Category Archives: Joyce Carol Oates

Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”

Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

Sentimental Journeys

Among the best pieces in Joyce Carol Oates‘ latest collection of essays, In Rough Country, is a wide-ranging overview of the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Discussing McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” of novels, she makes an interesting digression:

[T]he closely linked novels of the Border Trilogy are a tribute, in their warmly sympathetic depiction of the lives of young ranch hands in Texas and New Mexico in the 1950s, to such traditional values as friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, physical endurance and (male) stoicism; though suffused with nostalgia for a way of life rapidly coming to an end in the Southwest in the decade following the end of World War II, for the most part the novels avoid sentimentality. (Why “sentimentality” need be avoided in serious literature, as it’s rarely avoided by serious people in actual life, is another issue.)

As a reviewer who’s dinged plenty of novels for “sentimentality”—emotional string-pulling, florid observations, cliched tributes to love, family, fellow-feeling, etc—that parenthetical is a little hard for me to get my head around. That’s especially true considering that Oates’ fiction (at least her “serious literature”) is marked by a steely avoidance of sentiment, even when she’s working through plots about family tragedies. (Her 1981 story collection, A Sentimental Education, its title snitched from Flaubert, doesn’t appear to be sentimental at all. Oates is also featured in a book about contemporary Irish-American women writers titled Too Smart to Be Sentimental.)

Lacking a definition from Oates about “sentimentality,” it’s hard to say much about her perception of it. But I suspect she may be suggesting that readers are less willing to submit to a high emotional pitch in fiction, at least not the way they do with movies, which can be heavily sentimental and still earn high praise. (The first example I can think of is Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights, a film I always sniffle at the end of, though of course high-art weepers didn’t die in the 1930s.) Serious fiction, Oates implies, is less willing to let us indulge feelings of nostalgia—its goal is to make us question those feelings, which may be why we have so few (any?) novels about happy childhoods.

I’m still hard-pressed to think of fiction I admired because it was “sentimental,” which may be a function of what I’m reading or how I’m reading it. But I’m open to recommendations of books that successfully pulled it off.

Links: BREAKING: Book Review Outlet May Publish Review of Book

Department of Ridiculous News Story Premises: “After a summer of glowing reviews for Jonathan Franzen‘s new novel “Freedom,” in which the book was deemed a masterpiece and its author compared to great American novelists, publishing insiders say the literary lovefest may be about to end. According to those sources, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, will pan “Freedom” in an issue out later this month. Judging by literary critics’ penchant for piling on, she probably won’t be the last reviewer looking to draw blood.”

Where are the novels about Hurricane Katrina?

Julia Alvarez: “I struggled early on because my first language was Spanish and when I came here I read all these great male writers whose voices sounded important, so I tried to model my own voice after them.”

According to a Bowker survey (PDF), there are many reasons why a person might purchase a book, but a book review isn’t one of them (see page 29). So, little has changed.

Jack Shafer despairs for the future of the book—though the book’s eroding cultural primacy, as he describes it, seems to apply mostly to nonfiction books, which have increasingly become lodes for data miners. As for novels, you still have to read those from start to finish.

Mystery novelist Bryan Gruley on the distinctions between writing news stories and writing fiction.

James Ellroy: “Well, sir, and this is on the record, I’ve blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read. Blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read, and have decided to drop the curtain on that.”

Inside Jennifer Egan‘s old-school day planner.

Things I’ve Overheard My Roommate Say to Her On-Again/Off-Again Boyfriend or Works by Joyce Carol Oates? (via; this gag also works for Bob Dylan and Dan Rather quotes)

Everything Bad Is Good Again, or Notes Toward a Better Understanding of the Advanced Genius Theory

In 2004 journalist and critic Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay for Esquire titled “Real Genius,” which attempted to explain a peculiar theory about popular culture called Advancement. The theory, invented by Britt Bergman and Jason Hartley, is at its core a way to reclaim the late careers of seemingly washed-up artists: Musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan aren’t in decline, the theory goes, and they never could be. They might do things that displease you as a fan (like record Metal Machine Music or convert to Christianity), but those actions in no way signify failure; Reed and Dylan have just “advanced” beyond your understanding of them, and if you recognized their early genius you’ll ultimately come around and see the genius in their later work too.

