Category Archives: David Foster Wallace

#fictionpulitzergate

“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others,” she writes. “In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.” But hang on: Juries and judging panels, in my experience, don’t reach a deadlock because they’re disinterested. It happens because something was in dispute. It may be that the Pulitzer board doesn’t care much about fiction in general, but they were charged with caring about three works of it, and for the sake of literary discussion—if not sales—it would have been interesting to hear what the squabbling was about. That’s the other grating thing—a prominent group of people had some kind of disagreement about what qualifies as a good work of fiction, but we didn’t get to find out what they disagreed about.

And because board deliberations are secret, we’ll likely never know. Maybe the Pulitzer bylaws could be tweaked in some way to force the issue. In the case of a no-decision in any category, the board shall be obligated to release a statement detailing the nature of its disagreement—a fate so godawful that the board will select a winner just to avoid it.

Me, I thought The Pale King and Swamplandia! were both interesting but flawed novels, and Train Dreams remains, as it has been for a while, one of the countless novels I hope to get to soon. Like Janice Harayda, I would have liked to have seen Steven Millhauser‘s magisterial, elegant, and strange short-story omnibus, We Others, capture the Pulitzer’s attention. It would have been nice: It would have made a few people ask, “Is this really the best thing out there?” and I could’ve said, yes, it’s pretty close.

Wrapping Up 2011

For the first time in a while, I haven’t been asked to submit a formal list or do a write-up of my favorite books of the year. Rather than feeling shut out of a conversation, I only feel relieved. Even setting aside my aversion to lists in general, there are still a lot of 2011 books I’d like to get to, which would make any top-ten list feel even more tentative and arbitrary than it already is; the tail end of the year is when I try to catch up on what I’ve missed, which means I discover a lot of favorites past early December, when lists usually need to be filed. Last year it was Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies and Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings. This year, to pick just two examples, it’d be Ben Lerner‘s Leaving the Atocha Station and David BellosIs That a Fish in Your Ear?, both of which I came late to—past deadline, if there were a deadline to miss.

So, no authoritative final judgments from this camp. Still, I did put together a list of six of my favorite pieces of short fiction for Washington City Paper‘s Arts Desk blog. “Short fiction” instead of “short stories” because one of my selections is a chapter from David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King—the only part of the book that still sticks with me, and at 100 pages it may test the definition of “short.” But what’s a list without arbitrary categorizations and judgment calls? Click the link; you’ll see.

And that’ll wrap things up here for 2011. Thanks as always for reading; we’ll pick things up again in the new year.

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: This Is Just to Say

Aleksandar Hemon‘s “The Aquarium” is one of the most powerful, heart-in-the-throat pieces of magazine nonfiction I’ve read this side of Gary Smith‘s “Higher Education.” Amelia Atlas is of a similar mind about it, and she thoughtfully explores Hemon’s discussion of the nature of storytelling and how he proposes “an avenue for thinking about the relationship between literature and cognition that doesn’t compromise human expressivity.”

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway‘s suicide. His hometown is stepping lightly around it.

What are your favorite tricks in literature?

An excellent post by Caleb Crain on giving up on a novel: “I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters…. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was.” There’s something to this: Even if you’re reading critically, a novel that works works best when you’re easily immersed in it. If you’re feeling too compelled to apply real-world analysis to a story while you’re reading, the author is probably doing something wrong. (If I’m particularly sucked in by a book, I usually just highlight passages while I’m reading—doing the work of figuring out what I saw in those highlighted passages, and by extension the whole book, generally comes after the fact.)

On Fanny Fern, a witty satirist of relationships between husbands and wives in the mid-1850s—a talent that was all the more striking given her horrendous marriage.

Three unpublished letters from Margaret Mitchell.

Couldn’t agree more with this line from Ruth Franklin‘s essay on why gay marriage hasn’t gotten more attention in literature: “The affair between two men in Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, to give one particularly graphic example, is one of the most moving depictions of obsessive passion in recent writing.”

A rant from Michael Dirda on the evils of bestseller lists, though I suspect he’s overstating the degree to which readers take direct guidance on what to read next by consulting lists.

Tom Nissley gathers up some great moments of dialogue in literature; I’m a fan of the same passage of Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask he quotes.

