Category Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Links: Revolutionary Roads

Andrew Alan Stewart Carl: “It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story.”

Roxane Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and why writing to satisfy (or undercut) your perceived place in the socioeconomic matrix is too. Richard Price had a story to tell related to this in a 1996 Paris Review interview:

I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust . . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t it.

I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx?

He says, No. From New Jersey.

Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang?

He says, No. My father’s a fireman out in Toms River.

Oh, so he’s a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don’t you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff?

He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff.

What if they do? First of all, they don’t. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don’t know?…. [H]e went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.

Adam Levin lists some of works of American fiction that have had the strongest influence on him, including a spot-on defense of Philip Roth‘s Operation Shylock.

Does pursuing a Ph.D. do a crime writer any good?

Mark Kurlansky on returning to his roots as a fiction writer to contribute to Haiti Noir.

A visit to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library:

Benjamin Taylor talks with Dissent about his experience editing Saul Bellow‘s letters. The passage from Henderson the Rain King he cites as an example of Bellow’s greatness is one of my favorites as well—that book has the best ending of his major works. (via)

Confronting Henry James‘ late works.

Victoria Patterson isn’t hearing the argument that an author has to be all over social media to promote his or her work. “I don’t have an optimistic, sunny personality. Why should I pretend to be a social person?

Reynolds Price died yesterday at 77. I’ve read none of his many works (recommendations about where to start are welcome), but I do like this line from his 1991 Paris Review interview: “I think I’m a comic writer always. I hope I am—in the long run anyhow—because I think our existence is comic, finally.”

What’s that? Somebody’s bemoaning the lack of a great Washington novel again?

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!

Good, Evil, and “Escape From Spiderhead”

Interviewed by the New Yorker about his new story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” George Saunders explains that he’s become increasingly interested in good-versus-evil conflicts:

More and more these days what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed, like a couple of PeeWee football players, to see what happens. Who stays standing? Whose helmet goes flying off?

In that regard, “Escape From Spiderhead” is a straightforward enough tale from the PeeWee trenches: Its narrator, Jeff, is a prisoner forced to take part in an experiment to determine whether a drug is capable of generating feelings of love. To prove the hypothesis, Jeff pharmaceutically romances/is romanced by two women, then is asked to choose which of the two will receive a high dose of a Darkenfloxx, a joy-annihilating, potentially fatal drug. This particular Sophie’s Choice is a bust—Jeff could honestly take or leave either woman, so neither gets chosen. But the stakes get raised: The prison’s minders decide a better proof-of-concept would be to dose the women anyway, then record Jeff’s reaction.

Small wonder the story didn’t work out as a novel, as Saunders told the New Yorker. (“I had written many, many pages of a draft ["A novel," I was thinking, all last summer, finally my novel!"] in which Jeff escaped, and it became a story about him hiding down in the town. But it didn’t really have much life in it.”) In imagining a environment where authority figures are concerned about “underloving or overloving,” Saunders has written a cousin to stories like “Harrison Bergeron”, in which the urge to keep a society even-keeled leads to all manner of cruelty and oppression. But Saunders has at least two new tricks up his sleeve. The first, as usual for him, is his tinkering with language—though “Spiderhead” isn’t as playful as another recent good-versus-evil story of his, “Victory Lap,” it captures Jeff’s joy as he rides the wave of Verbulace, a drug that makes him emotionally and rhetorically expansive (“…a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing…”), then falls dumb and simple as the drug wears off and Saunders yanks the leash (“Lunch came in. On a tray. Spaghetti with chicken chunks.” “Our talking became less excellent.”). And by setting the story in such a drab, institutional place, Saunders knows each image becomes almost absurdly vivid—none better than a fellow prisoner’s tattoo of a stabbed rat stabbing a rat.