Klosterman’s article attempted to lay out a set of principles of Advancement that struck me as obscure, arbitrary, or contradictory; a few years later I was working with a proponent of the theory, and after overhearing enough parsing about whether Sting was advanced or not, I’d had enough. I wrote a cranky blog post dismissing Advancement, got into a fun but ultimately unhelpful squabble with a commenter named “Val Kilmer,” and figured nothing more needed to be said. But Hartley has expanded the theory into a book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?, and I confess the scales have fallen from my eyes, a little. Back then, I dismissed Advancement as “Ren Faire for rock critics,” but I got this almost completely wrong. Advancement is actually a way of looking at culture and conversations about it as a kind of vast entertaining Ren Faire in itself, but where critics are relegated to unhappy minor roles like Junior Mead Supervisor and Falcon-Poop Disposal Expert.

Because while Hartley enjoys parsing whether Elvis Costello or J.D. Salinger might be Advanced, the theory is mainly predicated on attacking the received wisdom about artists that critics like to trot out; without critics, there would be no need for Advancement. For Hartley, people who say Woody Allen makes movies too quickly and that they’re always about Woody Allen don’t appreciate the fact that a) his plots are more diverse than he’s given credit for and b) he doesn’t care what his fans think, let alone critics. (That second point is critical: One of the parlor-game aspects of deciding whether an artist is Advanced is figuring out if some dumb career move he or she makes is sincere, which would be Advanced, or willfully attention-getting, which would be Overt.) Hartley makes his frustration with critics especially plain in the book’s closing chapter, in which he criticizes the Overt, un-fun way of looking at things: For this crowd of killjoys, “a truly good book must be somewhat obscure but embraced by certain influential critics. It must feature the word ‘tumescent.’ I should have an antihero. It should end in the middle of the story. It should be very long.”

There’s nothing wrong with taking the piss out of stick-in-the-mud critics, and Advancement does have the advantage of being funnier than any other critical theory out there; Hartley is a hugely entertaining writer with a rare talent for being contrarian without being snarky. Has a great riff on the notion that the Rolling Stones were bad-ass and the Beatles somehow weren’t:

Sure, Mick Jagger wrote a song about Satan and a guy got killed at the Stones concert at Altamont, but Paul McCartney wrote a song about an amusement park ride (“Helter Skelter”) that got a lot of people killed, so I say the Beatles were just a bit badder than the Stones. How many more people have to die before the Beatles get the credit they deserve?

The problem with Advancement—and the reason why it’s easy to regard it as a parlor game, if not an outright prank—is that its scope is limited. The theory only applies to artists who have a proven history of unquestioned brilliance (15 years, Hartley suggests), so the theory tends to get caught up in details about whether a musician’s acquisition of sunglasses and “world beat” musicians signifies Advancement or not. (Yanni would be the ultimate Advanced musician, I suspect, were he ever any good.) Another limitation is that Advancement mainly considers careers, not individual works—or at least doesn’t consider individual works in any interesting way. (They’re always better than you think! Because an Advanced artist made them!) Hartley is never more flat-footed as a writer then when he writes about a particular album; when he considers Dylan’s album Shot of Love, he lapses into the kind of fanboy fawning fit for a message board. (“The second song, ‘Heart of Mine,’ is a lovely, piano-heavy tune that shows off Dylan’s ability to sing in a conventional style when called upon to do so….”)

Hartley writes about Advanced writers, but not nearly in as much depth as I would hope. He describes Don DeLillo as a Refined Overt, part of the tribe of “artists who manage to cultivate their weirdo street cred late into life while somehow managing not to annoy people.” (By Hartley’s theory, I think DeLillo seems to be best categorized as an Advanced Irritant, because he clearly doesn’t care about what his fans think, and he’s been denying his fans the big Underworld-y brick of a novel they’ve wanted for more than a decade now.) He reckons that Thomas Pynchon is Overt, which sounds about right, but his heart isn’t really in this particular aspect of the theory; the chapter on writers is less than ten pages long.

In the interest of helping to fill out the theory a little, I tried to figure out which writers might fit the bill. The first one who sprung to mind was Jonathan Lethem, because Lethem once wrote an article made up of plagiarized sentences and then tried to work in some of his theories about it into a bad novel about a rock band, but that seems like an Overt move, and being controversial in itself isn’t enough to be Advanced. (Contemporary writers don’t generate very interesting controversies, as a rule. The biggest to-do of the past year was Alice Hoffman blowing a gasket on Twitter.) James Franco deciding to take a break from acting to pursue an MFA in writing isn’t advanced, but playing an MFA student in a Gary Shteyngart book trailer might be (at least to the extent that you think Franco’s any good, as a writer or actor). I suspect Stephen King is Advanced because he immediately followed up a very thoughtful and helpful book about the principles of good writing with Dreamcatcher, a novel in which people are infected with a virus that makes them shit space aliens.