I’ve been reading a forthcoming biography of William Carlos Williams, who often struggled to balance his dual lives as a poet and physician. Publicly he’d claim his practice energized his poetry, and it certainly gave him the opportunity to know the working-class people who featured in works like Paterson; privately, though, he despaired over his poems and having the time to write them. So the thoughts of novelist-doctor Chris Adrian on the matter are of interest: “[T]here’s something nice about getting to go to a day job where there are concrete expectations of you and concrete things to be done that generally are helpful to other people, whether that’s something as complicated as organizing a course of treatment for a child with cancer or just writing an antibiotic prescription for an ear infection. But it doesn’t take much time spent in either world to want to go back to the other.”

On making a documentary on Nelson Algren.

Visiting the sites of Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (via). And revisiting his unfinished novel Unanswered Prayers.

In praise of Lydia Davis‘ new chapbook, The Cows.

Dorothy Parker: “ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS.

A middle-school principal’s commencement speech reportedly had a lot in common with David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech. But then, Wallace and Tolstoy had a little in common.

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Links: Filing Extension

I’ve read David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King but feel at a loss to say anything about it. That’s partly due to its sheer sprawl; the time required to get a grip on it and say something cogent is time I don’t have. But that’s a bit of a lie, because there’s something else, something Robert P. Baird gets at in his essay on how much we can or should connect the text of The Pale King to its author’s suicide. As Baird suggests, a common instinct (and certainly my instinct) is to avoid the matter entirely by indulging in some New Critical close reading, but I’m more resistant than even that—I have an urge to say, screw it, that the whole enterprise of cobbling a novel together from the scraps he left behind was foolishness, and that it would’ve been better if Little, Brown had just released what is now chapter 22, the book’s masterpiece, as a trim, self-contained novella and left the rest for scholars to fight over. Or publish all of it, however large, because, as Baird writes in explaining why Wallace’s afterlife so ties us up in knots, “Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic.”

Karen Russell on Joy Williams‘ dialogue: “Exchanges as doomed and hilarious as those in a Beckett play fill her books. This speech rarely reads like a realistic transcription of the way that ‘normal’ people talk—but it gets at the primitive forces lunging under language.”

Dinaw Mengestu remains unhappy that his second novel, How to Read the Air, is being characterized as an “immigrant novel”: “The characters I’m writing about are Americans, even though they may be immigrants. So for critics to bring in part of my own identity, to say this is part of the novel as well, I find very problematic.”

Kyle Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the way an opening sentence can. (A commenter points to the American Book Review‘s list of the 100 best last lines from novels, in a thread that also includes a good conversation about the last line of As I Lay Dying.)

Much of Lorrie Moore‘s essay on memoirs in the New York Review of Books feels like a series of cheap shots. The very structure suggests it: Here are two well-promoted memoirs about death from major New York publishers, and isn’t it interesting that they are bested by a little self-published book—one that, on the quoted evidence, seems stuffed with cliches and commonplaces. But I keep thinking about what seems at first like the weakest complaint in her review, about Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye: “O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention.” I admire the book, and I don’t see it as losing something for lacking an investigation into Garden State carcinogens. But if we’re to respect memoirs as more than exercises in solipsism—or respect them at all, these days—a second effort to avoid trafficking in what Moore calls the “poetry of bereavement” may be worth the while.

William Maxwell is best known as a New Yorker editor, but he also wrote six novels. William Lychack recalls his correspondence with Maxwell and enthuses about his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Audio of Lydia Davis discussing her translation work.

Audio of Marilynne Robinson on the Old Testament roots of Christian liberalism.

Audio of Don DeLillo on the writer as a “bad citizen.”

George Saunders: “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.”

Robert Gottlieb on how important editors are to writers: “Whether you’re a good editor or a bad editor or a non-editor, it doesn’t matter: You represent the crucial reading. Yes, his spouse has read it. Yes, her agent has read it. But you represent authority, even if you don’t deserve it. You also represent money. And if you have a decent reputation, a writer wants to know what a person with a decent reputation thinks. And of course, if it’s a writer you’ve worked with over the years, it’s even more crucial because there’s a visceral connection.”

