Category Archives: Barry Hannah

The Art of Aging Gracefully

The June issue of Harper’s includes a lovely 2002 essay by the late Barry Hannah titled “Why I Write” (sub. req’d), in which he catalogues the experiences that inspired him to become a writer. The piece moves chronologically, and in writing about a breakup in his early 20s he muses on the comfort and sense of maturity that comes with being 30 years separated from that young man. Especially as a writer:

I think of those moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture when the words seem absolutely final, bodiless, disattached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity. My desire is to come even close to that team—to be that luck, to be touched by such grace. I do believe that as you write more and age, the arrogance and most of the vanity go. It is a vanity met with vast gratitude: that you were hit by something as you stood in the way of it, that anybody is listening. When you are ashamed and revising your comments to old girlfriends of thirty years ago, you might be shocked to find out you really have nothing much better now than what you said in the first place.

Bret Easton Ellis hits on a similar theme in an interview with Vice magazine about his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms—a sequel to his career-defining 1985 novel, Less Than Zero. “You can’t repeat that,” he says of that book’s success, “and there’s no sense in wringing your hands, pacing around feeling worried about it. You just have to do what you want to do.” But he seems eager to discover what he could bring to those characters with a couple decades’ of maturity of a writer, and he talks about killing off a central character as kind of symbol of his own growth, a way to escape the bad-boy reputation that’s clung to him:

What happens to the writer looking back on his work? Does he become a destroying artist at a certain point in his career? You know? I think there was another impetus behind Imperial Bedrooms and it was one that I was surprised to see emerge and that I kind of wrestled with. And that’s the idea of… I don’t know how to put this. There’s a sentimental view of Less Than Zero. It’s something that has taken shape around that book. It’s kind of “beloved.” And I think it’s also heavily misread by about half of its readers. I’ve met many people in the last three or four years since I’ve moved back to LA who tell me, “Oh man, I moved to LA after reading Less Than Zero.”… And it definitely seems to be almost like an artifact of the rah-rah 80s. It is up there with John Hughes movies and Ray-Bans and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As dark as I felt the book was when I was writing it, as serious as I was about it when I was a student working on it, it was very surprising to see it be read in a certain way and to take on this reputation. So I think there was a feeling of wanting to fuck with it a little bit when I was working on Imperial Bedrooms.

Links: Go Tell It on the Mountain

At the Rumpus, Eric B. Martin writes, “if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws.” Why can’t reviews of all books just do the second thing? When somebody shouts “Read this book!” from a hilltop, who finds that alone convincing?

Adam Langer, whose next book is about the publishing industry, on the strangest thing about publishing: “That sometimes it’s easier to lie and get away with it, than to get away with telling the truth.”

Southern Methodist University Press is at risk of closing due to budgetary concerns. Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell (the press’ closing would be “a body blow to American literature”), Richard Russo, and others have registered their displeasure.

Richard Price on what to do when Hollywood comes calling about adapting your work for the screen: “Take the money and run.”

“I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them.”

Shalom Auslander works a stomach-churning but not inaccurate metaphor to describe the experience of writing.

Current events have a way of leading back to The Grapes of Wrath.

Percival Everett‘s entertaining comic novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, picks up the annual Believer Book Award.

D.G. Myers, bullish on litblogging: “For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves ‘fre­quently and at length with contemporary work.’”

The case for slow reading.

Philip Roth and Judy Blume are inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

In related news, Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah: “I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down.”

Thomas Mallon takes the helm of the creative writing program at the George Washington University, just a couple of months after the school announced that Edward P. Jones has joined the English department faculty.

On Saturday, Al “Red Dog” Weber, who is 84, will impersonate Ernest Hemingway at a book festival in Laguna Hills, California. How will you be channeling Papa, Mr. Weber? “A lot of rum, honey. I’m going to be bombed out of my gourd and in perfect character.”

Links: The Secret History

At Jewish Ideas Daily, D.G. Myers—who from where I sit sets the standard for rigorous, thoughtful, and provocative litblogging—is in the midst of an ambitious study of landmarks in American Jewish literature, with a focus on lesser-known works. His second essay in the series looks at Ezra Brudno‘s 1904 novel, The Fugitive.

Thomas Doherty‘s excellent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Death of Film Criticism,” is worth reading on its own terms, but there are plenty of obvious parallels to be drawn from it book criticism and arts journalism in general. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that plugging your ears and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist won’t help. Plenty of critics embrace it, of course, and a few just might make a buck off it.

Mary Gaitskill wasn’t a fan of the cover of her 1997 story collection, Because They Wanted To, which featured a large screw. “I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic-looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt.” The paperback cover seems reasonable enough.

Some literary passings get more attention, but few have inspired the range of thoughtful and affecting remembrances the way Barry Hannah‘s death has. A.N. Deverspiece evokes the shock of learning about his death. HTMLGiant gathers a few thoughts from admirers. Justin Taylor recalls Hannah’s influence. Nathan Deuel offers a contrary view. Wells Tower‘s 2008 profile includes the Hannah story “Water Liars.”

Tower, by the way, didn’t wind up winning the Story Prize this week. But Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a fine choice.

Lionel Shriver
talks with the Wall Street Journal about her new novel, So Much for That: “I don’t assume any sentence is good just because I wrote it.”

An American in Tangier, a 1993 documentary on Paul Bowles, is available on the incomparable cultural archive UbuWeb.

A guide to the J.D. Salinger letters now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Paul Theroux isn’t impressed with John Edwards‘ charitable efforts in Haiti.

Lots of folks get suckered into Ayn Rand‘s philosophy as teenagers. Count George Saunders among them.

Missouri legislators are planning to rename a stretch of highway in Saint Louis after Mark Twain, having decided that Mark McGwire doesn’t deserve the honor. A radio station doesn’t think Twain deserves it either, so a petition is making the rounds. Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith seems to be getting most of the votes, though I’d feel skittish driving on a highway named after somebody known for backflips.