Category Archives: Denis Johnson

#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.

Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.

Links: Self-Inflicted Miseries

An illustrated edition of Mary Griffith‘s 1836 novel, Three Hundred Years Hence, considered the first utopian novel written by a woman, has been posted online. The newspaper of the then-future in the novel is called The Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries, which seems like an especially good name for a newspaper enterprise these days.

Following up on yesterday’s post on novellas, some interesting discussion in the comments at Big Other over whether short novels deserve a reputation for being unambitious. (via)

Donna Tartt is allegedly working on a third novel. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for two paragraphs on Bret Easton Ellis.

David Means recalls reading, at Jonathan Franzen‘s suggestion, William Cronon‘s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West”and the Great West, which “made me start thinking about the Midwest in a completely new way.”

Meanwhile, British booksellers look to Franzen to improve their fortunes.

The Ransom Center acquires Denis Johnson‘s papers.

Eudora Welty biographer Ann Waldron has died.

Speaking of Welty: The prospect of interviewing her was terrifying for at least one writer.

The New Yorker excerpts Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent forthcoming novel, How to Read the Air.

In praise of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the first publication of Twain’s 1889 short essay “Concerning the Interview,” in which he likens an interviewer to a cyclone “dusting a continent with your remains.”

English Into Arabic

Last fall I made a brief mention of Kalima, an effort by the United Arab Emirates to translate books from English into Arabic. At the time, the organization was working in conjunction with the National Book Festival to scout for suggestions of great American literature to include in its series. On the evidence of a recent press release, they made some pretty impressive choices. Below are Kalima’s picks:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Not all Americans, you’ll notice—the release mentions seven authors total from the U.S. were included. A little googling reveals that Publishers Lunch has reported a few more recent rights purchases by Kalima, including Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Robinson’s Housekeeping

Copy Editing the Great American Novel

The Bellingham, Wa., Herald has an interesting casual Q&A with Dave Cole, a freelance editor who works on a lot of high-end literary fiction, including novels like Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s forthcoming Nobody Move, and Aravind Adiga‘s The White Tiger. Cole appears to be more of a copy editor than the Robert Gottlieb type the interviewer implies, but he still plays a valuable role. As Andrea Barrett points out, “In addition to tracking down and checking an awful lot of obscure details and spellings and place names, he also did that admirable thing of not fixing what wasn’t broken.”

Cole discusses the hardest part of the gig:

My greatest challenge is to determine what the author’s rules are. You can’t impose grammatical rules on manuscripts when an author deliberately breaks rules (for effect). I have to learn the structure well enough to call attention to it when an author strays. I have to be diplomatic, because you want an author to hear what you’re saying.

A particularly difficult task in the case of Tree of Smoke, I’d imagine. Cole isn’t mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, but then, attentive copy editors rarely get the credit they deserve.

Links; Housekeeping

David Foster Wallace used his Amherst undergraduate thesis to dismantle a philosophical brand of fatalism. Quite successfully, to hear some scholars tell it.

Tobias Wolff‘s short story “Awake” is available in full on the London Times‘ Web site.

Jhumpa Lahiri
wins a lot of prize money. She gives a lot of it away.

The young, brilliant, intellectually and sexually tormented Susan Sontag.

Care to go on a train ride with Paul Theroux?

Bantam is reprinting Ernest Callenbach‘s ’70s cult novel, Ecotopia, which imagined a world of slow food and recycling bins years before such things got traction in American life. (Also: Nice to see the byline of Scott Timberg, who was recently laid off by the Los Angeles Times.)

Denis Johnson doesn’t have a damned clue what the future of the book is, and it’s anybody’s guess why he was invited onto a panel to discuss the matter. “He admitted to an audience member who wondered how much of the panel’s resistance to digital media was old fogeyism, ‘I think I can give you an exact figure on that: 87 percent. We’ve become irrelevant. We no longer point the way for the culture, but we’ll always be important to individuals. That’s the communication and always has been — between one individual, the writer, and another, the reader.’”

———

Some News About Me

When I started this blog in January, I stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, told myself that I would feed it at least once daily. Eventually I eased up on the throttle and took Saturdays off, then wound up using that day to update the D.C.-Area Readings list. (Some great events have recently been announced, by the way, especially the Nextbook reading series at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, featuring Etgar Keret and Rivka Galchen, among others.) Running a blog is addictive, not just because it forces you to keep an eye on a beat but because it introduces you to a whole crowd of friendly, supportive people. I’m flattered by the attention and subscribers and support my effort has received—especially from the litbloggers who welcomed my arrival to the blogosphere despite the fact that I showed up about five years late.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that things may get unsettled here in the coming weeks and months. Dec. 19 will be my last day at Washington City Paper, where I’ve worked for the past two years (following two years at its sister paper, the Chicago Reader). Starting in January I’ll be working at Associations Now, a magazine published by the D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives & the Center for Association Leadership. I’m excited about the change: I’ll be joining a group of smart people doing idea-driven journalism, working at a glossy, learning more about the nonprofit world, and hopefully finding a use for some of my more egghead-y reading on networks and organizational theory—subjects one winds up absorbing osmotically when there’s a sociologist in the house.

