Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Funny Kind of Novel

The Guardian Book Club has been spending the past month commemorating Bret Easton Ellis‘ 1991 novel, American Psycho—an unusual choice, maybe, but then perhaps some novels need about 20 years of distance before they can be read clearly. Nobody would agree with that notion more than Ellis himself, it seems. In an essay published last week, he notes that “I don’t think I got a single good review—every one across the board was terrible, apart from one in the Los Angeles Times.”

It’s interesting to look back and see the revulsion that characterized the response to the book at the time. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post called it “pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts: a dirty book by a dirty writer.” The Jerusalem Post‘s David George said the book is “drowned in a style of writing in which irony is submerged by vulgarity.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called it “a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail.” (In the same review, he also noted that books in general had become little more than something “to distract us on a flight between JFK and LAX.” Books: Irrelevant since the early 90s! At least!) The Independent discovered that “Bret Easton Ellis” is an anagram for “to sell, be nastier”—a zinger with some work behind it, since this was before the era when online anagram finders made that sort of thing easier. (“Beastliest loner” would also have been acceptable.)

True enough, Henry Bean‘s review of the novel is one of the few that delivered praise: “What’s rarely said in all the furor over this novel is that it’s a satire, a hilarious, repulsive, boring, seductive, deadpan satire of what we now call—as if it were something in the past—the Age of Reagan,” he writes. Even there, though, the praise is hyperactive, as if he’s so caught up in the book’s provocations that he feels compelled to provoke too. (“One can imagine [the National Organization for Women] demanding such books instead of boycotting them,” he writes. Really?)

Guardian book club blogger Sam Jordinson mentions it only glancingly, but the Guardian praised the book too, in a strange way. Fay Weldon‘s “An honest American psycho” is emblematic of how writers tied themselves in knots thinking about the book—the difference here being that Weldon comes out in favor of the novel, or at least in favor of the anti-censorship forces around it. The book is “brilliant,” she writes, for the reason people found it outrageous: It’s a horror novel without the comforting moral resolutions of most horror novels. She writes:

It’s because there’s always been someone in the other books to play lip service to respectability: to the myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect. The serial killer gets discovered, punished, stopped. There are people around to throw up their hands in horror, who can still distinguish between what is psychotic and what is not. Justice is done. There is remorse. Just not in American Psycho. And we hate him for saying it. In American Psycho not so. Nobody cares. Slaughtered bodies lie undiscovered. The city has fallen apart. Nobody takes much notice. The police have other things to do. Those who are killed don’t rate – they are the powerless, the poor, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sellers of flesh for money: their own and other people’s. The tides of the city wash over them, erase their traces.

How much of this is genuine praise and how much of it is a satire of its own sort, sending up the hypocrisy of the era? Is it really a “myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect?” What’s with the schoolmarmish tone? (“[N]ot in American Psycho…. In American Psycho not so.”) Weldon’s chief pleasure seems to be more in tweaking the noses of the hypocritical bluehairs who would abolish the book than in defending the book itself. It’s a self-insulating argument, as if to say, “You think American Psycho is bad, buddy? Lemme show you American society!“

We can look back at all this and not take it so seriously—and taking it too seriously might’ve been the problem in the first place. As Jordinson points out, the satire that was off-putting back then has only gained potency over time:

As well as being a repulsive nightmare, Patrick Bateman is a comic creation of the highest order. His snobbery, his bad taste, his obsession with Les Mis and ability to take Huey Lewis and the News seriously, his terror when someone has a better business card than him, his constant worry that he has “to return some videos” all add up to one of the funniest comic creations since Bertie Wooster. True, he isn’t quite such pleasant company as Bertie, but what did you expect? He’s a psycho.

The book may not have improved over time, but we may finally have reached a point where it can be discussed on its own merits.

Links: Venting

Edith Wharton‘s birthplace is now a Starbucks.

Jeffrey Eugenides on his novel in progress: “You have to come up with a new song for every book. For now, I’ve got the song for this book. And that’s when it becomes fun. That’s why you don’t want to finish too quickly. Because the part that’s fun comes between the discovery of the song and the singing of the last note.”

Justin Cronin
: “I went to Iowa in the ’80s [and] Raymond Carver was the patron saint of all that we did, but I realized that that did not suit me particularly well. What made me want to be a writer in the first place were big, fat, epic stories that you could get yourself completely lost in.”