The second trick is a little more devious: Saunders is asking the reader to make the same kind of choice that Jeff is compelled to. In the same way that Jeff is eventually told about the less-than-charming traits of the two women he artificially fell for, then asked to recalibrate his feelings toward them, Saunders delays telling us about Jeff’s “fateful night”—the reason he’s in prison—until near the end of the story. How much judgment can we throw down on a narrator who’s shown us such a good time before then? How can we begrudge the guy the urge to express the same kind of free will that we get to casually bring to reading a short story in a magazine? We root for him: story itself is roughly analogous to the love drug that got Jeff into this mess in the first place. “Spiderhead” would be harder to pull off in the third person—we have to be invested in Jeff to care about his concerns about freedom and control. Those themes are dangerous turf for fiction writers: Stories like this get easily co-opted as political fables (not for nothing did the National Review decide to reprint “Harrison Bergeron” in 1965). But Saunders isn’t that didactic and, well, un-fun; he makes sure to keep our focus on the “I” (Jeff) in prison, not the “we” who put him there and debases him.

Links: Generosity

Gary Shteyngart: “Nobody wants to read a book but everybody wants to write one. Reading requires an act of empathy, really. What you’re doing when you’re reading a book is saying, I’m going to turn off who I am for a little bit, and I’m going to enter the personality of another human being. Reading is a very generous act, but it’s a very helpful act if you really want to understand what another person is like.”

On making a film version of Winesburg, Ohio with a contemporary setting and all-black cast.

D.G. Myers deems Kurt Vonnegut unfit for the Library of America, largely because of his “sentimental moralism.” I read and enjoyed most of Vonnegut’s books in high school but haven’t revisited them—maybe sentimental moralism means more when you’re a kid. Same probably goes for J.D. Salinger. But it’s still hard to for me to dismiss Vonnegut as easily as Myers does, because Vonnegut had such a strong influence on other writers—Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer most prominently. Neither makes my short list of great living American writers, but that’s just me—the point is that Vonnegut still insinuates himself into fiction in ways that, say, Salinger, never does now. Which is at least one justification for including Vonnegut among the country’s “most significant writing.”

Speaking of: In 2006 Vonnegut went on Second Life to do an interview, which was recently unearthed at Mobylives.

Also speaking of: An online repository of academic research on J.D. Salinger.

And, speaking of some more: The Library of America’s own blog on how Willa Cather has been dismissed as too readable and/or too reactionary.

“The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.”

Levi Asher gathers up some news items as proof of Beat culture’s continuing endurance, including a new John Clellon Holmes biography and a film version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kyle Minor‘s suggested reading list for a spring fiction workshop would fill a couple of bookshelves and crush the soul of a young MFA student. But it’s an interesting (mostly) anti-canonical longlist of (mostly) contemporary literature. (On a related note, HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler recently answered a few questions of mine about the site for the National Book Critics Circle “Conversations With Literary Websites” series.)

Jonathan Franzen aces a quiz on birds.

Ernest Hemingway‘s life as told through his guns.

Andrew Ervin (whose debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions, I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) talks about working on the book, and why he’s careful about what he reads when he’s writing.

Binky Urban and Karl Marlantes get big prizes; Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross gets a smaller one, but at least has a good strategy for spending it.

“Sophie’s Choice”: a useful shorthand for “heartbreaking decision,” which is to say it doesn’t apply to figuring out what to cook over the holidays. (via)

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

Links: Sheepish

Elizabeth Strout: “My theory is that most people need to be told what to like because they haven’t been given the confidence from a young age to go ahead with their ideas. Everybody has instincts but they get muted at such a young age. So we get used to being told what to like, what to read, what to think.”

Lionel Shriver claims Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit.

Marilynne Robinson‘s 2009 Terry Lectures on man and religion, which seemed to generate some confusion about what she was on about, will be published next month in the book Absence of Mind. Andrew Sullivan has a quote.

Around for a while, but new to me: A gallery of smartly, provocatively designed book covers from the 1950s to the present. I’m not sure you could get away with that 1969 cover of Kurt Vonnegut‘s Mother Night anymore.

Amy Hempel is the guest editor of the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review, which contains an essay with the intriguing title of “How to Write a Good Sentence: A Manual for Writers Who Know How to Write Correct Sentences.”

