Category Archives: Jeffrey Eugenides

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on among the world’s librarians and metadata experts whenever I look at the Library of Congress cataloging information for a work of fiction. For instance, here’s the complete listing for an acclaimed 2006 novel celebrated for its verve and wit and sprawl:

1. Young women—Fiction.

Here’s one for an older novel, a National Book Award winner by one of American literature’s signature 20th century authors:

1. Americans–Mexico–Fiction. 2. Failure (Psychology)–Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)–Fiction. 4. Depression–Fiction. 5. Young men–Fiction. 6. Mexico–Fiction.

And, back to the present again, a relatively recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

1. Greek Americans–Fiction. 2. Detroit (Mich.)–Fiction. 3. City and town life–Fiction. 4. Suburban life–Fiction.

If you keep up with fiction at all, you can probably take a good guess at the titles of the last two books. (No need to prolong the mystery: In order, they’re Marisha Pessl‘s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.) But few people would discuss what those novels are about in the Library of Congress’ terms. Indeed, the information for Middlesex seems to avoid the book’s most relevant plot point (Hermaphroditism–Fiction.).

All of which is a long way of saying for the past month I’ve been amused and baffled by the metadata for short fiction on the New Yorker‘s website. For about a month, I’ve been logging examples at my Tumblr, and the ongoing effort to summarize fiction with streams of keywords feels at once charming and pointless, like a child trying to capture moonlight in a jar. New stories on the website are keyworded with an entertaining profligacy, as in the case of the Jonathan Lethem story that inspired me to start logging keywords in the first place:

Pornography, Clerks, Stores, Threesomes, Sex, Videos, New York City, Critics, Reviewers, Transsexuals, Sex Machines, Vomit

This kind of labor goes on constantly in editorial hives today, though it often goes undiscussed—editors are logging, tagging, keywording, catagorizing, metadata-ing. The Great God CMS must be pleased. It is tedious but essential work: Because there is no telling how articles—sorry, “content”—will be used in the years to come, those words are the necessary toeholds for databases in the future. And because nobody knows what information we’ll need years, centuries from now, the more keywording the better. The New Yorker has done its bit to make sure that anybody researching the role of sex machines, or vomit, in the first decade of the Tea Party era will be able to reckon with Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic.”

Older stories are keyworded much more parsimoniously—perhaps this is because because the responsible party is concerned only with finding the essence of a story, but more likely because this work is being done in a hurry. Even so, if you studied English in high school, you know this story:

Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning

You probably know this one too:

Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets

Those scattered terms can be enough to let you know what a story is. But it’s not enough to say what it’s about, not really, at least partly because emotional states don’t get keyworded at the New Yorker. There’s nothing in the metadata for Vladimir Nabokov‘s “Symbols and Signs” (“Insane; Birthdays; Children; Parents; Russia, Russians; Gifts: New York City; Immigrants”) that would get at its tone of emotional devastation, the despair in its line about “neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners.” The three keywords for Alice Munro‘s “A Wilderness Station” (“Canada; Letters; Murder”) are almost comically insufficient at summarizing a story about guilt, accusation, and suppression that stretches across decades.

So be it. If fiction could be summarized in a series of nouns it would stop being fiction; its abstractions render abstracts meaningless, or at least beside the point. Still, I was disappointed to see how shabbily James Thurber has been treated on this front by the keepers of the New Yorker archives. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, is entirely bereft of relevant keywords. (Just “The New Yorker, magazine, subscription”—when in doubt, pitch a subscription, apparently.) If you want to know what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about, you’re just going to have to read it—which, in a perfect world, is just as it should be. But how much has the story’s lack of keywords diminished its chances of being discovered and read?

“Please Tell Me”

Ian McEwan just wrote me about the new book and said, ‘People say there’s not a class system in America,'” Jeffrey Eugenides tells the Paris Review. “‘Now I know there is, and I can tell them what to read if they don’t know.’ I didn’t know The Marriage Plot was that much about the class system, but I guess it is.”

It isn’t. Or, more precisely, it’s a disservice to say it’s solely about that. But Eugenides doesn’t ignore the subject, and it makes a difference. A novelist who writes about people trying to make their way in the world fresh out of college has an easier time focusing on matters of love or work, and you couldn’t blame an author for avoiding such characters entirely, for fear of generating a batch of solipsistic kids. (Exhibit A here, at least for novels in recent memory, is Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men.) Dave Eggers once recommended skipping the parts of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, “which concern the lives of people in their early twenties…. [T]hose lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.” Rightly so.