Happily, my new employer has no problem with my freelancing and blogging, though updates may not come as often as usual—the day job always comes first, and I’ll be spending some time getting up to speed with the new one. (And anyway, book reviewing and blogging has always been a sideline for me. With very rare exceptions, I never read or wrote about books at the office. The blogging was always completely separate.) The upside to all this, for me, is that it’s an opportunity for me to rethink this whole enterprise. If Twitter is teaching us anything, it’s that link journalism via blog has its limits; seeing as 90 percent of what this blog does is link journalism, I’ve been pondering what to do here in the way of interviews, essays, and more. (N.B.: I’ve updated the page for authors and publicists, both of whom are welcome to contact me directly regarding ARCs, readings, and interviews.)

I’ll see how things work out in the coming months. In the meantime, thanks to the many folks who read these posts, wrote in, suggested links, and commented. I’ll make this confounded thing work one way or another.

Cluckin’ A

I haven’t paid close attention to the Tournament of Books, an annual March Madness-esque competition for the best novel of previous year, as judged by a batch of litbloggers and other smart folks. It’s a little insider-baseball, and I haven’t read many of the choices; also, there ‘s a rooster involved, but I’m not sure quite what for. But the latest matchup was between Vendela Vida‘s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (a novel I very much loved) and Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke (a novel I very much didn’t), I at least felt like I had a dog in the hunt. Mark Sarvas, after gassing a bit about his disappointment that The Savage Detectives didn’t make the cut, eventually takes Johnson’s side, a little unenthusiastically and a lot unconvincingly. (“Clean, clear, and unfussy” prose, my ass.) His complaints about Vida are well taken–occasionally the scenes feel too carefully blocked, and the dialogue is often bloodless. But the whole point was to evoke the feeling of life being stiffened, chilled, iced over–the neat trick of Northern Lights was that it honestly and humanely addressed a lot of emotional turmoil while still preserving that just-so feel; the tension of the prose echoed the tension of the plot.

Dateline Kurdistan

I haven’t heard a lot of noise about Denis Johnson‘s article about economic development in Kurdistan in the March issue of Portfolio. That surprised me a little, because Tree of Smoke was such a buzzy book and because the Denis-Johnson-is-in-Iraq! meme was pretty popular in the days before it was announced he’d won the National Book Award.

Whatever my reservations about Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s article is a tremendous read, a rangy, deeply researched piece about how northern Iraq is getting reshaped in terms of everything from oil to shopping to media to bowling. I have no idea what Nick Denton is all pissy about–just read it. There are tons of quotable bits, but I like this:

And the Kurds love Americans. Love, love. Investors swarm in from all over the globe, and foreigners are common in Erbil, but if you mention tentatively and apologetically that you’re American, a shopkeeper or café owner is likely to take you aside and grip your arm and address you with the passionate sincerity of a drunken uncle: “I speak not just for me but all of Kurdish people. Please bring your United States Army here forever. You are welcome, welcome. No, I will not accept your money today, please take these goods as my gift to America.”

New in 2008: Love

Maybe it’s just that we’re sick of all the war stories we didn’t bother seeing in theaters anyway, and tired of paging through stacks of Iraq/al Qaeda/failures-of-the-Bush-administration tomes that have arrived in the past year. I know I’ll need one more example here to argue for a trend, but I have two books in hand collecting top-shelf literary writers on the topic of love. Last week I received a copy of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance, in which writers reimagine the love letter. Among the participants: David Bezmozgis, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Audrey Niffenegger.

And today, Very Short List (a daily e-mail I’ve found very addictive, spot-on as it often is in its recommendations) is pushing My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, a collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sez VSL:

This handsome new anthology contains 26 exhilarating and heartache-producing love stories written by familiar masters (Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov) as well as some new ones (Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, Eileen Chang). From the early-adolescent longing in Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” to the crushing choices made in Alice Munro‘s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (the basis for last year’s film Away From Her), each tale chips away at the mysteries of the human heart.

That’s some purple prose there. But the book is for a good cause: Proceeds benefit literacy nonprofit 826 Chicago.