Category Archives: Gary Shteyngart

Aside

At the New York Review of Books blog, Elaine Blair delivers a kind of update on Katie Roiphe‘s 2010 broadside on the (in Roiphe’s view) insipid boyishness of the generation of male novelists who followed Updike, Mailer, and Roth. Blair … Continue reading

Crises Averted

Last Sunday the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a panel called “The Crisis of American Fiction,” though the assembled panelists couldn’t agree that there was one. According to a report from the Times of India (the fest’s sponsor), Richard Ford figured we wouldn’t recognize the crisis if we were living in it, while Junot Diaz argued that the crisis has more to do with time-strapped readers than writers. Both Martin Amis (moving soon to Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies him to weigh in) and Jay McInerney took the long view, saying they’ve heard this story before:

McInerney said: “By the 50s and 60s, writers like Truman Capote and Mailer began turning to non-fiction. By the 1970s, there was a crisis with Realism. By the 1980s, post-modernism or `PoMo’ was the catchword. American writers began soul-searching over whether fiction was about the world, or simply a game of words, with no connection to reality.”

Maybe it’s more correct, then, to say fiction is in a perpetual state of crisis, and that its survival largely depends on its capacity to respond to whatever we’ve just decided is killing it this time around. To work with McInerney’s series of examples: Capote and Mailer‘s abandonment of fiction was counterbalanced by John Updike‘s ascendance; Don DeLillo denied postmodern death-of-the-author chatter by finding a way into both realism and pomo acrobatics; David Foster Wallace, and, sure, Junot Diaz recognized the limits of fiction as a method of describing reality but could still find a way to capture feeling. And those are just the big names, though big names are necessary here—you haven’t responded well to the “crisis” if you haven’t brought readers along with you. And even so, we could all name a dozen or so lesser-known writers who successfully pushed back against its theoretical sworn enemy of the moment. (I bet we could even come up with a few who were products of MFA programs, yet another oft-claimed source of American literature’s decline.)

What’s different this time, though, is that the enemy isn’t a theory but a fact—available time, which is now reportedly less dedicated to reading because the internet has been eroding our attention spans. Might it spell doom for authors too? This is the anxiety that Union Atlantic author Adam Haslett voices in a Financial Times article pondering a “kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect.” He quotes editor Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books (Diaz’s publisher), who says, “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.”

Haslett is careful not to drift into woe-is-us-nobody-writes-long-letters-anymore complaints, which is as it should be. Just because more people dash off text messages than write letters, it doesn’t automatically follow that fiction becomes more text-message-y, or that readers won’t pay attention to someone who can write well-crafted sentences. (Did people ever worry about what telegrams were doing to our brains? To our fiction?) In Salon, Laura Miller takes an optimistic view and argues that novelists are only just now beginning to come to terms with how the internet reshapes our lives and our relationships. Novels now serve as a repository for “museum-quality depth,” she writes—the place we go when we’ve had it with our e-mail, Tweets, and Facebook friends. They’re also where writers increasingly go to show us who we are: Freedom‘s Walter Berglund’s sincerity is revealed as mere crankiness once a rant of his goes viral, for instance. Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story and Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad are also called out for special attention, though Miller doesn’t dwell much on how, in both books, the internet enlivens the sentences Haslett is so concerned about. Both novels skewer the online lingo that attempts to reduce us to database metrics (“need,” “reach,” “and corruptability” in Egan; “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450″ in Shteyngart), and they do it by showing how miserably they fall short of understanding who we are. Fiction writers will increasingly have to learn how to exist side by side with an audience whose patience is increasingly tested, but the value of the fiction writer won’t necessarily be reduced from that effort.

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)

Links: Restoring Honor

The National Book Festival will be held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It’s always a good time, though unfortunately I won’t be able to make it this year. I wrote up a preview of the fest for TBD, a new-ish local news and arts site.

Leon Wieseltier: “Anger at the false and the fake—as long as the labor of persuasion is done: a curse is not an act of criticism—is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture. No culture, no literature, ever advanced by niceness.” (via)

Related: “Writers would prefer to believe that critics are separate, and that their separation means they’re the enemy, and out to get them. The irony is that writers are generally meaner to other writers than critics are.”

