the poorer you are the more attuned you are to what it means to be a human being.

  6. It does add noise to the discussion, no question. But no, really– we could run relative dollar figures. For example, I work in academia teaching three classes a quarter of low-income, at-risk students of color in an English department. I make 28,000 dollars a year. If I wanted to write about how young writers like myself need to avoid the safety of academia and get out into the world (I’m poised to go because I do find academia to be irrelevant and often foolish), I could say that without being hypocritical. If the established editor of a journal like VQR wants to say the same sort of thing, well, maybe he shouldn’t make far more than professors of creative writing or English or _______ almost anywhere (at least here, for a prof who’s topped out the pay scale after thirty years, 115,000 is as high as you can go). It’s not that there’s a direct relationship– I wouldn’t argue that the best-paid writers are the most out of touch either, anymore than I would ever equate poverty with virtue. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hypocritical for someone who’s especially well paid– say, Stephen King or John Grisham– to write an essay suggesting that young writers are too shallowly concerned with salability and getting a paycheck, when what they really need is to be true to ‘art’. Of course, neither would likely say that, because it would be– hypocritical.

  7. Actually, I apologize, Mark. A bad day and I decide to argue with whatever before’s me, even if it’s absurd. As a general rule, I tend to think that those with more would do well not to tell those with less what they ought to do. Perhaps that’s irrelevant here, as you suggest. Regardless, it’s an awful silly thing to waste words about.

  8. Pingback: Reports of the Death of Fiction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated « Daniel Wood

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