But Eugenides isn’t only interested in what his characters feel about themselves, or how they feel about others—he wants clarify where they fit in, classwise, and how that guides their motivations. That issue isn’t so pronounced in the case of Madeleine, a young WASP. She worries about what she’ll do after Brown, but not with whether she’ll succeed at whatever she does; when she decides to be a Victorianist, she treats it as a fait accompli, with her failure to get into Yale for graduate school more an irritating roadblock than a firm judgment on her talents. Mental illness is the biggest concern for Leonard, the man she falls for, but even in the midst of his despair he’s attuned to where he stands in the relationship. He knows he won’t quite measure up to the demands of his girlfriend’s parents:

Leonard didn’t believe for a minute that Madeleine’s mother’s objection to him had only to do with his manic depression. The manic depression was just the more allowable of her prejudices. She couldn’t have been thrilled that, instead of being Old Money, he was just Old Portland, or that he looked to her like someone in a motorcycle gang, or that he smelled of cheap gas station cigars.

The class issue is most pronounced, though, in Mitchell, the third leg of the novel’s triangle. His emotional and spiritual awakening is the most powerful story The Marriage Plot has to tell—he’s the only character of the three who could carry his own book, and much of his character is driven by his eagerness to rise above his provincial childhood. After college he heads to Europe with Larry Pleshette, a friend to whom he’s not especially close but who has a lot to teach him:

Since coming east to college, Mitchell had been trying to wash the Midwest off himself. Sitting around in Larry’s room, drinking the muddy espresso Larry made and hearing him talk about “the theater of the absurd,” seemed like a good way to start…. The Pleshettes’ refrigerator was the first place Mitchell had encountered gourmet ice cream. He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabars? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghliev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits.

There’s a lot to love in that passage, not least the way it encapsulates how class anxiety often works—Mitchell is confronted with something unfamiliar but ostensibly high-class, and a whole avalanche of concerns that have nothing to do with a tiny tub of ice cream pile in. (“Who was Diaghliev?”) The other thing about the passage—and it’s part of a much longer one on the subject—is that Mitchell’s aspiration to a higher cultural station doesn’t mean he’s entirely dismissing where he’s from. Mitchell’s parents’ “artistic enthusiasms ran to Ethel Merman and Andrew Wyeth,” Eugenides writes, and their half-gallons of ice cream might be “greedy,” but the Eugenides’ (and Mitchell’s) judgment is a mild one.

Mitchell wants to wash the Midwest off himself, yes. But he doesn’t want to throw off his past so much as know more about the parts of the world he doesn’t yet understand. Eugenides understands that class anxiety doesn’t always breed resentment. If Mitchell were simply resentful, he’d spend a lot of time fuming in Providence in a much duller novel. Sometimes what class anxiety does is propel movement—it pushes Mitchell to do the spiritual seeking that helps The Marriage Plot earn its bulk.

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for aarp.org; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Links: Venting

Edith Wharton‘s birthplace is now a Starbucks.

Jeffrey Eugenides on his novel in progress: “You have to come up with a new song for every book. For now, I’ve got the song for this book. And that’s when it becomes fun. That’s why you don’t want to finish too quickly. Because the part that’s fun comes between the discovery of the song and the singing of the last note.”

Justin Cronin
: “I went to Iowa in the ’80s [and] Raymond Carver was the patron saint of all that we did, but I realized that that did not suit me particularly well. What made me want to be a writer in the first place were big, fat, epic stories that you could get yourself completely lost in.”

Northern Illinois University Press recently launched an imprint, Switchgrass Books, dedicated to Midwestern fiction.

A film version of Ha Jin‘s Waiting may soon begin shooting in China.

The Library of America’s new blog looks at fictionalizations of the life of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you’ve bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end.”

On a not-unrelated note: Celebrating John Barth‘s The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th anniversary. (I read it as a teenager and stopping about 200 pages in, but I don’t recall why I quit; I vividly recall loving it.)

Watching the World Cup with Aleksandar Hemon.

On the difficult task of editing Mark Twain‘s autobiography: “So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing…”

A reader realizes that Tom Rachman‘s entertaining book about a floundering English-language newspaper in Rome, The Imperfectionists makes more sense if you treat it as a collection of linked stories and not, as the cover suggests, a novel.

Finally, a list that exposes the silliness of lists.

Links: Bright-Sided

Drew Johnson‘s spirited defense of O. Henry on the hundredth anniversary of his death: “[I]t’s worth remembering that this is a register with which all writers have terrible difficulty. For all the contempt lavished on stories which crudely bring on the tears, my nagging sense is that the skills to traverse the terrain of ‘The Last Leaf’ or ‘Magi’ are widely lacking—and so we hide behind the ‘happiness shows white on the page’ excuses. It’s hard to think of happy stories.”

