Category Archives: Henry James

Links: Revolutionary Roads

Andrew Alan Stewart Carl: “It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story.”

Roxane Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and why writing to satisfy (or undercut) your perceived place in the socioeconomic matrix is too. Richard Price had a story to tell related to this in a 1996 Paris Review interview:

I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust . . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t it.

I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx?

He says, No. From New Jersey.

Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang?

He says, No. My father’s a fireman out in Toms River.

Oh, so he’s a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don’t you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff?

He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff.

What if they do? First of all, they don’t. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don’t know?…. [H]e went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.

Adam Levin lists some of works of American fiction that have had the strongest influence on him, including a spot-on defense of Philip Roth‘s Operation Shylock.

Does pursuing a Ph.D. do a crime writer any good?

Mark Kurlansky on returning to his roots as a fiction writer to contribute to Haiti Noir.

A visit to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library:

Benjamin Taylor talks with Dissent about his experience editing Saul Bellow‘s letters. The passage from Henderson the Rain King he cites as an example of Bellow’s greatness is one of my favorites as well—that book has the best ending of his major works. (via)

Confronting Henry James‘ late works.

Victoria Patterson isn’t hearing the argument that an author has to be all over social media to promote his or her work. “I don’t have an optimistic, sunny personality. Why should I pretend to be a social person?

Reynolds Price died yesterday at 77. I’ve read none of his many works (recommendations about where to start are welcome), but I do like this line from his 1991 Paris Review interview: “I think I’m a comic writer always. I hope I am—in the long run anyhow—because I think our existence is comic, finally.”

What’s that? Somebody’s bemoaning the lack of a great Washington novel again?

Links: Stuffing

If you survived Thanksgiving intact, you can appreciate why the holiday gets so much traction in fiction: “It’s a perfect plot and setting device to get a family together and expose the gap between the myth of American family and the reality.”

The latest issue of Conjunctions has a city theme. Stephen O’Connor‘s fine breakup story, “‘Til There Was You,” isn’t online, but a pair of typically funny-and-sour brief stories by Etgar Keret are. The journal’s website also recently published a brief story by Barney Rosset about a Chicago dive bar in 1948.

Jay Parini, author of The Passages of H.M., on Herman Melville‘s bisexuality.

News to me: “The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston contains the world’s largest collection of Ernest Hemingway material.” (It’s true.)

Cynthia Ozick‘s Foreign Bodies, her tussle with Henry JamesThe Ambassadors, “is the most readable of her six novels, and perhaps the best thing Ozick has ever written,” writes D.G. Myers. More at his blog.

Talking to David Foster Wallace in 1998.

William Styron
‘s daughter explains the voting tally for the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in fiction:

Bill Morris uses his correspondence with another writer as a launchpad for discussing writing longhand, on typewriters, and on keyboards, and whether it makes a difference in the final product.

Stephen Burt
on what a review can do for a book: “[It can] cause others to pay attention to it. Cause others to be interested in it. Describe it accurately. Do justice to it. Indicate what, if anything, makes the book stand out, seem original or memorable, or, indeed, accurate, or [what makes it] sound good. Describe the book as a work of art rather than as simply a representation. Say, and I’m going to misquote the philosopher Arthur Danto here, what is in the book that is not reducible to its content. Cause others to talk about the book. Indicate what about the book is deeply flawed so that artists and readers with interests similar to the author of the book will do better next time. Engage in a public dialogue with the author herself about her new book and her prior books and, perhaps, her next book. Indicate, as in the case of James Wood and hysterical realism, what is, for good or for ill, and it often is for ill, typical or representative about a book, either of kinds of books, or of the age, or the culture that the book comes from. Differentiate the book from other books that seem similar. Indicate that the books has some kind of internal variety or is divided within itself in a way that other readers of the book, [if it] is widely reviewed, haven’t noticed. Bring, and this is my very favorite thing to try to do as a reviewer, bring to the attention of other readers a book, an author, or a work, that doesn’t seem to have been noticed at all, and that deserves attention.” (Follow the link for audio of the Minneapolis event where Burt, my colleague on the NBCC board, spoke these wise words.)

Mark Twain‘s autobiography suggests that “What he loathed, apparently, was dealing with the plain, old, not-necessarily-funny truth about himself,” writes Judith Shulevitz. (Also: If you buy the book, you’re doing your bit for Michigan’s manufacturing economy.)

My review of Andrew Wingfield‘s short story collection, Right of Way is in this week’s Washington City Paper. The book is the fiction winner of an annual contest held by the D.C.-area literary nonprofit Washington Writers’ Publishing House; residents of the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria and fans of Winesburg, Ohio are encouraged to investigate.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

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!!

Roundup: To Build a Fire

Kevin J. Hayes is back with another question. Last time he was looking for tips on travel writers (glad I could be somewhat useful); this time he’s hunting for authors who’ve mastered multiple genres: “Take Henry James for instance,” he writes. “Best known as a novelist, James was also a fine travel writer and memoirist. I can justify discussing James in two or three different places, but I do not have room to discuss every genre of every author. So, here are my questions. Which American authors excelled in more than one literary genre? Where should I discuss them? Are they important enough to deserve discussion in more than one chapter? Boy, that’s a loaded question. Here’s a more fundamental one: what constitutes literary importance?”

Hell if I’m going to address that last question before breakfast. But a few names that immediately spring to mind: John Updike (see John Gross‘ excellent piece in the new NYRB on his most recent nonfiction collection); Mark Twain; Paul Theroux; Maxine Hong Kingston; Paul Auster (stretching here, but I do admire his memoir, Hand to Mouth). There has to be more. Maybe Walter Mosley gets credit for at least attempting his recent literary-erotic works?

How about Jack London, allegedly the most-read author in the world? Today marks the first day of the Geneva’s international book fair, and among the displays is Francis Lacassin’s 52-volume set of London’s works, translated into French.

An AP story explains just how lucrative the life of the much-hyped short story writer can be: According to the piece, Donald Ray Pollock‘s new collection, Knockemstiff, has sold all of 3,000 copies. It’s early yet, but that’s still short of the 27,000 hardbacks that were run off. So how do you avoid the remainder bin?