Category Archives: Arthur Phillips

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.'”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham's] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

Arthur Phillips’ Pocket Symphony

I’ve recently finished Arthur Phillips‘ latest novel, The Song Is You, and liked it much more than I’d expected—I’d pretty much given up on Phillips after actively disliking the opening pages of his debut, Prague, and I now have an inherent distrust of novels about rock bands. (This is largely Jonathan Lethem‘s fault.) But The Song Is You, happily, isn’t a novel about a rock band in the sense that it stresses how fun/agonizing/sexy it is to play on a stage; its best passages explore how songs have a way of reworking our emotional wiring, how MP3 players give us a strange amount of freedom to recalibrate our feelings at will, and how a snippet of abstracted lyrics motivates us to search for deeper meanings. (This is one of the few novels that includes made-up lyrics that aren’t cringeworthy; Phillips has figured out how to make them read simply, but not dumb or florid.)

If all that means that the plot feels a little absurd and makes its hero, Julian, look like he’s a little creepy, quite nearly stalking up-and-coming star Cait O’Dwyer, it’s not a bad thing for the novel, and Phillips acknowledges Julian’s problem—one of the nice things about The Song Is You is that it doesn’t work under the assumption that music is a magical balm that makes people better, as so many such books do. Pop songs are usually unrealistic visions of the world, and though the book isn’t a tragedy, it suggests the foolishness of falling for their lies.

My main problem with Phillips still applies—he’s prone to overwritten sentences that seem to strive for Faulkner or Roth but often wind up sputtering and backfiring like a old lawnmower. Try, for instance, reading this sentence out loud: “Nor could it be called charm or charisma, because he knew people with it who positively repelled onlookers to a distance of about twenty-five feet but then held them there, in an unbreakable orbit, like a fly hovering immobile, trying to escape the effect of a vacuum cleaner nozzle held just so.” This combination of subordinate clauses and an iffy simile isn’t a deal-killer. But is it too much to ask that an author of a novel about songs be more vigilant about unmusical passages?

If Phillips’ writing is a little brocaded, it may be because his reading looks mainly to the past. In an interview with Bookslut, he talks about his reading habits:

American writers that have really, really, really influenced me are Hemmingway [sic], Fitzgerald, Salinger, Henry James, the second half of Nabokov’s career as an American writer… Those are the big stars for me. I’m very fond of Paul Auster and George Saunders. Let’s leave that for American writers.

Do you read much contemporary fiction as well?

I read some, but I don’t read a whole lot because I feel like I’ve got so many holes in the list of dead people that I need to fill in. But I do read some contemporary.

His idea of “contemporary,” though, is William GaddisThe Recognitions, a book that I suspect won’t fix the problem.