Category Archives: Jay McInerney

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: Good-for-Nothings

A letter to the New York Times in response to its “Why Criticism Matters” package (more): “The most significant thing about the feature on ‘Why Criticism Matters’ is the title. The New York Times would never find it necessary to publish an article on why science, mathematics, medicine, music or art matters. The need to explain why criticism matters emphasizes as clearly as possible the fact that it doesn’t.” False equivalencies, reductionism, and all that. Also: Ahem.

Following up on the package, Peter Plagens points out that art critics are having as much of a “crisis” as literary critics are, though he has to ask: “[A]re literary critics an all-for-one, one-for-all band of musketeers fighting off—not to put too fine a point on it—amateurs who blog?”

And Morgan Meis defends the role of the critic in a time when the critic’s role as a cultural arbiter has been pretty much annihilated by collaborative filtering. “We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.” Meis is halfway there. We also need the critic as the person who is going to challenge the received notions of “good” culture via collaborative filter, if not to conquer the filter then at least to point out that the eager consumer can dispute it. We need the critic in the way we need a frenemy. (via)

Noir scholar and novelist Eddie Muller: “That immediate post-World War II era is the height of American style in everything: architecture, clothes, design, movies, literature…. American literature was, I think, at its highest point.”

I don’t remember Jay McInerney‘s third novel, Story of My Life, as anything but awful (it’s one of the numerous novels that get brutally mocked in this book, which desperately deserves a reprint or, better, an update), but apparently it has its uses.

Amelia Atlas, who operates an excellent blog, registers her frustration with Gabriel Josipovici‘s What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “There’s a tension in Josipovici’s temporal logic that he never resolves: he seems to insist, paradoxically, on both the necessity of the dialectic and on the reality of its end, in the form of modernism. Is all that remains for the novel to sound, again and again, the alarm bells of its own fakery?”

A chat with photographer John Bayne, who’s published a book called Gravely Concerned: Southern Writers’ Graves. You can read the entire book as a PDF online.

Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller writes that Freedom is “so wildly praised and little scrutinized, a novel that inspired such fanatical devotion based on so little actual achievement that it ought to run for president.” Keller may be the only person in the United States writing about books who thinks the novel was “little scrutinized,” but the rest of the sentence, if not the column, is, yes, pretty good.

A sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn came out 20 years ago, according to a Stanford professor. Google and Nexis don’t produce any evidence that I can see, though.

When reviewing duties aren’t calling, I’m making my way through the short stories of Breece Pancake, partly because I’m fascinated by what seems to be a recent obsession over him. It may be that his entire oeuvre is easy to get a hold of (just one slim collection); that there’s a wistfulness about what could have been (he killed himself in 1979, at 26); or that his stories, which lay out relatively straightforward tug-of-wars between past and present, staying put and getting the hell out, always appeal, and are eminently teachable. At any rate, a couple of writers chronicled their trip to his gravesite.

Sick of hearing about the “Great American Novel”? There’s a specific person you can be mad at.

Canon 2.0

Andrew Seal points to an interesting find within the bowels of Google Books: the almost-complete text of a 2007 book by Karl Bridges, 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read. True enough, the number of books listed that I’ve read comes to exactly two—and one of them, sorry to say, is Jay McInerney‘s Story of My Life.

I read the novel as a teenager, and recall actively disliking it. But then, like most teenagers, I was a more susceptible to received wisdom, and my chief guide through the 80s brat-pack novels was the brilliantly snarky faux Cliffs Notes guide that Spy magazine published in 1989 (not without some controversy). Since then, the novel has become known for reasons other than its alleged greatness, but I’m still open to hearing an argument for it. Unfortunately, Bridges’ book is disappointingly thin on that front. His critical commentaries are brief and, er, bloggy, and for a book that’s allegedly pumping greatness it sure does a soft sell. Story of My Life, I learn, doesn’t have much going on in terms of plot and character, but “is a funny novel, delivered crisply and intelligently.”

If nothing else, though, it’s another list to argue over, and one of a few voices that have pushed me toward the work of Vera Caspary, who I hope to get to soon.