God Talk

In the Wall Street Journal, Meghan O’Rourke discusses the virtues of cadences in prose writing. “The American literary tradition is filled with writers who have understood that the power of writing springs not only from the precision of sentences but from the feeling evoked by their rhythm,” she writes. As one of her chief examples she cites Moby-Dick, which right from the first sentence evokes a “tragic Old Testament resonance.”

O’Rourke doesn’t discuss it in her piece, but that Old Testament resonance has a long history in American literature. In his 2010 book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter discusses how those old rhythms have played out in the works of a handful of writers. Melville is Alter’s Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, Alter writes, exemplifies Melville’s skill at blending the authoritativeness of the King James Bible and American colloquial speech. Among the tools Melville uses to pull of that balancing act (aside from heaping helpings from the book of Job), is parataxis—telescoped, run-on sentences that make liberal use of the word “and.” One example from the book: “Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and send the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard,—”

“This is not a kind of syntax that is at home in early modern or modern English, or, at any rate, it was not at home until the appearance of the King James Version,” Alter writes. Alter’s study of parataxis extends to Faulkner, Hemingway (“It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in the trees”), Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson (“Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand”). As I’ve noted before, Alter’s not always convincing: His attempts to find the Old Testament in Seize the Day feel strained. But he’s never totally off-track, and with the King James Bible turning 400 this year it may be the right time for a retrospective look.

Alter concedes that the connection between American fiction and the King James Bible is fraying, especially since it isn’t the standard text in most congregations now. Yet “something of the old dynamic stubbornly persists,” Alter writes. Reviewing Pen of Iron in the New Republic, Adam Kirsch notes America’s dwindling biblical literacy and asks, “It would be interesting to try to read more recent American fiction through Alter’s lens: can you hear the Bible in David Foster Wallace’s prose, or Lydia Davis’s?” Well, we can give it a shot.

This week’s New Yorker includes “Backbone,” an excerpt from David Foster Wallace‘s forthcoming posthumous novel, The Pale King. Structured and styled much like a medical case study, the story depicts a few years in the life of a preadolescent boy whose “goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.” Wallace mostly looks at the boy from a clinical distance, and anatomical jargon quickly piles up: “the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle…” And so on. It’s ugly, unliterary language—perhaps all the better to match the obscure, awkward behavior it describes.

But if those clots of Latin will only fuel the exasperation of people who are easily exasperated by Wallace, it’s worth noting where his language loosens up. There’s a bit of that parataxis when the boy is relaxing in his room, depicted as one with nature:

Light from the sun came through the tree at different angles and intensities at different times of day and illuminated different parts of the boy as he stood, sat, inclined, or lay on the room’s carpet, stretching and holding positions.

We get a similar but more extended glimpse of the boy’s environment a bit later:

Past the southern exposure’s tree were the foreshortened roofs of neighborhood homes and the fire hydrant and street sign of the cross street and the forty-eight identical roofs of a low-income housing development beyond the cross street, and, past the development, just at the horizon, the edges of the verdant cornfields that began at the city limits.

There are a few other examples of Wallace stretching out the sentences like taffy, usually moments when he wants to set cold omniscience aside for a moment and zoom in on a character’s nature. (My favorite ends with “a sort of dutiful tedium of energy and time and the will to forge on in the face of despair.”) None of which proves that Wallace had a strong stylistic interest in the King James Bible—run-on sentences can also just be a way for a writer to work up a head of steam. But “Backbone” is unquestionably a God-concerned story: The case study references religious mystics who performed various acts of bodily abuses on themselves as a way of acting out God’s will, and one of the questions “Backbone” opens is whether this sort of extreme action is a clinical or a spiritual act.

The narrator says “the boy had no conscious wish to ‘transcend’ anything,” but he’s not denying that the action has had a spiritual impulse. The story needs those crazed mystics to give a flesh-and-blood counterbalance the dry bones of his medical condition. And while nobody gets Jesus in the story, Wallace understands how old-fashioned Biblical syntax can be a source of uplift. The boy’s father keeps a list of inspirational lines taped to the bathroom mirror, including: “The coward flees even when no man pursueth.—The Bible” That’s slightly off from the King James Version’s translation of Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”). But considering how far the KJV has had to travel through naturalism and realism and modernism and postmodernism and all the rest, it’s close enough.