Northern Illinois University Press recently launched an imprint, Switchgrass Books, dedicated to Midwestern fiction.

A film version of Ha Jin‘s Waiting may soon begin shooting in China.

The Library of America’s new blog looks at fictionalizations of the life of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you’ve bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end.”

On a not-unrelated note: Celebrating John Barth‘s The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th anniversary. (I read it as a teenager and stopping about 200 pages in, but I don’t recall why I quit; I vividly recall loving it.)

Watching the World Cup with Aleksandar Hemon.

On the difficult task of editing Mark Twain‘s autobiography: “So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing…”

A reader realizes that Tom Rachman‘s entertaining book about a floundering English-language newspaper in Rome, The Imperfectionists makes more sense if you treat it as a collection of linked stories and not, as the cover suggests, a novel.

Finally, a list that exposes the silliness of lists.

Comparative Criticism

I’m about to read C.K. Williams‘ book-length consideration of Walt Whitman, On Whitman. If it gets me excited—or makes me mad—how should I write about it?

Writing at the Tin House blog, J.C. Hallman makes an impassioned plea for a livelier, more metaphor-infused style of criticism, as opposed to the kind of “astringent” criticism preferred by Helen Vendler‘s review of the Whitman book. This seems reasonable enough at first glance: Writing should feel like a punch to the chest! Like a blast of cold air on a hot day! Like the shocking sense that the floor has suddenly disappeared beneath your feet!

Or something. I’m pretty bad with metaphors—any one I come up with tends to feel like, at best, an approximation of what it is I actually mean to say, not to mention awkward and contrived. (Comparing reading an influential piece of criticism to feeling like you’ve just noticed you’ve gone around all day with your shirt half tucked-in? Eh. I’ve long figured that much of what you’re paying for in an MFA program is the ability to write non-crappy metaphors.) So I can support Hallman’s idea in theory, while wondering if he should be careful what he asks for.

Truth is, Hallman’s attempt to walk it like he talks it by deploying lots of metaphors to dismantle Vendler’s piece isn’t especially effective. Vendler’s complaint about the Whitman book, best as I can tell, is that the author concentrates too much on his emotional reactions to the poetry, and less on the structure of the poetry itself. Hallman compares Vendler’s argument to a few things:

It’s as though someone has shown Vendler some sexy pictures and she’s decided to be grossed out by them.

[It's] like saying it’s okay to watch porn, and it’s even okay to talk about it and write about it, but under no circumstances should you actually imitate the acts that get your juices flowing.

[S]he has become the aging schoolmarm playing chaperone at a middle school dance.

How many comparisons to an easily shocked crone do you think Vendler deserved to drive this point home? If you answered “three,” you’ll have Hallman on your side. But—at the risk of sounding astringent—it should be pretty clear that he’s making the same exact argument three times. That’s not better writing, let alone better criticism; that’s just overwriting. That’s not to say that metaphor itself is a problem. But its utility is as a way to bolster an argument, not be the argument itself. (A metaphor can only tell you what something is like. You still need a something.) A call for more metaphorical writing will probably make for some more colorful prose, but also prose that prefers to makes a noise about itself—which is more about the writer than the point the writer wants to make.

Cover Story, Part Two

Last September this blog featured a guest post by DC-area writer and illustrator Goodloe Byron about his work on the cover for Matt Stewart‘s debut novel, The French Revolution. The book is now done—it officially comes out tomorrow, Bastille Day—and the cover went through plenty of fine-tuning between last fall and today. Byron describes the final stages of the process below. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

Every so often you’ll think you’re all set to go but then the cover hits the wall, by some mischievous book buyer, or by the second thoughts that inevitably come with time. The latter was the case in this instance. Matt and Denise [Oswald, editorial director of Soft Skull Press] became concerned that the guillotine was not prominent enough to register in peoples minds. [Editor's note: Stewart writes: "I found people were missing the guillotine in the older version--there's no missing it now. Guillotines should never be subtle."] As I discussed before it was a miraculous stroke of luck that it had come out okay looking in the first place, so their suggestion seemed quite ominous to me. I quickly prepared this crude drawing to show them what their idea would look like and remind them of my natural limitations to realize it.