I recognize that there’s a fraught situation in Missouri regarding a local school board’s banning of a Sherman Alexie novel, but we’re in an awful mess when book reviews have to come with disclaimers from the editor.

Remembering Maxwell Perkins.

No self-respecting op-ed columnist would write that he or she wished the paper would publish more good news. But apparently it’s OK to publicly wish for more happy novels. (Moe Tkacik has much, much more.)

Gary Shteyngart: “I have a very boring kind of Media Diet, in the sense that I read what people would expect me to read, nothing special. Most of the things I read have New York in the title.”

Jonathan Lethem says goodbye to New York.

Literary road-tripping through the South—and a stop at Thomas Wolfe‘s childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina.

Whatever you do, do not read the promotional patter on the back cover of the paperback of John Cheever‘s Bullet Park.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Yesterday Don DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and to mark the occasion he answered a few questions from PEN. Discussing the future of the book, he said this:

The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read.

As it happens, I came across this just as I finished Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story, a funny and mordant novel that voices some of the same concerns about books that DeLillo does. In Shteyngart’s world—set either 15 years from now or in 2011, depending on when you think America’s debtpocalypse arrives—everybody is genially enslaved by handheld devices, which stream all manner of data points about one’s financial status, health, and sexual attractiveness. Shteyngart’s grim joke is that the devices are brimming with information but contain little to no actual news; the world is literally collapsing all around them, but, on the evidence of their tiny solipsism machines, Priority A is their potential for getting laid that night. So neither the devices nor most of the people who use them can quite process the concept of old-fashioned books. When hero Lenny Abramov scans his personal history, it shows the purchase of some “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts.” “You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” a friend tells him. “All those doorstops are going to drag down your Personality rankings.”

Not that Lenny doesn’t know it. Fully aware of what a drag those books are, early on he proudly tells his diary that “I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly. I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsing mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

It’s hard to discuss how Shteyngart resolves the fate of the book in such a culture without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that Shteyngart doesn’t think that novelists will be entirely out of a job—novels may change, but he doesn’t share DeLillo’s concern that technology will “reduce the human need for narrative.” And at any rate, I don’t think that either DeLillo or Shteyngart are especially concerned with the death of the novel per se. What they’re mourning is the death of reading novels as an aspirational activity—as something that people did in order to feel like an informed citizen, a part of the culture. (Part of the reason why the chatter over Freedom evokes so much high emotion is that it’s an “event” novel that hasn’t existed in decades, and we’re no longer sure what to do with “event” novels. Must we read them? We no longer live in a culture where we can tolerate being told to rally around one particular book or movie or film—a point Jessa Crispin smartly made in her essay about why she doesn’t want to read the damn thing.)

It may be that the literary world that DeLillo and Shteyngart are concerned about losing entirely has just found its level—it’s preserved all the people who love reading for its own sake, and lost all the people who read out of duty or obligation. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the novel itself will become as corrupted and egocentric as DeLillo fears. I suspect even he would agree that the minds of other people will still be interesting 20 years from now—and if you’re so eager to customize another person’s mind, a novel probably isn’t what you want anyway.

Links: Move it to the Exits

Now it can be told: The inspiration for the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter in Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad (i.e., the PowerPoint chapter) was Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Speaking of: Trying to write a novel and raise a kid simultaneously? Jennifer Egan and Darin Strauss are here to help. (Well, in Manhattan to help. For one evening, on September 14.)

Alyson Hagy considers the appealing strangeness of Sherwood Anderson‘s “Paper Pills.” (Winesburg, Ohio was a series of “grotesques,” after all.)

Alice Walker keeps (or at least once kept) a pile of leaves by her writing desk: “She rustles them when she does her writing, because it makes her feel closer to nature as she works.”

When Hawthorne met Melville.

Oscar Hijuelos on inserting himself as a character in his most recent novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

Ron Currie Jr. on reading Infinite Jest: “By the time I’d finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.”

The quintessential Jamesian sentence.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction.”

Ben Fountain remembers the Dallas poet Robert Trammell.

Detailed writing advice from Maxwell Perkins (to be portrayed by Sean Penn on film at some future date) to Ernest Hemingway: “I’m glad you’re going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn’t that simple!!

Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)