The ultimate Advanced writer is likely somebody like Joyce Carol Oates, who suffers from the same complaints as Woody Allen—too prolific, too focused on a limited range of subjects. When people say they’re tired of Oates, it’s likely not because they’re actually reading her; they just feel defeated by her sheer output, and they’re sick of hearing about it in the New York Times Book Review. But though Advancement might help clarify the reasons why people might reflexively and unfairly dislike an artist, it doesn’t do much to tell me why an artist’s particular work might be any good, why Little Bird of Heaven might be better than The Gravedigger’s Daughter, even if I accept that they’re both pretty good. (She’s an Advanced artist, after all.)

Hartley, for all his critiquing of artists, is essentially averse to committing acts of criticism, and the argument bubbling under The Advanced Genius Theory is that you’re better off being averse to it as well. As he writes in the book’s conclusion: “Once you have achieved the Advanced state of mind, something amazing happens: you start to like everything.” He’s not arguing against discernment: “You can still have ‘good taste,’” he writes. “It’s just that the question becomes how much you like a work of art rather than whether you like it.” It’s a powerful counter against critics who come up with contrived reasons to dismiss things. But how much better is it to come up with contrived reasons to like them?

Update: Hartley responds here and here.

Links: Passing the Torch

Joyce Carol Oates: “Virtually all of my novels depict crimes—from a perspective of the tragic rites of sacrifice, redemption, and the passing of the old order—that is, an older generation—to the new order—the younger generation. It’s somewhat unusual that a novel of mine, like Blonde, is purely tragic, without any apparent hope of redemption.”

The voices in Shalom Auslander‘s head.

Grand Street editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the literary magazine in 1985 “to follow the model that the New Yorker once provided and fell away from—to be informative and insolent”—has died at 73.

Andrew Seal is beginning a series of posts on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. Trilogy—valuable for folks like me who only got through The 42nd Parallel in high school and who have since forgotten most of it.

The opening pages of William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice might serve as the great Brooklyn novel. (via)

This year’s William Faulkner conference at the University of Mississippi will focus on his screenplays and movies adapted from his work. (Apparently not on the docket for some reason: The Reivers, a 1969 Steve McQueen vehicle that scored two Oscar nominations.)

Meanwhile, an attempt to connect Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not buying it. (via)

How Prague’s literary culture started in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rick Moody on the difficulty of putting Walt Whitman‘s words to music: “The only challenge is, it’s freaking hard to set the lines because there’s no meter…. Why couldn’t they do a Dickinson event? Those could all be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’”

In connection with a Lush Life-themed exhibition taking place in Lower East Side galleries, Richard Price talks about the neighborhood and his perspective on the art world, putting in a plug for The Horse’s Mouth as “the Citizen Kane of artist movies.”

Was the food writing in American Psycho ahead of its time?

Colum McCann finally has time to make progress on a new novel.

The Motel Life

Toward the end of her essay (sub. req’d) in the New York Review of Books on two of Joyce Carol Oates recent works of fiction—the novel Little Bird of Heaven and the story collection Dear HusbandCaroline Fraser cracks a joke. Describing a scene in Little Bird in which an adolescent girl is kidnapped by her father and taken to a Days Inn where a bloody standoff ensues, Fraser quips: “how that chain must love Joyce Carol Oates.”

Actually, as far as the miseries connected to rented rooms go, Oates isn’t especially brand-loyal. When it comes to imagining the appropriate backdrop for somebody’s emotional instability, any (to pick one of Oates’ favorite adjectives in this context) shabby inn will do. In her story “Mrs. Halifax and Rickie Swann: A Ballad” (in her 2004 collection, I Am No One You Know), a woman carries on an affair with a 15-year-old boy, and together they go on the Grand Tour of New Jersey motels and fast-food joints:

Rarely the same motel twice. Days Inn, Bide-a-Wee, Econo-Lodge, Sleep E Hollow, Holiday Inn (Rahway, Metuchen), Travellers Inn, Best Western. Mrs. Halifax and her teenaged son (Brian/Jason/Troy/Mark). Only Mrs. Halifax entered the hotel lobbies, but her adolescent son was sometimes glimpsed in the parking lot, or in the video arcade, or, if there was an indoor heated pool, there. Once they were safe inside their cozy locked room they luxuriated in their lovemaking, Jacuzzi bathing, take-out McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chinese and Italian food, giant Pepsis (for Rickie) and six-packs of beer (for Mrs. Halifax).

The exotic dancer/serial killer in her 1999 Rosamond Smith novel Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon stifles her resentment of the place a man has taken her in the novel’s early pages:

If “Starr Bright” was bitterly disappointed in the Paradise Motel, in Sparks, Nevada, having envisioned a first-rate casino hotel in Reno for the night, smelling beforehand the insecticide-odor of the shabby room, she gave not the slightest clue. She was not that kind of girl.