This did not horrify them as much as I’d intended and they still seemed to think it was a good idea. So I sat down and went into an autistic mode trying to draw a meticulous version of it, thinking that I may well get lucky again if I sat down long enough. Once again, I was surprised when they said that the end result was acceptable. Entropy of the mind enters at this stage of the process. If you draw a nice little stickman in a few seconds, you can easily appreciate all of its good qualities, the positioning of the arms or a particular facial expression. But when you spend a few hours shading in this or that, or moving the text here and there, it is inevitable that you will come to see it in a more negative light. Over time I slowly become fixated on the thought that it looked like a still frame from the original Ninja Turtles television series. This fixation is so deep that even now that is all I can think when looking at it.

So the brains were not working on a very high plane. When it came to the back I figured it would just have the same thing in there, minus the bridge.

I knew in my heart that this was not a sufficiently creative answer, but I couldn’t think of anything else. Then I reread the notes from earlier and thought I would again throw out the idea of putting in some search lights.

So I tossed it all in the pot and prayed that it would work out. They both seemed to like it well enough. We spent a bunch of time adding or subtracting fog. We were also uncertain what to do with the copy, specifically the blurbs and bios. Ordinarily Soft Skull books have lots of back cover copy, which can conceal a lack of imagination on the designer’s part. But Denise was very kind about editing down the text because she knew I would be heartbroken if I could not include my searchlights. So we cut out the bio and shortened some of the blurbs. We even added a blurb by Marie Antoinette, who is ordinarily very reserved with her praise, since she died especially.

Someone asked if we could toss in the Eiffel Tower, I think it was Matt’s idea. And so I spent some time drawing up a little version of it with Adobe Illustrator. But I think this idea of his was a very good one, as the tower looks very adorable to me. Now I imagine someone might object that the Eiffel Tower is not in San Francisco, nor did it exist at the time of the French revolution. But if something doesn’t work on second thought, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. Supposedly a good designer is one who thinks about the first and second thought, but if you have to pick one, I’d say the second thought is not much of a priority.

Here is the final product. In the end, I did let Denise down a bit with the coloration, which she had thought would be white, red, and blue, as in the French tricolor. Though that had been my original intention I had long since forgotten it, and over time the blue had become more purple as I tried to get it more ominous looking. For that I felt some regret, but overall I think in the end we wound up with a pretty nice little cover here. The book is a satirical roman a clef of the French Revolution recast within a dysfunctional family in modern day San Francisco. Trying to capture that idea visually is a bit of a tall order, but I hope that some of it gets across. My two goals are that I want Denise and Matt to be happy with me, and I think they were moderately so, so I will call this a success!

One more note from Stewart: “If you look at the bottom left, you’ll see two ghost-ish images that look a little like jigsaw puzzle pieces. These are actually winches which support the painters who are always repainting the Golden Gate Bridge—which is constantly worn down from sea spray and wind. Nobody ever notices these “ghosts” unless I point them out, and you’d never know what they are unless you’ve been there a whole lot (I used to commute over the Golden Gate Bridge on my bike).”

The Christgau Method

He’s not dead, and I haven’t read the column in ages. But it still feels like something important has ended with the news that rock critic Robert Christgau‘s monthly “Consumer Guide” column has ended after 41 years. These days I’ve been more likely to read his posts on the National Arts Journalism Program’s blog (where he occasionally does some book criticism) than anything he wrote about new records. Those NAJP posts still contain the voice I grew up admiring and learning from, though—attentive, open-minded, with a sense of humor but little tolerance (or room) for bullshit. The ability to convey all of that in about 125 words while still saying something meaningful is a true gift, and one he pulled off thousands of times in the Consumer Guide. To paraphrase from one those reviews, he invented that barrage, and he perfected it.

Douglas Wolk gets into a little more detail about what made the “Consumer Guide” so great. I bring the column up in a litblog context not just because, like a lot of people around my age who do criticism, I owe Christgau a debt. Though there is that: I know the exact moment when I took an interest in cultural criticism, and it had to do with a Christgau capsule review. I was 16 or 17 when I stumbled across a copy of his 80s collection in a bookstore, having never heard of the author, and began looking up albums I’d admired. This is the review that stopped me short:

It’s got to be deliberate, the voice of the common man or some such. Nevertheless, making all allowances–overlooking quotes/references (“eight miles high”), universals (“the rent is due”), attempted wordplay (“a table for one and a broken heart to go”), and simple idioms (“count me in,” “white flag,” “heaven knows,” “it’s up to you”)–I count an astonishing fifty-six full-fledged clichés on what’s supposed to be a significance move, from “caught in the crossfire” in the first line to “the worst is over” in the third-to-last. And while “Only the Strong Survive,” the biggest offender with twelve, streamrollers across despite it all, neither Don Henley soul nor emergent social conscience justify the dumbness density. I know the salt of the earth is the shape of things to come, but these words of wisdom are beyond the pale. C+

