Category Archives: Cormac McCarthy

Links: Speaking Terms

Cormac McCarthy on working with scientists in his role as writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute: “I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.” (via)

Peter Mountford‘s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, centers on a duplicitous, craven low-level hedge-fund employee. It was apparently a tough sell: “An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made.” It’s a good first novel; review forthcoming.

“‘What a phenomenon people are!’ exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. ‘If you meet—if you really meet a person, how interesting.’”

The Civil War deeply influenced American literature, even if there is no great Civil War novel, writes Craig Fehrman. Plus, an interesting sidebar on photography and Nathaniel Hawthorne at Fehrman’s blog.

“Big wet sky of the republic over the big wet land”: Nelson Algren‘s poetry.

A member of the committee that gives the Nobel Prize in literature says that Horace Engdahl‘s 2008 comments about “insular” Americans was taken out of context. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America,” says Kjell Espmark.

Lynne Tillman, whose new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, I’m enjoying, chats with Lydia Davis. The interview is focused on her 2006 novel, American Genius, but much of what she says about the use of autobiographical material applies to the new book: “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.” (via)

An excellent piece on New York novels by Tom LeClair, who’s concerned about the future of the form: “I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism.”

“No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris.”

Walter Mosley‘s Devil in a Blue Dress conjures up the tone and style of much older hard-boiled detective fiction—which, for Rohan Maitzen, makes it a bit less appealing.

“[I]n the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story.” A few examples to the contrary follow. (via)

A report from a reading by E.L. Doctorow at the George Washington University:

“How much of what you write is true?” called a voice from the crowd.
“Does it sound true?” replied Doctorow.
“Well, yes.”
“Then it is true.”

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”

Sentimental Journeys

Among the best pieces in Joyce Carol Oates‘ latest collection of essays, In Rough Country, is a wide-ranging overview of the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Discussing McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” of novels, she makes an interesting digression:

[T]he closely linked novels of the Border Trilogy are a tribute, in their warmly sympathetic depiction of the lives of young ranch hands in Texas and New Mexico in the 1950s, to such traditional values as friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, physical endurance and (male) stoicism; though suffused with nostalgia for a way of life rapidly coming to an end in the Southwest in the decade following the end of World War II, for the most part the novels avoid sentimentality. (Why “sentimentality” need be avoided in serious literature, as it’s rarely avoided by serious people in actual life, is another issue.)

As a reviewer who’s dinged plenty of novels for “sentimentality”—emotional string-pulling, florid observations, cliched tributes to love, family, fellow-feeling, etc—that parenthetical is a little hard for me to get my head around. That’s especially true considering that Oates’ fiction (at least her “serious literature”) is marked by a steely avoidance of sentiment, even when she’s working through plots about family tragedies. (Her 1981 story collection, A Sentimental Education, its title snitched from Flaubert, doesn’t appear to be sentimental at all. Oates is also featured in a book about contemporary Irish-American women writers titled Too Smart to Be Sentimental.)

Lacking a definition from Oates about “sentimentality,” it’s hard to say much about her perception of it. But I suspect she may be suggesting that readers are less willing to submit to a high emotional pitch in fiction, at least not the way they do with movies, which can be heavily sentimental and still earn high praise. (The first example I can think of is Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights, a film I always sniffle at the end of, though of course high-art weepers didn’t die in the 1930s.) Serious fiction, Oates implies, is less willing to let us indulge feelings of nostalgia—its goal is to make us question those feelings, which may be why we have so few (any?) novels about happy childhoods.

I’m still hard-pressed to think of fiction I admired because it was “sentimental,” which may be a function of what I’m reading or how I’m reading it. But I’m open to recommendations of books that successfully pulled it off.

Links: Status Symbols

Ray Bradbury: “Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor.”

Nathan Englander on his relative disinterest in historical accuracy in fiction: “So if a reader wants to write in and say, ‘There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,’ I’d feel comfortable responding, ‘That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two.’”

