Category Archives: Ishmael Reed

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: Another Day

Rohan Maitzen has a lovely stemwinder in Open Letters Monthly about her experience reading Gone With the Wind for the thirty-second time. Her conclusion is blunt, and she’s not alone in coming to it: “[I]t rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values. Punishing Scarlett for rebelling against her identity as a ‘lady,’ it endorses racism and romanticizes slavery. For all its undeniable narrative power, its passion, drama, and pathos, it is, morally, an appalling book.” But she takes a thoughtful and entertaining path to get to that point.

Sue Miller on her new novel, The Lake Shore Limited, makes a comment that may be relevant to the discussion about sentiment here a few days back: “I teetered between two opposing modes of writing: the mode that wanted to make the story emotionally compelling, to make you cry, and the other mode, which was to leave the story open, in some sense, and to make it ask more than it resolved for you.”

If publishers are having a hard time figuring out how to make money off e-books, they have a kindred spirit in Johannes Gutenberg, who died bankrupt.

Coming soon: A book-length appreciation of John Carpenter‘s cult classic They Live by Jonathan Lethem.

Myla Goldberg: “Certain issues stick with authors whether or not they want them to. Memory might be mine.”

Remembering Thomas Wolfe, born 110 years ago today.

Scenes from the first international conference of the John Updike Society, where the author’s childhood friends recalled his disinterest in tying his shoes and odd use of a basketball.

Paying tribute to Mark Twain on a Swiss trail.

Theodore Dreiser‘s “Library of American Realism.”

Ishmael Reed
on why colleges shouldn’t teach The Wire.

“Here I am, a guy who has written seven novels about life in my 20th and 21st century (and has had five agents sell none of them), and I find less than seven contemporary novels worth reading about my time on earth.” Can’t imagine why…

Links: Foot Traffic

The New York Times has a sad obituary for Charles Wright, who wrote three novels about black street life in New York City between the early ’60s and early ’70s; after that his life was largely defined by his alcoholism. Mercury House’s page for its reprint of 1966′s The Wig quotes from Ishmael Reed‘s introduction:

“Charles Wright’s THE WIG marked a change in African-American fiction. All of us who wanted to ‘experiment,’ as we were seeing our painter and musician friends experiment, used it as a model. Though some would call me the literary son of Ralph Ellison, in the 1960s I was the younger brother of Charles Wright.”

Henry Kisor, my old editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who’s now writing mysteries, gets a little testy at a proposal that authors boycott Amazon.com for the sake of preserving independent bookstores:

As an author I’m going to support whoever sells me. If an indie likes my book enough to put it in the front of the store and invites me to come and do an autographing, I’ll happily do so. So will I if the store is Barnes & Noble or Borders. And I will most certainly maintain my relationships with Amazon.com and other online retailers — before, during and after my books have sold through. That’s how the world, not just Main Street in Podunk, becomes — and stays — aware of them.

Lastly, I thought I didn’t need to read one more word on the Nobel Prize foofaraw, but Inside Higher Ed’s Scott McLemee does a nice job collecting assessments of it from a range of scholars, publishers, editors, writers, and bloggers. Including this bit from Stanford professor Franco Moretti:

“Engdahl seems to me to be perfectly right. But unfortunately I am traveling, and cannot do any better than that. Sorry.”

Red Room–What Is This Thing, Again?

I wrote a few weeks back about the launch of Red Room, a San Francisco-based Web site that intends to be a destination for readers who want to know more about their favorite authors. At the time I voiced some skepticism about the usefulness of the site–why do I need a portal to find an author when I have Google?–but with a new story about the site in the San Jose Mercury News (via), I gave it another look.

The story attempts to make some noise about Barack Obama being a new member on the site, but what’s on his page? His “blog” has one entry, and it’s the transcript of a month-old speech. There’s nothing else there–videos, book links, reviews–that I couldn’t find just as easily elsewhere. Ishmael Reed, the story tells me, with some excitement, has a page at Red Room. His blog? It’s got one entry, three months old, and it’s a quote he gave to a newspaper. The Salman Rushdie page getting the big push on the homepage hasn’t been updated since December. Which author pages have been recently added on the site? At a glance, I can’t tell.

This is silly, and more silliness is encapsulated in this sentence in the story:

Readers can also join but they do not get pages.”

If this is some new frontier in social networking for book types, it’s flailing. There’s no reason why any self-respecting writer who wants to connect with readers can’t start their own blog or Web site, and while I understand that Red Room has an interest in making it clear who the writers are and who the readers are, I can’t even make pals with other readers. Does T.C. Boyle have fans? You bet he does. Can I connect with them through Boyle’s Red Room page? No, I cannot.

Warehouse: Songs and Stories

Baltimore City Paper has a profile of Robert Catalionni, a professor of African American literature at Coppin State University. Catalionni worked on a new disc for Smithsonian Folkways, On My Journey: Paul Robeson‘s Independent Recordings. He’s also the author of what sounds like a fascinating read, The Songs Became the Stories: The Music in African-American Fiction, 1970-2005, which came out in November on Peter Lang Publishing.

Cataliotti also demonstrates astonishing depth of knowledge not just about well-known black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; he is just as adept at analyzing Ishmael Reed and John Edgar Wideman. The Songs Became the Stories also includes a discography of recommended artists that includes everyone from Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sun Ra to Alberta Hunter, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Public Enemy, and Jill Scott.

Reed and Wideman are “well-known black writers” too. But still.