Category Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Links: Make It New

Ruth Franklin delivers a few of her reading resolutions for the 2012. Her fourth one, about avoiding distraction, seems increasingly essential. As for me, last year I read little besides 2010, ’11, and ’12 releases, and I hope to spend the coming year spending more reading time with books that aren’t on the new-release schedule; we’ll see how it goes.

There is no question about the political import of contemporary writing that George Saunders cannot politely bat away. In an interview with Full Stop as part of its series of questionnaires on “The Situation in American Writing,” he defends writing as “useless work” and writes that, at best, “what fiction can do is inspire tenderness.” This would come off as protesting too much (or, rather, overly protesting a fiction writer’s utility as a protester), except that he acknowledges that a writer is a product of his or her allegiances; because those political and class positions are unavoidable in the writing, he argues, why expend the extra effort broadcasting them?

James Campbell looks at the first volume of Ernest Hemingway‘s collected letters and Paul Hendrickson‘s biography, Hemingway’s Boat, and finds some of the roots of Papa’s self-aggrandizing fictions. His son Gregory was fed up with that and plenty else besides by 1952: “If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (from his 1898 novel, The Uncalled): “There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller.”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I was enchanted by James M. Cain‘s 1933 essay on the city, “Paradise,” even the parts grousing about what makes for a quality chamber of commerce. Still, if you get through the virtuoso opening section you’ll have read the best writing in it. Cain nails a tone at once awed and skeptical about Southern California, as in this bit where he empowers the reader to add a few cultural touches to LA: “If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators.”

From Bernard Malamud to Helen Frankenthaler to Dick Cheney in a few easy steps.

Deborah Eisenberg: “You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on.”

Jane Smiley, debunking the notion that great writers work in solitude: “[A]s I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren’t by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the [Iowa] writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too.”

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976’s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Son of Cults

How much does Dwight Macdonald matter today? The pieces selected by Baffler editor John Summers for Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain seem almost engineered to complicate the question. On the one hand, Macdonald’s demolition job of James Gould Cozzens‘ 1957 novel, By Love Possessed is hilarious, intelligent, forceful, and in its own way very current. This, for instance, remains very true:

It is difficult for American reviewers to resist a long, ambitious novel; they are betrayed by the American admiration of size and scope, also by the American sense of good fellowship; they find it hard to say to the author, after all his work: “Sorry, but it’s terrible.”

On the other hand, who cares about Cozzens today, even if Macdonald is the main reason nobody cares? Many of the battles Macdonald fought have long since been settled. No middle-class families dream of acquiring a set of Great Books, and the release of a new Bible or unabridged dictionary is no longer an intellectually fraught, high-stakes event. (In last week’s New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Nunberg suggested that the outrage over Webster’s Third Unabridged in 1961, of with Macdonald’s New Yorker essay “The String Untuned” was no small part, represented “the last great eructation of cultural snobbery in American public life.”) Macdonald’s attack on Tom Wolfe seems on the surface a fight he lost—Macdonald’s silly coinage “parajournalism” never got traction, and people know Wolfe a lot better than Macdonald today. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who wants to write anything like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” today. Masscult and Midcult often reads like a set of dispatches from a war in a foreign country that’s long since ended.

Yet the appeal of reading Macdonald today isn’t strictly archival, to see just how pissy a man with Standards could get when forced to experience an act of new journalism. Macdonald’s rhetoric and style still endures—Heidi Julavits doesn’t mention Macdonald once in her 2003 essay against snark in book reviews, but snark is part of Macdonald’s legacy. For Julavits, snark was “a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole” in the publishing industry, and few critics in his time or since have been so insistent as Macdonald on letting you know when he’s been insulted.

He was artful about it, though, and that’s a key distinction between the criticism Macdonald dealt in and the kind Julavits worried about. Your heart sinks for Ernest Hemingway as Macdonald’s imitation of his writing style just keeps on going, annihilating every bit of received wisdom about how great he was. Zingers abound: “If there’s an inexpressive word, Cozzens will find it”; discussing our Fact-obsessed culture, he writes, “we just like to have the little things around, like pets”; “I’ve written for Time and the only respect the editors showed for my prose was to leave my name off the final product that emerged from the assembly line.”

Unlike the modern-day snark-dispensers, though, Macdonald earned his zingers, and he generally deployed them when he was discussing literary issues that struck him as genuinely important; his essay on the Revised Standard Version is a kind of eulogy for the English language, so convinced was he that a shift away from the King James Version would do real harm to the culture. With that discussion now utterly meaningless, what endures from Macdonald’s writing is its husk of withering prose, the kind of gotcha criticism that Julavits described as a “scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books.”

It’s not Macdonald’s fault if he has a lot of inheritors who are more zingy than thoughtful. But he could succumb to that problem himself. The closing essay in Masscult and Midcult is a dispiriting 1972 rant about the Saturday Review and World, a pair of populist current-affairs magazines that exemplified Macdonald’s conception of middlebrow aspirational guff. Here, though, the jokes have a bitter edge, the targets are too small to seem worth bothering with, and the only energy in the piece comes from Macdonald glorying in his earlier takedowns of middlebrow titans. “[C]riticizing [World] by the usual standards is both easy and beside the point, like shooting fish in a barrel. Since that’s the only kind of criticism I know, however, I must continue that way, with a feeling which must often afflict anthropologists: that making judgments on tribal mores is useless to the tribe.” It’s sad to see a writer acknowledge that he’s become a cliche; the critic who so ably parodied Hemingway wound up a parody of himself.