Falling hard for the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces.

E.L. Doctorow on how Ragtime might resemble a rag: “In the way it plays off personal lives against historical forces, you could make the claim, I suppose, that the historical forces are the basic stride or the inevitable irrepressible beat, and the attempt to escape history is the syncopated right hand.”

Peter Matthiessen recalls visiting Prague in 1948.

What’s killing fiction? MFA programs? Publishing house editors? Anybody willing to step up and blame readers?

Benjamin Percy recalls his early admiration for Stephen King‘s The Gunslinger.

Richard Price‘s novel Lush Life has inspired a series of art exhibits on the Lower East Side.

“Grocery store owners, it seems, have more dignity, more potential for sympathy, and more substance, than politicians, at least if you’re an up and coming novelist.

Jeffrey Eugenides
isn’t very excited about the upcoming film version of his short story “Baster.”

Any appropriate name for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have a Don DeLillo-like affect.

Writing about American sports fiction, Benjamin Markovitz notes that “[John] Updike probably chose basketball for Rabbit because it’s less Waspy than tennis or golf. Even so, the class lines in American sports are not fixed. Basketball is played by inner-city blacks and rural whites. American football grew up on the playing fields of east coast prep schools, but early on it also became a way out of poverty for the working classes.” This may explain why fiction writers find sports so useful for their purposes—and why the Great American Lacrosse Novel will probably never be written.

Brady Udall
on researching his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist: “I figured I’d meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hair-dos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace.”

I’m mindful of the fact that all the writers mentioned in this links post are men. I don’t think all of them are purveyors of manfiction, though. On a related note: Are female authors in movies always broken/weepy types?

Links: Boy Meets Tractor

Incoming Paris Review editor Lorin Stein: “Ten years ago I found a book of proletarian erotica in a slush pile. I just asked the author to send me another copy so I could read those stories again.”

Even if Jeffrey Eugenides did teach his own books in class—a practice many students criticize—he says he wouldn’t enjoy much of a windfall from it. “Probably about $10 per semester, if you add it up.”

Reality Hunger‘s “assault on authority and its radical solipsism are of a piece with Oprah culture and anti-intellectual movements that have taken root in academia since the 1950s.”

Are vampire novels dead?

Lorrie Moore: “Right now, I’m writing stories about money. I’m very interested in what people will do for money. Money: it’s timeless.”

Debut fiction writer Adam Schuitema rightfully praises his teacher Stuart Dybek‘s The Coast of Chicago: “It’s like a really great album, where the first song makes sense as the first song, the last song makes sense as the last song, and each song gains strength as part of the collection.”

Online excerpts from the new book Letters of Sylvia Beach include the pioneering Paris bookseller’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Richard Wright, William Carlos Williams, and others.

The case for thinking of Walter Mosley as a Jewish author.

How Mark Twain‘s death was covered by the media; and how one Brit spent his time in Hannibal, Missouri, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.

Audio of John Updike reading Frank O’Hara‘s “The Day Lady Died.” (via)

Lionel Shriver: “You’re better off not waiting for inspiration. I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate.”

Links: Collectors

Naoko Mayuzumi, who’s generously compiled a bibliography of Haruki Murakami‘s Japanese translations of American writers, recently wrote in with news of a new translation, based on Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. The page has been updated accordingly.

This blog isn’t available on the Kindle. The main reason I’m not signing up is that I think that free is a perfectly fine price to put on what I what I’m slinging here. But it’s not the only reason.

Telegraph classical music critic Michael White considers the recent death of composer Nicholas Maw by pulling out a 2002 feature on Maw’s opera based on William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice, with some comments by Styron.

Jeffrey Eugenides thinks that Saul Bellow‘s Herzog is a great cure for writer’s block, but given that it’s going to be a while before he finishes a follow-up to Middlesex, it’s probably best to take his advice with a grain of salt.

Critical Distance, an new effort to create a repository of thoughful reconsiderations of recent American fiction, launched yesterday with founder Dan Green‘s essay on Russell BanksAffliction. I’ll have more to say on this project soon-ish.

The summer issue of Bookforum is available online, including an interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

If you’re looking for a group summer reading project, your ship has just come in.

Knockemstiff author Donald Ray Pollock gave thanks for the $35,000 prize he received at the PEN Literary Awards earlier this week. “It was good timing,” he said. “I’m getting ready to get out of grad school and there are no jobs right now.”