Category Archives: Ethan Canin

Links: Back in Town

I spent much of last week in New York City, where I helped select the winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards. It was my first year as a board member taking part in the process, and though the proceedings are confidential, I think it’s OK to say my worst fears didn’t come to pass. I recall little discussion revolving around identity politics, reputation burnishing, or turning a literary award into a lifetime achievement award; the conversations about the books ultimately turned on the merits of the books themselves. (Though that’s not to say the discussions always went smoothly; things get noisy when two dozen smart people get in the same room to talk about books.) Regardless, despite having voiced a few complaints about Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I’m happy it took the prize in fiction. And I wish we could have given some kind of prize to Donna Tartt, who delivered a stellar, hilarious reading from Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies the night before the awards.

Goodreads is hosting a panel discussion on short stories this week with Alan Heathcock, Danielle Evans, Valerie Laken, and Emma Straub. I’m particularly intrigued by Heathcock’s writing process, which involves more thinking than drafting: “I don’t like sitting at the computer until the life is full in my imagination. I call this “hitting critical mass”—the point where the character (in the situation, in the place) is so alive in my imagination that it’s clawing at the backside of my eyes to get out. About 80% of my process is spent not putting words of a blank page, but doing anything I can/need to do to reach critical mass.” (My review of his debut collection, Volt, should be online soon.)

Ishmael Reed on his new book, Juice!: “Since I don’t like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist.”

Snooping on John Fante‘s papers.

Ethan Canin on being a novelist without a sense of place.

This is Téa Obreht‘s moment. Though I wasn’t as seduced with The Tiger’s Wife as many seem to be.

Sam Lipsyte on his early days: “I would hoard my words, hoard my decent pages. I didn’t realize you just have to keep throwing everything away and squandering everything because you’ll find out that the real stuff starts to come. It’s learning not to be too precious about a few sentences you’ve written.”

One paragraph from Philip Roth on Thomas Wolfe.

Michael Copperman voices his frustrations with being a non-black writer who works in black dialect. I don’t know enough about the internal politics of literary magazines to validate his argument that there’s a reflexive aversion to Copperman’s choices as a writer; it strikes me that dialect-heavy stories in general can be hard to come by. (Even Mark Twain, who least needed to justify his choices as a writer, felt compelled to explain his use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn. Joking as the explanatory note is, he clearly sensed the matter needed addressing.) And, at the risk of diminishing the issues of racial politics Copperman discusses, dialect may simply be especially challenging on a rhetorical level, as difficult to pull off as a multithreaded historical narrative or a convincing work of magical realism. If editors have to get past a lot to accept a dialect-heavy piece of work, writers have to work through a lot to make one worth reading.

Anyway, I asked Richard Price about this a few years back in the context of his 1992 novel, Clockers. What he says strikes me as reasonable, though of course he had built a reputation before Clockers that perhaps made it less likely to raise the hackles of editors:

You don’t have to be a crack addict to write about it. Anybody can bear witness. I never for a second ever presumed to think I know what it’s like to be black. At the same time I also feel like, is everything between black and white so exotic that a white writer dare not write about being black? Because we have no human traits in common? In a way it’s like, the human heart is the human heart. I don’t sit down and think, “Now I’m gonna write a black character.” I’m gonna write a character. And this character happens to be black. And I feel like I don’t have to be black to write about a black character anymore than a writer has to be white to write about a white character, or a writer has to be gay to write about a gay character.

I always say this: You can’t get into this vicious game where you have to be the thing that you write. That’s deadly. Because if I can’t write about being black, or if I don’t want to see any black people write about being white, and if I can’t write about being gay, I don’t want to see any gay writers writing about straight people, because you don’t know what it’s like to be straight. You don’t know what it’s like to be white, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish or Christian, or Muslim.” The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits. If you’re writing about a group of people, and you do a clichéd job, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. If you’re just contributing to a stereotype.

Believe me, I was so aware of this while I was writing. I was scared to death about the whole charge of cultural piracy. It was a very hard thing to convince myself I had a right to do. But once you get a roll going, it’s like, This guy’s a human being.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Ethan Canin Has a Mentor

Ethan Canin—whose new novel is America America (reviewed)—must be tired of addressing the fact that blogger and novelist Danielle Steel was his high-school English teacher, but he seems to be good-humored about it:

“She’d only published one book at the time and was unknown as a writer. I was not a particularly attentive student . . . But she somehow took an interest in me and encouraged me to write. She gave us the option of turning in a short story instead of an English paper. That made a big impression on me.”

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The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Of note this week: Get Your War On cartoonist David Rees Monday at Busboys and Poets’ 5th & K outpost; critic Calvin Tompkins Monday at the National Gallery of Art; and David A. Taylor, whose short-story collection, Success: Stories, I quite liked, Tuesday at Busboys & Poets’ flagship on 14th and V.

A Drinking Life

Seattle’s new Words & Wine series still has a few kinks to work out, says Paul Constant, reporting on its Ethan Canin event in the Stranger: “Canin’s new novel is America America, so someone had decided that the thing to play was Neil Diamond’s ‘America.'” But cocktails do open an author up:

He talked at length about his career as a doctor, mentioning, for example, that “the only time I ever got sued” was a result of attempting to treat a gunshot victim, adding cryptically that “finding an entry wound is much harder than finding the exit wound.” He told aspiring authors to relax and let the subtext of their books remain in the unconscious and not to overanalyze: “Symbols are not symbols because Harold Bloom says they’re symbols.” He reflected on the positive side of America’s possible impending demise as a global superpower. It might be true that we won’t be the wealthiest people in the world, but on the other hand, “it could be a good thing. Italians don’t have to worry about their place in the world anymore, and they seem pretty relaxed.”

Roundup: Money Changes Everything

A Lansing, Mich., TV station covered last week’s summit of Michigan-bred authors Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane—nice to see this kind of thing mentioned on the nightly news, even if the anchor offers a very puzzling mispronunciation of “McGuane.”

Donald Ray Pollack‘s Knockemstiff is being met with positive reviews in England, though I trust nobody there thinks the short-story collection is a window into contemporary American life.

Which might be the case with Ethan Canin‘s America America.

The Washington Post Magazine dedicates its feature well to personal essays by Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Safran Foer, Julia Glass, and Ha Jin. I gravitated toward the last one, in which Jin recalls his very earliest experiences in America; for anybody who was deeply struck, as I was, by A Free Life, it’s a must-read:

For new arrivals in America, there was always the sinister attraction of money. Suddenly one could make $4 or $5 an hour, which was equal to a whole week’s wages back home. If you were not careful, you could fall into the money-grubbing trap. Some Chinese students didn’t continue with their graduate work because they couldn’t stop making money. One fellow from Shanghai started working part time in a museum on campus but soon stopped showing up in his lab in the physics department, dropped out of graduate school within a semester, and began taking courses to learn how to sell real estate. Another in American studies, who loved teaching as a profession, could no longer write his dissertation after taking a clerical job in a bank — sometimes he put in more than 60 hours a week, the overtime even harder to resist.