Monthly Archives: July 2010

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.”

Anxietyville, USA

The Wilton (Conn.) Bulletin recently interviewed Richard Russo. Because Russo writes about small towns, and because the Bulletin is a small-town paper, a few of the questions revolved around small towns:

To Mr. Russo, Facebook resembles an attempt to create the sense of community found in small towns. “What is Facebook but an attempt to replicate something lost, a real community? People in small towns can’t avoid each other,” he said. “They have to take each other into account, which may be both the best and worst thing about them.”

What about writers like Sinclair Lewis who have disparaged small towns? “Sinclair Lewis saw such places as breeding grounds for parochial stupidity,” Mr. Russo said. “He’d probably feel the same about Facebook, where like-minded morons gather and draw solace from the fact that there are so many others out there with identical misconceptions. Sherwood Anderson, with whom I feel a closer kinship, saw in isolated small town lives an inner richness.”

Russo expands on this kind of ambivalence over small towns in a personal essay, “High and Dry,” in the new issue of Granta. His hometown, Gloversville, New York, was defined by tanneries and glove manufacturers during his childhood; once the bottom fell out of the industry, a sense of community in the town began to erode. It’s a familiar small-town tragedy, but Russo persistently resists romanticizing it, even if he’s not as dismissive as Lewis. Russo describes receiving a book in the mail about Gloversville from a man named Vincent DeSantis, and reading it prompts him to think both about small-town charms and small-town toxicity (literally—those tanneries pumped out a lot of carcinogens). The upside:

A community, even one dominated by a a single industry that hates competition, still needs grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, insurance agencies, clothing stores and car dealerships. Residents need schools and teachers and libraries and a movie theatre, and when you lose the industry that underlies those other enterprises, these inevitably become endangered. It’s not just the mills that are abandoned when the good times—if that’s what they were—stop rolling. You also lose, as Mr. DeSantis points out, part of your identity, your reason for being, a shared sense of purpose that’s hard to quantify.


[S]ometimes people are so proud of what they make that they willingly overlook its true cost. That Gloversville once had an identity based on a common sense of purpose is a potent argument. It is used, for instance, to expalin the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, and what are they if not symbols of communal wealth and belief. Given the technology of the day, the pyramids are even more awe-inspiring, at least until one remembers they were built with slave labour. Closer to home, the Confederacy was a case study in shared values and cultural identity, whose foundation, of course, was slavery.

A Contemporary Crash Course

Through the month of July, a group of international scholars are getting a grand tour of contemporary American literature through a program sponsored by the State Department and the University of Louisville. As a story from WPFL notes, the participants are far-flung, hailing from “18 countries—including Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zambia.” U of L professor Tom Byers, who coordinates the program, says, “An awful lot of people around the world are teaching American literature from Xeroxed copies… In some cases they’re lecturing about writers that their students don’t have an opportunity to read.”

Byers mentions a few of the writers covered during the program, but it’s not hard to dig up a complete list (PDF). (The syllabus says 2009, but the readings seem to jibe with the 2010 travel schedule, also a PDF.) The list:

John Ashbery, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987
Don DeLillo, White Noise
Junot Diaz, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Percival Everett, I Am Not Sydney Poitier
Paula Geyh, et al., eds., Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology
Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems
Sarah Gorham, The Cure
Paul Hoover, ed., Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts
Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Brian Leung, World Famous Love Acts
J. D. McClatchy, ed., The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry
Toni Morrison, A Mercy
Harryette Mullen, Recyclopedia
Lynn Nottage, Ruined
Naomi Shihab Nye, You and Yours
Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Adrienne Rich, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose
Jeffrey Skinner, Salt Water Amnesia
Gerald Vizenor, Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57
August Wilson, Fences
Karen Tei Yamashita, The I Hotel

That’s a lot of postmodern material for a group of teachers who may have been acquiring American literature via Xerox. And a lot of reading, period: I Hotel alone, which came out in May, clocks in at 600-plus pages.

Life in the Bubble

My review of Martha McPhee‘s new novel, Dear Money, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The element of the book I was most struck by, and one I wish I’d had more space to discuss, is McPhee’s skill at describing the push and pull between art and commerce, the way money both bolsters and corrodes India, her heroine. McPhee has India write exquisitely about what she gains when she becomes a successful mortgage trader, but also understands how her character’s success chips away at her. As I put it in the review, “McPhee’s prose has a subtle edge to it: She luxuriates in describing the things India obsesses over, and those deep descriptions are part of the novel’s charm. All the while, though, McPhee is signaling how fleeting it all is.”

