Category Archives: John Steinbeck

Links: Cleaning Up

A handy database of what appears to be all the fiction that has run in the New Yorker. Have fun with the tag function: “Dogs” appears 82 times; “Cats” 38 times; “prisoners” seven times; “littering” once.

I haven’t read a romance novel in forever, but I’ll read anything Jessica Tripler writes about the genre. She considers A Visit From the Goon Squad though that filter: “It struck me that the dominant emotion in VGS is one not so often encountered in romance: shame…. [T]he kind of abject shame so many of VGS characters inhabit is not one that makes for a romantic read. I think the difference is that in romance, the shame is either (a) not really earned (it’s really a virtue in disguise), or (b) centers on a character flaw that gets fixed in the narrative (the cop who is afraid of commitment, for example). The shame in VGS is, at one and the same time, both unique to the characters and universal.”

Gertrude Stein gets an iPhone: “Stopping everything is something. Stopping everything and stopping all of that thing is something. Stopping everything and then doing nothing in stopping everything is something.” (via)

Egyptian translator Hala Salah Eldin Hussein: “I have recently been contemplating the value of literature in these times, where your step in Tahrir Square—protesting and demanding civil rights—should be more valuable than translating fiction. Can fiction really take second place after revolutionary activism? How can fiction help us in a time of political unrest? Should I stay in my office finishing this marvelous piece by Susan Straight, or should I just go out with my fellow countrymen, six hours or more every day, in the square? It seems that translating political articles will be of more use to the revolution, but for the time being I’ll keep the belief that a day translating Lorrie Moore or Edward P. Jones will teach me how to be a better human being, I’ll get to see the world in its true colours, I’ll learn about myself, others and humanity.”

Andrew Seal isn’t blogging these days, alas, but his very busy Tumblr, Fuck Yeah, Historiography, is stuffed with gems from texts on American literature, sociology, political history, and more.

Catch-22 at 50. (via)

Lynne Tillman: “I think it’s true that unless human beings experience something, they simply don’t understand what people are going through. Now that I am conscious of the world of chronic pain, when I see somebody walking down the street who’s having trouble, I feel a sadness for them. I notice. I’m very lucky that I could get a hip replacement.” (via)

“If you really want to publish a book one day you will publish a book. The time that you spend getting there is kind of wonderful. Don’t cut it short. The emotional range is valuable.”

Robert Pinsky unearths a document listing three reasonable rules for writing a book review.

On Tobias Wolff‘s debut novel, 1975’s Ugly Rumours, which few know about and which the author himself is disinclined to discuss.

Defending Herman Melville‘s poetry.

We will always want narratives, but will we always want endings?

John Steinbeck‘s affection for Arthurian England.

Dept. of Sausage Making: Stuart Dybek and an editor discuss whether the name of a public housing project in one of his stories needs some additional explanation. (via)

Well put, by Rae Bryant: “One of the masteries in Nabokov’s stories, what I admire so much, is how smoothly the stories turn readers into accomplices.”

Somewhat less well put: “Maybe Vladi­mir Nabokov wasn’t referring to America’s favorite confectionery on a stick when he wrote Lolita,’ but he should have been.”

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”

Links: Whatever

“[Stuart Dybek] submitted a story called ‘Thread’ to a literary magazine without the label of fiction or nonfiction. A representative at the publication demanded a classification for the story. He responded with what he calls a ‘shrug of the shoulders,’ and the story went on to be published in Harper’s in 1998.”

Scenes from the ceremony inducting the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Matthew Hunte‘s “75 Notes for an Unwritten Essay on Literary Prizes” is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the peculiar, heartbreaking, often compromised processes involved in celebrating one author ahead of others. The 1996 C-SPAN video of an NBCC panel, linked to from the article, is particularly revealing in terms of how the PEN/Faulkner, NBCC, NBA, and MAN Booker prizes function, or at least functioned at the time. And it’s great to see Paul Fussell in action. (Also: a look back at the disastrous 1980 American Book Awards.)

Susan Straight (intensely) appreciates Toni Morrison‘s Sula.

“O unteachable ass”: Mark Twain responds to an editor.

Adam Ross on making the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (And, from the archives, wondering why bad sex writing is getting picked on when there are so many other forms of bad writing out there.)

“The work of the class of 2010 is also reflective of a certain hard-to-define American malaise. [Joshua] Ferris‘s novel The Unnamed and Rivka Galchen‘s Atmospheric Disturbances are both about mysterious maladies that overcome their protagonists without warning. The subjects of Wells Tower‘s stories are inclined to unexpected outbursts of violence and depression; [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie‘s wandering African émigrés are perpetually disappointed by the stifled promise of American life. The stories of 20 Under 40 are similarly weighed down by a creeping unease that seems emblematic of life in the United States today.”