On a perhaps related note: Michelle Kerns, who’s doing more than anybody to agitate against book reviewing cliches, is going to start quantifying the problem.

Iguana hunting with Ernest Hemingway.

A visit to Zora Neale Hurston‘s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.

Glenn Beck‘s forthcoming novel imagines America consumed by a civil war. It may not win awards or save publishing, but there’s a good chance it’ll generate a nationwide spike in comment threads full of crazy.

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.

Links: AST Company

Responses to the closing of Kirkus Reviews:

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton on the magazine’s children’s book coverage: “What Kirkus did was to treat books for children and adults the same in the same publication.”

Carolhoda Books editorial director Andrew Karre: “[T]here is no circumstance under which no review would have been preferable” to a negative one.

Washington City Paper‘s Mike Riggs: “[T]he Web is peopled with shit-talkers, and most of them do for free what Kirkus charged money for (bad reviews)…. Kirkus was a check against the site’s near-unregulated comment policy.” I attempted to bestow the acronym AST (“Amazon shit-talker”) in the comment thread to that post, arguing that anonymous reviews on Amazon aren’t cut from the same cloth as Kirkus reviews. (Of course, I have a dog in this hunt, and I’m a former City Paper staffer.) Author Joni Rodgers stepped in to argue that critics who write negative reviews are assholes, I lost it a little, and Rodgers proceeded to modify her argument slightly to say that critics who don’t like a book should just shut up about it. All of which may say something about the value of comment threads. At any rate, Rodgers has expanded on her thinking in a blog post, and though she says nice things about me in it, her arguments about Kirkus and book reviewing are no more fact-based or sensible.

Onward:

For the next five days, you can hear BBC’s radio play of Joshua Ferris‘ novel, And Then We Came to the End.

The London Review of BooksChristopher Tayler, like many critics, figures that Paul Auster hasn’t been the same writer in the past ten years. He has a theory about why.

Technology is destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

In related news, technology is really destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

Need more proof? Andre Aciman‘s son is one of the authors of Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

Heroes of American Literature #19: Lillian Hellman.

Roger Ebert assembles a batch of Charles Bukowski-related videos.

Ray Bradbury‘s best efforts to save a Ventura, California, library failed.

John Updike‘s Rabbit, Run turns 50 next year. The John Updike Society is using the anniversary as an opportunity to launch its first conference next year.

Kurt Vonnegut: “You’ll never make a living at being a writer. Hell you may even die trying. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It’s about grace.”

Links: The Big Tent

The National Book Festival is this Saturday on the National Mall. Enough people have confused me for an expert to ask if I have tips regarding what to do there and how to do it, but my suggestions are all pretty obvious and simple. Bring an umbrella, regardless of what the forecast says; make a point to at least walk through the Pavilion of the States, in which every state has a table plugging its literature (it’s as close at the event will get to promoting small-press books); and get a seat early for the bigger names. (There are probably people already parked for James Patterson.) Lastly, don’t stand in line for those C-SPAN tote bags; C-SPAN brought plenty, and one must preserve one’s dignity. The lineups are largely big names and self-explanatory, but seek out David A. Taylor, who’ll be discussing his history of the WPA Writers’ Project, Soul of a People; I interviewed Taylor for the blog earlier this year.

Marianne Wiggins‘ list of the best works of American fiction.

John Krasinski discussed his film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men shortly before David Foster Wallace died.

The Wall Street Journal has an excerpt from Look at the Birdie, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished short fiction.

The most powerful influence on David Updike‘s fiction wasn’t his dad—it was Ann Beattie.

The Guardian uses Granta‘s Chicago issue as an opportunity to wonder if the big-city novel is dead.

Mark Twain, animal rights activist.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany, where Mary Gordon may or may not have tried to slug Norman Mailer in the middle of a panel discussion.

Catherine Corman‘s photography book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, which has a preface by Jonathan Lethem, sounds fascinating, and it has a stellar Web site to match.

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.