India is a novelist who’s tired of scraping together enough money between her teaching, her well-received-but-weak-selling books, and her husband’s erratic art commissions to live well in New York City. It’s a tale of old-fashioned greed, but India’s greed has a more literary affect than most such stories. She keeps a tally of writers, past and present, who have done better than her, and that fixation starts to play havoc with the novelistic part of India’s brain, the one attuned to subtlety. Early on, just as her frustrations about money begin to overwhelm her, she teaches a passage from An American Tragedy in which poor Clyde Griffiths is browbeaten into buying an expensive coat for his girlfriend, Hortense. She winds up getting it, thanks to a mix of flirtation and threat, and those chapters are an essay on how willingly people degrade themselves for the sake of a bauble. But India sees it differently:

For twenty pages she schemes and manipulates and bribes, coming up with strategies until the coat is hers—twenty riveting pages that pursue a coat.

The things about a writer is that want is part of the job description. Without want, a writer is nothing. A writer must want to sit alone at a desk for days on end. A writer must close out the world and wait. The reward is the chuckle, the quiet laugh that only the writer hears alone at her desk. She is laughing at her own work, her own imagination nailing a particular phrase because she knows, as one just knows some things, that the phrase, the scene, the story will make others laugh. Who among us, no matter her trade, has not made something bigger, at some point simply by virtue of sticking with it? She must want this even while know that few others will care.

That’s part of what I meant by the subtle edge in McPhee’s writing. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with India’s perspective on writing in the paragraph above. But it’s a perspective run through a prism of greed—it presents India as a writer who can talk artfully about craft but who identifies not with a novel’s protagonist, but with his predator.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, novels about high finance tend not to dwell on this stuff—they spend less time on how their Masters of the Universe got where they were than on the trappings of where they are. Think of Sherman McCoy’s $1,800 British suit and $48,000 Mercedes in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the array of entrees, toiletries, and accessories that Patrick Bateman describes in absurd detail in American Psycho. The interesting thing about Dear Money is how well McPhee inhabits the process of becoming such a person, from the devious streak that India displays as a teenager to the way her focus shifts toward houses and clothes as she grows more talented as a trader. At her most craven, she turns fiction into something to trade on: She steals the plot of an obscure novel to give her background a little extra pathos during her first meeting with the trading firm’s chief. And the value of art soon shifts depending on her fortunes: At the her firm, it becomes reduced to things hung on walls, and she looks at her former competitiveness with other writers as an amusement. She was once consumed with jealousy when a banker friend passed along his manuscript of a well-written novel, but when the book is finally published, she’s rich, and all she can notice is the release party: “champagne and canapes and men in tuxedos with gloved hands serving with silver trays, a mixture of artists and bankers who blended well, having ascended to the same plateau.”

All of which is to say that McPhee has an eye for the way art diminishes in the face of cash—and how art regains its esteem when money means less. Dear Money ends just before the mortgage bubble burst, and it’s not giving too much away to say that India becomes, let’s say, more reflective about the value of art and its relationship with money in the final pages. But Dear Money isn’t a didactic morality tale about money-bad-art-good, but a story about what happens when either lays too much of a claim on one’s identity. In the final pages, India calls herself “the rough stone for another’s design and love.” That’s a pretty good way to making a living, apparently, but an unsustainable way to live.

Links: Passing the Torch

Joyce Carol Oates: “Virtually all of my novels depict crimes—from a perspective of the tragic rites of sacrifice, redemption, and the passing of the old order—that is, an older generation—to the new order—the younger generation. It’s somewhat unusual that a novel of mine, like Blonde, is purely tragic, without any apparent hope of redemption.”

The voices in Shalom Auslander‘s head.

Grand Street editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the literary magazine in 1985 “to follow the model that the New Yorker once provided and fell away from—to be informative and insolent”—has died at 73.

Andrew Seal is beginning a series of posts on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. Trilogy—valuable for folks like me who only got through The 42nd Parallel in high school and who have since forgotten most of it.

The opening pages of William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice might serve as the great Brooklyn novel. (via)

This year’s William Faulkner conference at the University of Mississippi will focus on his screenplays and movies adapted from his work. (Apparently not on the docket for some reason: The Reivers, a 1969 Steve McQueen vehicle that scored two Oscar nominations.)

Meanwhile, an attempt to connect Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not buying it. (via)

How Prague’s literary culture started in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rick Moody on the difficulty of putting Walt Whitman‘s words to music: “The only challenge is, it’s freaking hard to set the lines because there’s no meter…. Why couldn’t they do a Dickinson event? Those could all be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.'”

In connection with a Lush Life-themed exhibition taking place in Lower East Side galleries, Richard Price talks about the neighborhood and his perspective on the art world, putting in a plug for The Horse’s Mouth as “the Citizen Kane of artist movies.”

Was the food writing in American Psycho ahead of its time?

Colum McCann finally has time to make progress on a new novel.