Claim: John Steinbeck‘s Travels With Charley isn’t factually accurate.

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary on the writer, screens in D.C. this Sunday as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival (via). The trailer:

Francine Prose: “It’s very hard when you are writing a novel because you really have to get back into that imaginary world. So unfortunately, sometimes, if I have been away from it for a long time, like two or three weeks, I will actually have to go back to the beginning, to start writing again … just so I can get enough momentum and kind of figure my way back in.”

A quick gloss on why Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” works.

Walter Mosley: “The biggest misconception that people have about the literary life is the romance of it. That, you know, that a writer has this large world available to him or her of people, of ideas, of experiences, of interchange of ideas; that they don’t understand really, not how isolated the life of that person is because the life of that person is dependent on who they are, but the literary life of that person. How hard it is to get recognized, how hard it is to get people to read your books. How hard it is to get people to even to understand what they’re reading when they’re talking to you about their books.”

A few good books Ruth Franklin didn’t get around to reviewing this year.

Louis Auchincloss wasn’t like Trollope. He was worse.

Links: Go Tell It on the Mountain

At the Rumpus, Eric B. Martin writes, “if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws.” Why can’t reviews of all books just do the second thing? When somebody shouts “Read this book!” from a hilltop, who finds that alone convincing?

Adam Langer, whose next book is about the publishing industry, on the strangest thing about publishing: “That sometimes it’s easier to lie and get away with it, than to get away with telling the truth.”

Southern Methodist University Press is at risk of closing due to budgetary concerns. Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell (the press’ closing would be “a body blow to American literature”), Richard Russo, and others have registered their displeasure.

Richard Price on what to do when Hollywood comes calling about adapting your work for the screen: “Take the money and run.”

“I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them.”

Shalom Auslander works a stomach-churning but not inaccurate metaphor to describe the experience of writing.

Current events have a way of leading back to The Grapes of Wrath.

Percival Everett‘s entertaining comic novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, picks up the annual Believer Book Award.

D.G. Myers, bullish on litblogging: “For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves ‘fre­quently and at length with contemporary work.'”

The case for slow reading.

Philip Roth and Judy Blume are inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

In related news, Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah: “I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down.”

Thomas Mallon takes the helm of the creative writing program at the George Washington University, just a couple of months after the school announced that Edward P. Jones has joined the English department faculty.

On Saturday, Al “Red Dog” Weber, who is 84, will impersonate Ernest Hemingway at a book festival in Laguna Hills, California. How will you be channeling Papa, Mr. Weber? “A lot of rum, honey. I’m going to be bombed out of my gourd and in perfect character.”

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.

Links: Mall Rats

Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, the quintessential big book about Washington power players, turns 50.

Lorrie Moore: “I don’t feel I’m a natural writer. I feel every paragraph I write stinks. But I’m a pretty good editor. I’m not that fluid in getting the sentences out right the first time. There are times when you lose confidence. There are scenes that are hard to write. So I make changes. I am still making changes.”

Audrey Niffenegger recalls her early days in Chicago’s art scene.

Henry Louis Gates recently handed out the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are given to best books about race in the past year. Among the winners is Louise Erdrich, for The Plague of Doves.

New York magazine talks with Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death,” the lead story in his new collection, The Double Life Is Twice as Good, is a genius riff on noir themes matched with Ames’ traditional acts of self-flagellation.

Serpent’s Tail Press (which has published some of my favorite David Goodis noirs) is launching a classics series. It’s an interesting take on classics: Among the first batch of reprints are Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin and George PelecanosShoedog.

An excerpt from Raymond Carver‘s “Beginners,” included in Library of America’s new Carver collection.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, has a new story collection, The Man From Kinvara.

A chat with the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Society in San Francisco.

Tortilla Flat is a good name for a John Steinbeck novel, but a bad name for a Southern California sports bar.

And a Thomas Pynchon scholar picks precisely the wrong guy with whom to cop attitude about television.

It’s Not OK

The Oklahoman commemorates the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath with a pair of stories, a slideshow, and a video, elegantly presented, about how frustrated some Oklahomans continue to be with the book. (For starters, it’s “Oklahomans,” not “Okies.”) The Joads, the lead story notes, lived near the town of Sallisaw, but at least one expert argues that the town had nothing to do with the migration to California during the Dust Bowl:

The only hard feelings about the book are related to this and other discrepancies over what is true, [Sequoyah County Librarian Bethia] Owens said. Although Steinbeck had his book’s characters traveling to California for work, Owens said many migrant workers actually moved to Sallisaw to work and live.

