Category Archives: Junot Diaz

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976′s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983′s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

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: Plain Dealing

“Let’s keep it simple and clear prose-wise shall we?”: How David Foster Wallace marked up one student’s paper.

A similar point by David Mamet, though in a different context: “IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.” (The aggressive use of all-caps suggests to me that Mamet might actually be on the side of the always-be-closing jerk in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

Jonathan Dee describes how reading the interviews published by his one-time employer, The Paris Review, helped him as a writer: “I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.”

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Levi Asher at David Shieldsreading in D.C. Tuesday night. (He is, in fact, the person who tipped me off to it.) He delivers his own assessment of the reading, along with a defense of Reality Hunger.

Not unrelated to Shields’ comments about the Internet and book length, Charlie Stross offers some insights into the reasons why books are as long as they are, and what the future might mean for the bulky novel. (via The Rumpus)

Brooks Peters revisits Hubert Creekmore‘s 1948 novel, The Welcome, a curious novel about homosexuality that dares not speak the name of its central theme.

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers his list of ten favorite books, which includes Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Junot Diaz‘s Drown. Funny kicker: “I really need to read some books about white people. My canon is culturally biased and reflects the perspective of sheltered African-American who is embarrassingly ignorant of the White Experience.”

The Clifton Fadiman Medal, which goes to an older work of fiction that merits more attention, has been awarded to Jamaica Kincaid‘s 1985 novel, Annie John.

Jim Shepard on writing outlines for stories, even if you don’t trust them: “That design is an illusion that I create for myself that allows me to keep going. Without it I’d be too terrified to continue. But I need to understand that the design is an illusion. I need to understand that in some rough way, there is going to be a pattern, but if that pattern remains unchanged, that’s evidence that the thing is dead.”

Earlier this month I spoke on a panel hosted by the National Book Critics Circle about the next ten years in book culture, though it quickly became a session on what the next ten years means for book reviewers. Video of that panel is now up; I can’t bear to watch, though HTMLGiant’s summary suggests my points got over well enough. What the video probably doesn’t capture is the sight of the audience collectively fishing for pens when I mentioned the Millions and the Rumpus. There’s work to do.

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Links: For Art’s Sake

Artist Cindy Kane apparently has an easy time making friends with her writer friends in Martha’s Vineyard: For the past few years she’s been working on a series called “Mapping Writers”, for which Ward Just, Tony Horwitz, Geraldine Brooks, Jules Feiffer, and others contributed pages from their notebooks. (If you happen to be in the Boston area, the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass., is showing work from the series through May 17.)

The organizers of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award have broken with tradition and put a couple of non-Canadians on the judging panel, including Russell Banks. Not everybody is pleased.

New Hampshire author Emily Winslow‘s debut novel, The Whole World, doesn’t come out until next year, but you can moon over her sweet pad in Cambridge, England, in the meantime.

The next issue of PEN America looks great. Included is an excerpt from Colum McCann‘s forthcoming novel, Let the Great World Spin. I very much enjoyed his 2007 novel, Zoli, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Also looking good: The new issue of Stop Smiling, which is thick with interviews with writers, including Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz. The entire Diaz interview is available free online.

Not available free online but worth chasing down is a piece in the April Harper’s about New York whorehouses by author (and alleged inhuman turd) Nelson Algren. The piece, written in 1979 and included in the forthcoming Algren collection Entrapment and Other Writings, is an almost tender defense of johns, written in the wake of a crackdown on Manhattan brothels:

[The mayor] assumes that the average fellow, in search of sex, wears shades and a false beard and lurks in the shadows near the whorehouse door. When he sees there is no cop in sight, he makes a run for the door, disguises his voice to the girl at the desk, and keeps his coat collar turned up while waiting.

That isn’t how it is. The man walks up to the window in the same way he would walk to the mutuel window at the racetrack, gets his ticket, and hopes for a winner. The mayor makes a false presumption of guilt that causes not only whores to suffer but johns as well. Because it forces both to employ extraordinary means to have an act that is good only when it is kept simple.

English Into Arabic

Last fall I made a brief mention of Kalima, an effort by the United Arab Emirates to translate books from English into Arabic. At the time, the organization was working in conjunction with the National Book Festival to scout for suggestions of great American literature to include in its series. On the evidence of a recent press release, they made some pretty impressive choices. Below are Kalima’s picks:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Not all Americans, you’ll notice—the release mentions seven authors total from the U.S. were included. A little googling reveals that Publishers Lunch has reported a few more recent rights purchases by Kalima, including Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Robinson’s Housekeeping

Junot Diaz’s Victory Lap

Junot Diaz is just about done talking to you: By May, he tells the Cornell Daily Sun, he’ll be finished with readings and appearances related to his excellent 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so he can finally get cracking on a new work. Diaz covers a handful of topics in a Q&A with the paper, including the death of literary culture (“Literacy has never been a part of global cultural practice”), Horace Engdahl (“I think that he’s simultaneously a dumbass, and I think he’s simultaneously correct”), and his best advice for teaching writing:

I teach only undergraduates who don’t want to be writers … I just wanted to say that cause it’s a different energy … the kids … they’re more fun.

Writing is for me more of an excuse to make the students critical-minded. You know … There’s really no magic. Half of it is exposure. You expose them to the forms, the grammar of whatever convention you’re talking about, whether it’s the short story or the novel … you have the students practice it. The third component is that you really have to have a tremendous amount of compassion. You have to teach the students how to be gentle with themselves, not to be so critical, not to be so incredibly self-eviscerating. The only way you can model that is that if you actually have compassion. I think all three are the components that you tend to end up bringing to the class.

Links: Ain’t That America

The Nobel Prize’s literature judge says that American writers are too “insular.” But what does some dumb foreigner know?

Hubris alert: Big-name venture capitalist Tom Perkins has built a 289-foot yacht called The Maltese Falcon.

In related news, Tom Perrotta dreams of being Sam Spade: “Who wouldn’t want to be a tough-talking private eye?”

Olsson’s, the leading independent bookstore chain in the Washington, D.C. area, closed all five of its stores yesterday after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. A memorial page is up and running.

Junot Diaz is deeply impressed with Richard Price‘s handball skills.

Nicholas Sparks is just pretty darned pleased with everything.

Roundup: For the Love of Benjy

Yesterday marked the debut of an off-Broadway staging of The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928 ), based on the first section of William Faulkner‘s novel. The New York Theater Workshop has a handy primer on the novel and its adaptation, complete with a Compson family tree. NYTW’s Web site also has an interview with the play’s director, John Collins. Excerpt: “[W]hen we read The Sound and the Fury out loud it seemed transformed. Looking at it on the page, with its typeface changes and broken sentences, you feel like you’re being challenged to solve some crazy puzzle. Hearing the words aloud brought the humor forward much more and allowed the movement of the narrative to make a kind of musical sense.”

Oscar Hijuelos cautions Junot Diaz not to let that Pulitzer go to his head. Hijuelos, currently teaching at Duke, has a new novel out in the fall, Dark Dude.

In the Jerusalem Post, John Freeman visits the Brooklyn home of literary couple Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, who has a new novel, The Sorrows of an American. Cohabitation isn’t always a boon for writers, we learn:

Watching Auster and Hustvedt interact intellectually, one can appreciate why artists and writers keep appearing in her work. You can also see why they don’t work in the same house. (Five years ago, I interviewed Hustvedt and stopped, when I thought I heard someone beating on a set of drums in the house: “That’s Paul typing,” Hustvedt explained with a wry smile.)