But Days Inn does seem to come in as a handy metaphor for rootlessness and despair. The alcoholic hero of her 1994 novel, What I Lived For, is unsettled when he checks in:

Waking in a shabby Days Inn at exit 14 of I-190 in a no-man’s-land of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motels, discount outlets approximately six miles north of the Union City limits where, the night before, that’s to say in the early hours of this morning, Corky’d taken a room for a rock-bottom twenty-nine dollars plus tax. Figuring no one would look for him in such a dump. No one who knew him.

Had to do it. Why?—don’t ask. Just a premonition. Couldn’t go home. That big echoing house, never really his. A mausoleum.

The Days Inn passage in Little Bird of Heaven gets at the fictional appeal of such places for Oates—they’re meaningful for the reader precisely because they represent meaninglessness for the people who are forced to stay there:

We were in a first-floor room at the far end of a two-storey stucco building of just discernible shabbiness and melancholy; something in the very jauntiness of the sign Days Inn Vacancies exuded this air of shabbiness and melancholy. In books there is said to be meaning, in our English class our teacher was reading poems by Robert Frost to us and it was astonishing to me, and a little scary, how the words fo a poem has such meaning, but in actual life, in places like the Days Inn motel there is not much meaning, it is just something that is.

I haven’t read enough of Oates’ books to know if occupying a motel room is a guarantee of a sad, bloody end, though it seems a relatively safe bet. Maybe there’s a kind of social commentary built into Oates’ interest in corpses in motel rooms. In ordinary homes, murder victims will likely first be found by a friend of family member; in a hotel the first witness may be a housekeeper or staffer—somebody who’s an outsider to the story in the same way we are as readers. A death in a home devastates loved ones; a death in a Days Inn announces itself to the wider world. In a home, a death can be private; in a hotel, we all have to look. Oates hints at that distinction in her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in which the protagonist, Rebecca, works as a chambermaid in a hotel where suicides and murders have occurred:

Suicide in hotel rooms was not uncommon, but murder was very rare. Rebecca had never heard of anyone killing a child in any hotel.

Why do they do it, why check into a hotel, Rebecca had asked someone, possibly Hrube himself at a time when they must’ve been on reasonably good terms, and Hrube had shrugged saying, “To fuck the rest of us up, why else d’you think?”

Excellent Typesetting

Yes, it does seem like Joyce Carol Oates is legally required to have something published in the Atlantic‘s annual fiction issue. But that doesn’t mean her curious essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” didn’t merit inclusion. In the piece, presumably an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, she addresses the death of her first husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008, though it might be more precise to say that the story is about how she evades it. While she bemoans the writers who robotically send submissions to the Ontario Review even after Smith’s death prompted its shuttering, she candidly describes her own robot-like behavior—her urge to see her husband’s death as a frustrating interruption and not a source of anguish. But eventually that grief emerges:

Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?

(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)

I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.

He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…

I am trying. Honey, I am trying!

That last line is where the dam starts to break, but the parenthetical before it may be the most heartbreaking line in the whole piece. Her husband is on his deathbed, so what better time is there to recall that there is an excellent typesetter located in Marquette, Michigan, with whom they work? It encapsulates just how deeply her personal life has collided with her work, which she has spent her career diligently keeping separate. “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing,” she writes. “[M]y own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.”

Links: The Hoover Institution

“[Joyce Carol Oates] says she often has to bribe herself to write — dangling an hour or two of gardening as her reward — and gets her best ideas while vacuuming.”

C-SPAN’s new online video library is stuffed full of literary material from the past 20-odd years, including awards programs, conferences, readings and more. Among the videos is a 2004 PEN American Center event featuring Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Francine Prose, and Russell Banks.

Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav are the three finalists for the teaching position at Pomona College once held by David Foster Wallace.

On the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain‘s death, let us remember that he was a pipe aficionado, an early baseball enthusiast, a tourist magnet.

On the first anniversary of John Updike‘s death, let us remember that not everybody is impressed with his work. “He’s a fine realist,” says Yale professor Amy Hungerford. “But he doesn’t push the envelope of the novel. He is simply not on the vanguard of what fiction has to say.”

James Mulholland, who along with a few of his students answered some of my questions about his 9/11 novel course last year, defends the honor of graduate studies in the humanities: “[W]e must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.”

Kurt Vonnegut draws a few charts to explain how narrative works.

The next F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will honor Alice McDermott.

On the evidence of this assortment of photographs, you’re not required to be a smoker to be a Hero of American Literature, but it helps.