Parsing the strangeness of Walker Percy‘s Lost in the Cosmos.

Gerald Early discusses jazz in literature the upsides of urban fiction with the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson. (via)

An in-progress illustrated version of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (via).

Given a sizable enough advance, Michael Chabon would write a nonfiction book on baseball.

A new book of scholarship on Ralph Ellison reveals that the hero of Invisible Man had a wife in early drafts of the novel.

Yiyun Li on why her books haven’t been translated into Chinese: “Just from a literary point of view, my stories rely on space: what you say and what you don’t. It doesn’t work to translate them. I would have to rewrite a lot, which I don’t want to do. I’m not going to rush into that.”

It’s been years since I thought to track down a copy of Cometbus, then a Berkeley-centric fanzine dedicated to the personal essays and fiction by its author, Aaron Cometbus; once upon a time I was in a mood to overstate things and called him the Great Bay Area Writer. Not quite, but I’m happy to hear he’s still writing.

I’m working on a series of Q&As with literary websites for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. The latest one, with C. Max Magee of The Millions, is now up.

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes on Eudora Welty‘s influence: “When I read her book, Delta Wedding, about 30 years ago it taught me the power of literature. She said to me, through that book, ‘Karl, this is worth doing.’ “

A blogger, perhaps having lost a bar bet, is spending 117 days reading James Patterson: “[W]hen I was timing how long it took me to read each chapter, I realized that they were all readable in under 2 minutes, placing them conveniently within the space of a 2-minute commercial break on television. Coincidence? Maybe.” (via)

Links: The Book of Jobs

The iPad may force designers of print books to think a little harder about the medium in which they work. Should they do so, the results can be beautiful.

What happens when you read the sex scenes in Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead at an impressionable age.

Sam Lipsyte
: “I think I don’t shirk from emotional autobiography. I mean, I stick pretty closely to the feelings. I change a lot of details, just to avoid the court system.”

Granta editor John Freeman is interviewed at ARTicles, the recently revived blog of the National Arts Journalism Program.

Claire Messud is the latest American to sit on the jury for Canada’s Giller Prize.

Harvard Crimson
columnist Theodore J. Gioia—who at last report was criticizing books he hadn’t read—has a few thoughtful things to say about William Faulkner and humor, plus a glimpse of James Wood‘s teaching style.

The literary magazine Shenandoah will become an online-only publication next year. Its final print edition, celebrating its 60th anniversary and featuring works on Flannery O’Connor, will come out in June. In advance, the editors of the journal have posted an essay (PDF) by James L. MacLeod describing the sights and smells—oh, the smells!—of life on O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm.

Two stories that Cormac McCarthy wrote in college will be included in the 50th anniversary issue of Phoenix, the University of Tennessee’s literary magazine. This presumably displeases McCarthy, who once said he “hoped to be long buried and mouldering before they were published again.”

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

Links: She’ll Never Know Your Story Like I Do

Two good links re: Roiphe and then we’ll move on: Andrew Seal uses the essay to dig into John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, while Anne Trubek argues that the foofaraw is a missed opportunity for a more serious discussion about sexism.

Cormac McCarthy had a few notes for the the director and screenwriter of The Road before it was released.

A documentary on Walker Percy is in the works.

Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, Chuck Kinder‘s 2001 “nonfiction novel” about his friendship with Raymond Carver, has been reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The new edition includes letters that Carver wrote to Diane Cicely, now Kinder’s wife.

A appreciation of J.D. Salinger, who recently turned 91, notes that you might occasionally find him in the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College.

The director of Gatz, a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which the entire text of the novel is presented over six and a half-hours, discusses how and why he did it.

John Updike has an agent, finally.

“The book was no fun to write”: Anne Tyler is avoiding the hard sell for her new novel, Noah’s Compass.

Links: From a Flask With Unknown Contents

Whiting Award winner Adam Johnson says the aspiring writers in his classes these days are being a little too cute with the subtleties. “‘What happened? What was it about?’ he asks his students. ‘I didn’t want to hit you over the head with it,’ they reply. ‘Hit me over the head with what?’”