There’s so much good stuff going on here that I’m willing to publicly confess I once admired Bryan AdamsInto the Fire to point it out. There’s enough context in the review to explain why Christgau’s bothering in the first place (“what’s supposed to be a significance move”); a jokey alliteration (“dumbness density”) that practically sounds out how little he thinks of the album (say it out loud; it sounds like sputtering); a willingness to concede that it’s not a total failure but that its successes are, at best, modest and artificial (“Don Henley soul”); and, of course, the witty, damning last sentence. But most damning of all was the message embedded into the whole conceit of the review—that counting the number of cliches on the album was more entertaining than listening to the album itself. Reading that review, at that moment, felt a little like realizing that you’ve been walking around all day wearing your shirt half tucked-in. If he was willing to put that amount of work into an album he didn’t care for, what was he dedicating to the good stuff? Like a lot of people, I ended up scouring that book to figure out where my tastes and Christgau’s aligned, and to learn about the things I’d never heard of that gave him a charge—two things a great critic can do, if he or she is doing the job right. Christgau’s 80s guide is the most dog-eared and battered book in my library; there are certain artists whose entries I once had memorized.

Christgau, like every critic, could be full of it sometimes, and his extreme concision could degrade into near-nonsense. (His review of Blondie’s 2004 album, The Curse of Blondie, is an infamous example of the latter flaw.) But there was never evidence that he was slacking off, writing nonsense for nonsense’s sake, or trading on reputation. Nor did it ever seem like he treated the capsule review as a limitation, which speaks to the other reason why I bring up the column. Like everybody else who writes book reviews, I’ve complained about how word counts have diminished in recent years; newspapers rarely have the luxury of the 1,000-word review, certainly not the way they did ten years ago. But if book reviews must continue shrinking, that doesn’t automatically mean they must become more simple-minded and surface level. I’ve wondered sometimes if it would be possible to pull off a “Consumer Guide” for books, with ten capsule reviews a month, plus a handful of briefer mentions. Time, economics, and audience interest would seem to kill the idea dead (I doubt as many people read as broadly and voraciously as do people who consume music), but the short, sharp, Christgau-style capsule review would still have value.

That is, if the critic is willing to apply the necessary work to those capsules. They’ll never replace the essay, and Christgau himself has written some excellent ones. But his particular genius was to suggest that writing reviews at 125 words instead of 1,250 didn’t automatically require dialing down substance or thought.

Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

Going Long-ish

Ann Beattie‘s new book, Walks With Men, is her first novella, clocking in at just over 100 pages. She describes the appeal of the form in a brief interview with the York County (Maine) Coast Star:

Short stories distill language, which can be to the writer’s advantage; novels don’t exactly do the same thing in the same way, because it would get tedious. But in the middle range (the novella), the writer can sometimes trust in the reverberation of language and images and symbols in the same way the short story writer can trust in their inherent weightiness. In a novel — for me — language dissipates, in terms of subtly suggesting things, and other things have to take over.

In saying that, she references a 2003 Bomb interview of Steven Millhauser by Jim Shepherd, where he talks a little more colorfully about the appeal of the middle route:

The novella wants nothing to do with the immense, the encyclopedic, the all-conquering all-devouring prose epic, which strikes it as an army moving relentlessly across the land. Its desires are more intimate, more selective. And when it looks at the short story, to which it’s secretly akin, it says, with a certain cruelty, No, not for me this admirably exquisite, elegant, refined—perhaps overrefined?—delicately nuanced, perfect little world, whose perfection depends so much on artful exclusions. It says, Let me breathe! The attraction of the novella is that it lets the short story breathe.

Sounds nice, though pulling it off successfully is a tougher trick—Don DeLillo has been trying to do it for the past ten years, and only now, with Point Omega, does he seem to have a firm command of that middle length. Last month the Emerging Writers Network dedicated a month-long series of posts to the questions of what the form is and why/if it works. One of the best comments there comes from novelist Steve Stern: “So what if the novella denies you the primary intimacy with its characters that a novel affords; it enhances your awareness of the mystery of their movements, the allusiveness of their speech, while at the same time preserving your appreciation for the beautiful symmetry of the structure that contains them.”