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: No Place Like Home

You’d be surprised how interested people are in bathrooms,” the chief curator of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, tells the Hartford Courant. Actually, I’m not, having read Anne Trubek‘s A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a fine cross-country study of writers’ houses of all stripes, from the stately Mount to Jack London‘s burned-down Wolf House to a ramshackle Poe cottage in the Bronx. Wherever she winds up, Trubek finds either a curious fixation on “authentic” details—Dickinson’s chamber pot! Emerson’s hat!—or an enthusiasm for rewriting the past, as in the theme-parkification of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Trubek is a friend of mine, so my enthusiasm for the book only counts for so much. But even if I didn’t know her I believe I’d still admire her skill at blending elements of personal essay into a more rigorous study of literary reputation. Happily, though, she is a friend, so I get the opportunity to talk with her in public this weekend: If you’re in the D.C. area on Sunday, January 30, please come to Politics & Prose, where I’ll be doing a brief Q&A with her before her signing.

Patricia Chu, an English professor at George Washington University who specializes in Asian-American literature, delivers a three-part response to the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua‘s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chu argues that the excerpt plays into “model minority” stereotypes about Asian-American families, and looks at how “Asian Extreme Parenting” plays out in a handful of novels. “In many books, it seems that Asian Extreme Parenting is supremely successful,” Chu writes, “because the children work hard in order to get out of their parents’ house as soon as possible.”

Cynthia Haven reports from an onstage conversation at Stanford University earlier this week where Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien discussed the kitschification of Vietnam in fiction—the “ossified conventions” of the form, as Wolff put it.

Conveniently enough, proof of that very kitschification arrives in the form of Apocalypse Moby (PDF), a mashup of Apocalypse Now and Moby-Dick. (via)

And speaking of Herman Melville: the unusual path of his copy of Robert Burton‘s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Revisiting Elizabeth Hardwick‘s New York stories.

Barnaby Conrad lasted all of five months as Sinclair Lewis‘ assistant in 1947, after which Lewis stole his girlfriend and ran off to Paris. But Conrad has finally made good on his promise to Lewis to write a novel about John Wilkes Booth.

Do financial types read? The post’s author might’ve rung up Martha McPhee, whose 2010 novel, Dear Money, had plenty to say about how people who work in high finance relate to art. (Short answer: They care about it more than you’d think, though they care about how money moves in that world about as much as you’d expect.)

In a letter to his hometown paper, Alan Gribben immodestly defends his “gribbenization” of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “I have published 40 or 50 scholarly articles celebrating Mark Twain’s genius as a craftsman with words. No one has a better or lengthier record in print of admiring his prose style than I do.”

The final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, which was scheduled to come out last year, won’t appear until 2012 this fall (correction per the comment from chief editor Joan Houston Hall below). In the meantime, samples from it are appearing on its Twitter feed, @darewords.

Asked to consider the notion that Martha Gellhorn might have looked at Ernest Hemingway as her muse, Victoria Best has an angry retort: “Ernest Hemingway, who sucked the vitality out of every woman he married, who exploited them, ignored their emotional needs, insisted they serve his every whim? The Hemingway who argued and physically fought with Martha Gellhorn because she wouldn’t give up her work for him, and who bewildered him by her inability to ‘tag along and like it’, as other wives had done? This man is to be considered a muse?” (What follows isn’t so much about the Hemingway-Gellhorn relationship as it is about giving and receiving criticism, and it’s worth reading in its own right.)

Links: Generosity

Gary Shteyngart: “Nobody wants to read a book but everybody wants to write one. Reading requires an act of empathy, really. What you’re doing when you’re reading a book is saying, I’m going to turn off who I am for a little bit, and I’m going to enter the personality of another human being. Reading is a very generous act, but it’s a very helpful act if you really want to understand what another person is like.”

On making a film version of Winesburg, Ohio with a contemporary setting and all-black cast.

D.G. Myers deems Kurt Vonnegut unfit for the Library of America, largely because of his “sentimental moralism.” I read and enjoyed most of Vonnegut’s books in high school but haven’t revisited them—maybe sentimental moralism means more when you’re a kid. Same probably goes for J.D. Salinger. But it’s still hard to for me to dismiss Vonnegut as easily as Myers does, because Vonnegut had such a strong influence on other writers—Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer most prominently. Neither makes my short list of great living American writers, but that’s just me—the point is that Vonnegut still insinuates himself into fiction in ways that, say, Salinger, never does now. Which is at least one justification for including Vonnegut among the country’s “most significant writing.”

Speaking of: In 2006 Vonnegut went on Second Life to do an interview, which was recently unearthed at Mobylives.

Also speaking of: An online repository of academic research on J.D. Salinger.

And, speaking of some more: The Library of America’s own blog on how Willa Cather has been dismissed as too readable and/or too reactionary.

“The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.”

Levi Asher gathers up some news items as proof of Beat culture’s continuing endurance, including a new John Clellon Holmes biography and a film version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kyle Minor‘s suggested reading list for a spring fiction workshop would fill a couple of bookshelves and crush the soul of a young MFA student. But it’s an interesting (mostly) anti-canonical longlist of (mostly) contemporary literature. (On a related note, HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler recently answered a few questions of mine about the site for the National Book Critics Circle “Conversations With Literary Websites” series.)

Jonathan Franzen aces a quiz on birds.

Ernest Hemingway‘s life as told through his guns.

Andrew Ervin (whose debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions, I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) talks about working on the book, and why he’s careful about what he reads when he’s writing.

Binky Urban and Karl Marlantes get big prizes; Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross gets a smaller one, but at least has a good strategy for spending it.

“Sophie’s Choice”: a useful shorthand for “heartbreaking decision,” which is to say it doesn’t apply to figuring out what to cook over the holidays. (via)