Category Archives: Belle Boggs

Foreword and Onward

In a funny and thoughtful piece in the Millions, Bill Morris wonders who actually finds blurbs useful. Not booksellers: The one Morris speaks to is skeptical. Not readers: Colum McCann figures most people “see through the bullshit factor.” And certainly not the writers asked to do the blurbing: McCann despairs of being snowed under by all the blurb requests he receives, and the more profligate blurbers tend to get a bad reputation.

Like Morris, my introduction to the disingenuous world of blurbing was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a recurring feature in Spy magazine that exposed how incestuous the publishing industry could be.* That’s not to say that all the blurbing was insincere. Of course Graham Greene and Paul Theroux would say nice things about the other’s books; it’s no surprise that John Cheever and John Updike would high-five each other. But even if there were honest members of these mutual admiration societies, their blurbing could often be so fulsome and overheated—I’m looking at you, Philip Caputo—that the praise they delivered could easily be ignored.

So, a proposal: If blurbs have a “bullshit factor” problem but are necessary to keep the publishing industry functioning for lesser-known authors, perhaps authors should write fewer blurbs and more introductions for new books they truly admire. Forewords, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and other commentaries are usually reserved for literary museum pieces like reissues an anthologies. But they needn’t be exclusive to such works. Last year I came across a couple of books that I became a little more interested in precisely because a writer I respected took a moment to write not a dozen words but a couple hundred praising it. In a preface to Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen, Percival Everett writes: “I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning.” Hey, me neither—and you neither too, hopefully. And introducing Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia, Dan Fante writes: “Here the scenes between Max and his lady love are open heart surgery done with an ax. If you’re a Henry Miller or Bukowski fan then Hating Olivia is fresh meat.”

Everett and Fante aren’t bringing any more intellectual heft to their praise than the average blurb does, it’s true—I had to go back to the books to recall what it is they had to say, which turned out to be not very much. But the fact that their praise ran longer than a sentence was meaningful to me—I likely wouldn’t have read Boggs’ book at all were it not for Everett’s benison. Requests that writers submit not just blurbs but two-page introductions might only make McCann’s life worse. But it might also be freeing: Instead of feeling obligated to say nice things about every young writer around, a writer can pick his or her spots, submit their praise only when it’s actually warranted, and avoid any accusation of being dishonest. After all, Morris’ article about the book he was asked to blurb is much more interesting—and made the book in question seem much more interesting—than the blurb he wound up writing.

* There’s a bit of irony in the fact that Kurt Andersen, a Spy cofounder, was once one of the most unavoidable blurbers around.

Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?

Links: Stay on Target

Sven Birkerts makes a lovely statement in the American Scholar about why he reads novels: “I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.” Unfortunately, that statement is swaddled in much keening about how the Internet has destroyed our powers of concentration, with little evidence of whether that’s actually the case. He concludes: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for.” I’m as susceptible as anyone to online distractions, but isn’t concentration something we’ve always fought for?

Hilary Spurling‘s new Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth, is an interesting biography, even if, like me, you were raised with the notion that Buck wasn’t truly Nobel timber. The book speeds through her later, potboiling years, and Spurling tells the Guardian why: “[W]hat we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.”

Willy Vlautin, author of two admirably spare road-trip novels, The Motel Life and Northline, on his inspirations: “I drive around and listen to ‘Ironweed’ on tape and listen to Tom Waits all day.”

Ruth Franklin takes a close look at the J.D. Salinger letters currently on display at the Morgan Library in New York City.

There’s a Mark Twain impersonator in Hannibal, Missouri, who doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Mark Twain.

Chasing Beat writers’ history in Mexico City.

Deborah Eisenberg: “One of the amazing things about writing fiction is that you do get to be other people.”

The Chicago Sun-Times asked me to participate in a poll of sorts on which authors belong in the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Ernest Hemingway didn’t get my vote, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Papa doesn’t count as a Chicago author.

Belle Boggs‘ forthcoming story collection, Mattaponi Queen, was a random pull from my to-be-read pile, an activity that usually doesn’t end well. Happily, this time it worked out: Boggs’ stories, mostly set in southern Virginia, are grim, funny, plainspoken, and are unusually attentive to race and class conflicts. Her short story about man pursuing a sex change, “Jonas,” ran a week back at Five Chapters. Her “Imperial Chrysanthemum,” an even better story, is in the latest issue of the Paris Review.

Displeased with a negative review of the new Yann Martel book, a couple of booksellers take to the Huffington Post to complain. “I think part of the issue is that most newspaper critics try to judge books according to their own personal taste,” they write, then proceed to defend the book based on their own personal tastes.