Category Archives: Francine Prose

Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Links: Whatever

“[Stuart Dybek] submitted a story called ‘Thread’ to a literary magazine without the label of fiction or nonfiction. A representative at the publication demanded a classification for the story. He responded with what he calls a ‘shrug of the shoulders,’ and the story went on to be published in Harper’s in 1998.”

Scenes from the ceremony inducting the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Matthew Hunte‘s “75 Notes for an Unwritten Essay on Literary Prizes” is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the peculiar, heartbreaking, often compromised processes involved in celebrating one author ahead of others. The 1996 C-SPAN video of an NBCC panel, linked to from the article, is particularly revealing in terms of how the PEN/Faulkner, NBCC, NBA, and MAN Booker prizes function, or at least functioned at the time. And it’s great to see Paul Fussell in action. (Also: a look back at the disastrous 1980 American Book Awards.)

Susan Straight (intensely) appreciates Toni Morrison‘s Sula.

“O unteachable ass”: Mark Twain responds to an editor.

Adam Ross on making the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (And, from the archives, wondering why bad sex writing is getting picked on when there are so many other forms of bad writing out there.)

“The work of the class of 2010 is also reflective of a certain hard-to-define American malaise. [Joshua] Ferris‘s novel The Unnamed and Rivka Galchen‘s Atmospheric Disturbances are both about mysterious maladies that overcome their protagonists without warning. The subjects of Wells Tower‘s stories are inclined to unexpected outbursts of violence and depression; [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie‘s wandering African émigrés are perpetually disappointed by the stifled promise of American life. The stories of 20 Under 40 are similarly weighed down by a creeping unease that seems emblematic of life in the United States today.”

Claim: John Steinbeck‘s Travels With Charley isn’t factually accurate.

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary on the writer, screens in D.C. this Sunday as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival (via). The trailer:

Francine Prose: “It’s very hard when you are writing a novel because you really have to get back into that imaginary world. So unfortunately, sometimes, if I have been away from it for a long time, like two or three weeks, I will actually have to go back to the beginning, to start writing again … just so I can get enough momentum and kind of figure my way back in.”

A quick gloss on why Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” works.

Walter Mosley: “The biggest misconception that people have about the literary life is the romance of it. That, you know, that a writer has this large world available to him or her of people, of ideas, of experiences, of interchange of ideas; that they don’t understand really, not how isolated the life of that person is because the life of that person is dependent on who they are, but the literary life of that person. How hard it is to get recognized, how hard it is to get people to read your books. How hard it is to get people to even to understand what they’re reading when they’re talking to you about their books.”

A few good books Ruth Franklin didn’t get around to reviewing this year.

Louis Auchincloss wasn’t like Trollope. He was worse.

Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

In a funny, thoughtful piece for the Smart Set, Nick Mamatas considers his obsession with literary biographies, and how he uses them as a benchmark for his own successes and failures as a writer. “Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties?” he writes. “Gee, me too. And if Lovecraft got a penny and a half per word out of Weird Tales, I managed five cents a word from that same magazine only 77 years later.” The piece isn’t just an exercise in self-deprecation, though: He uncovers a handful of common themes among the biographies he’s read, including alcoholism (of course), involvement in the Communist Party, and financial struggle.*

Mamatas is slightly less enchanted with writers’ memoirs, though that’s mainly because he seems to have lousy luck in choosing them: If Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry have trouble staying on point, there are plenty of other writers who are less prone to ramble. In the past few months I’ve enjoyed biographies of Raymond Carver, Evelyn Waugh, Pearl S. Buck, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West and Eileen Kenney (that last one would be Marion Meade‘s Lonelyhearts, which has taken a bit of a beating from critics, somewhat unfairly I think). But I don’t share Mamatas’ obsession with them, partly for the reasons he lays out: Those common themes can be so easily categorized because the books often feel like they’re more about those outside forces than the writer under discussion. Lonelyhearts is about the Great Depression, and how one might live well during it; Carver’s biography is about alcoholism and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry in the 70s and 80s; Buck’s is about Americans’ willful ignorance about China; Waugh’s is about the last gasp of Victorianism among its wealthy, freewheeling, homophobic classes. All worthy subjects, but they often obscure the more essential question of how the writer felt about being a writer.

That’s part of the appeal of David Lipsky‘s transcription of his 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: It’s as close as we’ll ever come to a memoir from Wallace. But because he’s so careful about how his words might be manipulated into a glowing or critical profile, he talks himself into a sincerity he might not have come by if he was free to manipulate the words on a computer. As Wallace tells Lipsky, “I got a serious investment in having a certain amount of detachment from this.” He’s stage-managing his persona, but to the end of avoiding hagiography or tragic narrative.

Of course, biographers can quote heavily from writers talking about their own writing. But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work. Whoever winds up writing Paul Auster‘s biography will quote heavily from his memoir, Hand to Mouth, but nothing will conjure up Auster’s absurd anxiety about selling his first book quite like the book itself. Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t strictly a memoir of her life as a writer, but it has plenty of moments that show the precision with which she approached it. Going over the first article she wrote after her husband’s death, “I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong…. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?”