“If he wanted to talk about pain and agony during the Depression here, he could have,” Owens said. “But we were going through different things.”

A different version of the article, published in the Tulsa World, mentions Rilla Askew‘s Harpsong, a 2007 novel that was intended in part to correct the portrayal of Oklahoma in John Steinbeck‘s book. As she explained in an interview shortly before the book came out:

I have tried to capture a different aspect of the Oklahoma character, not because of others’ complaints but from my own desire. The new book is set in the 1930’s, and of course that’s a troubled, iconic era for Oklahoma. We’ve lived in the shadow of Grapes of Wrath these many decades, and I both wanted to demythologize the era and set a few things straight. Mr. Steinbeck just got a few things wrong, you know. But besides that, I wanted to try to capture some of the best parts of us, our essential decency, the fact that, among Oklahomans, there’s a sense that people will ultimately do the right thing.

Sanora Babb’s Bad Timing

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has just launched a handsome online exhibition, Sanora Babb: Stories From the American High Plains, dedicated to the author’s writing and photography during the Great Depression. Babb was born in Oklahoma in 1907 and moved to LA just as the markets crashed; from 1937 to 1939 she worked with migrant farmers as part of the Farm Security Administration. During that time she wrote a novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, based on her experiences.

Sound familiar? Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, felt the same way—figuring there wasn’t room in the market for both Babb’s novel and The Grapes of Wrath, he broke the publisher’s contract with Babb. Whose Names Are Unknown wasn’t published until 2004, a year before her death. Scanning through it, it’s not hard to see what Cerf was so concerned about—Babb’s prose mirrors the same simple prose style, the same rough-hewn nobility in the characters, the same symbolism about the earth and life. One chapter ends with the burial of an infant, and Babb is no less shy about inserting melodrama than Steinbeck was:

At the last he beat the ground down hard with the back of the spade. Suddenly he began to cry. He did not lower his head but stood as he was, his shoulders jerking with hard cruel sobs. He did not know what to do. The broken sounds came out of his throat and his whole body shook. He could not stop because he felt a hard loneliness and despair breaking up in him, crashing against the walls of his being. It was the boy and it was everything unnoticed and unknown in him. “I ain’t cried since I was a boy,” he mumbled. He stopped down on his knees again and pulled loose dirt carelessly over the grave to make it look like the rest of the field. When he had finished he stood still looking at the pure circle of earth around him, the far, smooth, lonely plain. The earth was very clean and fresh after the rain. He could see the long straight fences miles away. They were frail and small so far beneath the great clear morning sky. The desperation of living came up in him again, in anger and humiliation; in anger he shook his fist, shook it hard and fierce at something in the world.

Links: Malaise Speech

Today is John Steinbeck‘s birthday. In his honor, the National Steinbeck Center is hosting events through the weekend; in related news, the entire country is hosting a massive Great Depression for the next five years or so.

Perhaps a commemorative Mark Twain coin would help?

Minnesota author Bill Holm, called the “polar bear of American literature,” has died. He was 65.

Those Robert Coover appearances at the University of Pennsylvania I mentioned earlier this week are now available online on video and MP3.

Russell Banks says Martin Scorsese‘s film adaptation of his novel The Darling is still moving along.

A healthy selection of works by Wells Tower, including an excerpt from his new collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, are online.

The viability of Tao Lin‘s plan to finance his writing by selling shares in his next novel is being disputed in the comments of yesterday’s post. Bright minds who understand finance and publishing better than I do are encouraged to weigh in. (Update: I got played on this. Maybe. Probably. Anyhow, lesson learned.)

Last call: Tomorrow I’ll be at an all-day seminar on fiction writing at George Mason University, put together by American Independent Writers. If you’ll be there, please say hi.

Burning Steinbeck

The Kansas City Star has an interview with Rick Wartzman, author of Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. As I’ve noted before, Steinbeck currently has a reputation as a ideologue and crowd-pleaser—though despite his insularity and ignorance, he won the Nobel Prize in literature 1962—but Wartzman points out that there was a point where Steinbeck was considered a real threat to the establishment:

“Steinbeck didn’t quite call for revolution, but he came really close,” [says Wartzman]. And (the novel) was so popular, I think there was a general measure of fear by the establishment that this could set things off, be the match at the tinderbox. It’s a novel that’s still incredibly powerful, not only on the level of censorship, but some of its economic messages are resonating today louder than ever.

“You look at those passages where Steinbeck is talking about how, when people are hungry and in need, they’re going to take what they want by force. Those were upsetting words in the late 1930s. The Russian Revolution was still very fresh in people’s minds and, in fact, for many intellectuals in this country it was still a model for where they wanted to go, and the prospect of some form of socialism was very, very real. It was a scary book.”