Lizzie Skurnick on a star-studded event honoring Judy Blume: “Her controversy wasn’t based on her attention to the illicit. It was based on her attention to the ordinary.”

Tom Perrotta figures people don’t cheat on their spouses nearly as much as novelists suggest they do.

A comprehensive collection of Ernest Hemingway‘s letters is nearing completion.

Cormac McCarthy has signed a few copies of The Road, and no, you can’t have them.

The Idaho Review, which has published a host of major authors from the West, celebrates its tenth anniversary with a 296-page issue. (via New West)

William Faulkner‘s old residence in New Orleans is holding up well, post-Katrina.

Shanthi Sekaran: “When an Indian American writer portrays India, a reader will already have seen five other portrayals in other books and inject what they’ve seen before…. That leads readers to overlook other aspects of an immigrant experience.”

The owners of Chicago bookstore Women and Children First aren’t buying the statement that there are as many as 30 feminist bookstores in the country.

Daniel Alarcon on Americans’ disinterest in reading works in translation: “There’s a certain curiosity about the world that’s not matched by a willingness to do the work…. So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans.” (via Bookslut)

A great wide-ranging interview in the Morning News with Tobias Wolff about writing programs, the state of short fiction, the novel he’s working on, the Richard Price novel he’s reading, and more.

Dear Stanford Daily: Here’s the thing. If an anonymous student tells you that Wolff regularly takes swigs “from a flask with unknown contents” in class, it’s pretty much imperative upon you to ring him up for a comment. Then he could tell you whether what’s in the flask is innocuous or not, avoiding any need for golly-who-knows-what-he’s-drinking weasel-wording. Regardless, you’re bound to get a story out of it, and telling stories is something he’s pretty good at. Give it a try.

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

Another Green World

People who dismiss fiction because they don’t know “what it’s good for” or argue that “it doesn’t accomplish anything” (I know a few such folks) might want to take a look at Robert Macfarlane‘s essay in the Guardian on Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Macfarlane points out that the book, which follows a tribe of activists taking their revenge on those who’ve abused the land in the southwest desert, not only influenced a generation of environmental activists (Earth First! in particular), but was intended to do so:

Every now and then, the imaginary forms of literature feed back into the lived world with startling consequence. They assume real-world agency in ways that exceed the cliché of “life imitating art”. Abbey’s novel triggered one of these unusual feedback events. “This book, though fictional in form,” he wrote in an enigmatic epigraph, “is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all began just one year from today.”

From there, Macfarlane largely muses on why Britain doesn’t have an environmental literature to call its own, but also suggests that the theme has endured in American literature. If it has, I’m not sure Macfarlane’s examples prove his point; the only example he provides from the last two decades is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which he writes has a “vast and as yet unmapped influence.” (How do you know it’s vast if it’s unmapped?) I think of The Road more as an apocalyptic novel than an environmental novel; the two overlap, but the former has been around since the Cold War (or the Bible, if you feel like being cute about it), while books like Abbey’s were very 70s products.

To the extent I can think of examples, novels about the environment and environmentalists aren’t the deliberate calls to arms that The Monkey Wrench Gang was. Back-to-the-landers certainly don’t come off as especially admirable in T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and the slow environmental wreckage noted in Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker registers as an inevitability, not something to be agitated against. It may be more that Abbey’s book was more of its particular moment than of any long-running American tradition that continues today. And the book’s brand of environmentalism has been corrupted in the years since, novelist Joy Williams suggests in her 2001 essay collection, Ill Nature:

Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the reason writers—real writers, one assumes—don’t write about Nature is that it lacks a sense of humor and registers no irony. It just doesn’t seem to be of the times—these slick, sleek, knowing, objective, indulgent times. And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world. Urban planners, industrialists, economists, developers use it. It’s a lost word, really. A cold word, mechanistic, suited strangely to the coldness generally felt toward Nature. It’s their word now. You don’t mind giving it up.