The book doesn’t have to be a memoir, strictly speaking, to show something of the author. The charm of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer has as much to do with her personal remembrances as her close readings of stories and novels. On the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Prose suffered a long wait at a bus station, followed by a tedious bus ride. But then she sank into the copy of Anton Chekhov‘s stories she brought along:

I never had to read more than a page or two before I began to think that maybe things weren’t so bad. The stories were not only profound and beautiful, but also involving, so that I would finish one and find myself, miraculously, a half hour or so closer to home. And yet there was more than the distraction, the time so painlessly and pleasantly spent. A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own and aslo a world full of promise. It was if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen.

Passages like that make me think that not only is a biography of Prose unnecessary, but that Prose herself needn’t write a formal memoir. Sometimes the only thing we’re really hunting for when we read about writers is what it’s like to be consumed in the business of reading and writing—the moment when all those allegedly important outside forces are pushed out. Those are the only moments when Prose thinks a writer is interesting, and she can convince you that she’s right.

* Mamatas’ piece also mentions Harry Mark Petrakis, who represents one of the more embarrassing gaps in my reading. Like me, he was raised in the Chicago area and is a Greek-American; moreover, as a kid, my parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with copies of Petrakis’ books. I never cracked the spines of a single one of them. Growing up, you never care about the things your parents care about.

The Nonfiction Turn

A couple of days ago the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean noted on Twitter that she was preparing to teach a course in nonfiction writing and was looking for great examples of it. The list of responses she received is a long one, which is heartening, though the fact that so many of the examples come from previous generations isn’t—-much as I like Royko and Kidder and Didion and Mitchell (not to mention Orlean), it’s a familiar hit parade. (I contributed to the problem by recommending Norman Sims‘ two great anthologies, The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism, both a few decades old at this point.) All this may simply be a function of people being inclined to recommend books instead of individual pieces, and it takes forever for good nonfiction to earn its way into hardcover; when it comes to magazine articles, heaven knows there’s still lots of great, great, great stuff being published.

Orlean’s list also got me thinking about good examples of fiction writers who’ve successfully transitioned into nonfiction. It’s a dodgy category—Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold and Haruki Murakami‘s Underground both take on serious subjects but have a surprising lack of narrative thrust, swallowed as they are by the parade of details; though I’ve tried to crack both William T. Vollmann‘s The Atlas and Poor People, both felt so loosely formed that I couldn’t keep going (the latter mainly reminded me of how much I preferred Ted Conover‘s Rolling Nowhere).

Fiction writers seem to do better when they’re talking about themselves and their craft. First-person features are rarely as funny and thought-provoking as when David Foster Wallace stepped on a cruise ship or into a state fair; Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking both address transformative moment’s in a writer’s life, albeit at very different points on the spectrum.

All three of those writers are mentioned on Orlean’s list. In the interest of expanding that list and getting a few more suggestions, a handful more by writers better known for their fiction: Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying, an excellent piece of reportage about both her childhood and her uncle’s ill-fated attempt to escape Haiti’s turmoil; Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth, still one of the best portraits of the white-knuckle fear that comes along with trying to make it in publishing; Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, among the most thoughtful and analytical writer’s guides available (sharper than Stephen King‘s On Writing, less persnickety than James Wood‘s How Fiction Works); and Nelson Algren‘s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, a beautifully turned but brutal critique of his hometown.

One Paragraph: Francine Prose, Goldengrove

Francine Prose has written one of the handiest guides to understanding literature I’ve read in recent years, Reading Like a Writer. In it, she spends a lot of time discussing the work that specific words do—ratcheting up the tension, easing it down, conveying fear or joy. In this bit from Prose’s new novel, Goldengrove, she has to manage a slew of emotions simultaneously. The narrator is a 13-year-old girl, Nico, whose older sister has recently died; Nico is sitting in a restaurant with her father, trying not to discuss it, even though it’s clearly Topic A. To get that idea over without dialogue here are food metaphors aplenty; the viscera and textures she describes echo her anxieties, and many of the words could come straight from a cookbook:

As we polished off the Nibble Corner’s buttery, warm, melted cheese, my father and I concentrated on our sandwiches as if we were teasing the flesh from some lethally bony fish. I chewed slowly and without stopping, to keep my face from going slack and collapsing like a pudding. For my parents’ sake, I was trying to act remotely sane. And in a way, I was. I could get through an hour or so without thinking about my sister. Then a wave of sorrow would crash into me and knock me flat.

Sometimes, when the silence thickened, my father would ask me what I was reading.

Living with Heart Disease. Surviving Loss. The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“Nothing much,” I’d say. In the old days, he might have kept asking till I came up with an answer, but now we acted as if the tiniest pressure could shatter our eggshell selves.