Links: First-Time Callers

Hello there. There’s a goodly chance that you’re here today because Mark Sarvas was nice enough to include this blog on his list of ten “Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs.” I feel a bit like the little old lady whose hair is still in curlers when the Prize Patrol van arrives, but I appreciate your swinging by. If this is your first time here, a few “greatest hits” posts you might want to look at: my piece on the best books of 2008, some stray thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a few more on the future of book reviewing, a guide to Haruki Murakami‘s translations of American authors, and some thoughts about best practices about for DIY publishing. I usually do link roundup like this once a week, but as with many things in life, this is changeable. Onward.

Don DeLillo‘s America points to a cache of DeLillo radio
interviews on YouTube
.

Jay McInerney talks to the Wall Street Journal about his new story collection, How It Ended which includes an update on the life of Alison Poole, the protagonist of his novel Story of My Life. Poole was modeled after one of his ex-girlfriends, Rielle Hunter, perhaps better known for her attachment to former presidential candidate John Edwards.

One less teacher is using Toni Morrison‘s Beloved in the classroom. Kids are still using The Scarlet Letter to learn about public humiliation, though.

The Daily Iowan catches up with longtime Kurt Vonnegut confidante Loree Rackstraw; make sure to check out the slideshow, which has some fine images of Vonnegutiana in Rackstraw’s home.

It’s the 25th anniversary of Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street. At a recent event at Rice University honoring the book, she offered some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard: “First, you write like you’re talking to someone in your pajamas. Then you revise like your enemy is reading it.”

Bright Lights, 25 Years Later

The Scotsman and the Telegraph have dueling features on Jay McInerney, who’s just published a new story collection, The Last Bachelor. (In the U.K., anyhow; Amazon isn’t listing a US version.) The Scotsman piece does make it clear why you ought not make a pig a part of your marriage, but the Telegraph story is more newsy and penetrating, bringing word that a new film version of Bright Lights, Big City is in the works, and shows McInerney wringing his hands over his literary reputation:

“I hadn’t thought about [Bright Lights, Big City],” says Jay McInerney. “I recently re-read it. It’s sort of like reading a book by somebody else. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty damn good. Where did I come up with that?’

“Sometimes it seems an albatross, because it remains not necessarily my best but definitely my most successful book. When I die the words Bright Lights, Big City will be in the headlines. Probably not The Good Life, probably not Brightness Falls, probably not Story of My Life.”

In the case of the last book, that’s probably a good thing. I confess that I haven’t paid much attention to McInerney’s most recent work—recommendations welcome.

Links: McInerney, Gessen, Mailer, and Other Fights

Michael Kinsley makes a case for Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City, which seems odd.

Jonathan Yardley makes a case for Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which seems even more odd.

Meanwhile, the journal that Gessen edits, n+1, is getting into some kind of slapfight with Nextbook.

Novelist Stephen Elliott (who I wrote about way back when) is busily blogging at therumpus.net.

Not one of [Richard] Yates‘ books ever sold more than 12,000 copies. The author suffered a lifetime in near-poverty writing skillfully honest fiction that many magazines deemed too harsh and cruel to publish. He collected one rejection slip after another, and tortured himself over such critiques as his ‘mean-spirited view of things,’ from the New Yorker, whose fiction editor Roger Angell finally told the writer to give up and stop submitting, because he’d never get in.”

“Seven False Starts About the Death of [David Foster] Wallace”

The closing of Newsweek‘s excellent profile of Barney Rosset mentions Maidstone (not “Maidenhead”), a film perhaps best-known for spawning an on-set fight between Rip Torn and writer-director Norman Mailer. Let’s go to the tape (the fun starts about 90 seconds in):

Links: Brat Tacks

Spoiled daughter of world-famous musician starts magazine whose name is taken from a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Rampant horribleness ensues.

In other Brat Pack-related news: Jay McInerney, hugging strangers on the street for all the obvious reasons.

Lots of other writers are excited too, for all the obvious reasons.

The Rake‘s Max Ross proposes a few novels that could be converted into video games. “White Noise: The action is propelled by the protagonist’s nagging, ambiguous fear of death. He has to balance learning German with cowering from the strange toxic cloud that hovers above his city. Final task is to identify where the toxic leak came from, and plug it up.”

RIP John Leonard. There are plenty of tributes making the rounds (New York has a nice one addressing his television criticism). Me, I’m taken with his 2000 essay in the Nation about his experience at the New York Times. It was an era full of backbiting, compromises, officiousness, and embarrassments. But Leonard himself put it best: “Wherever, they always fuck with your copy.”