Category Archives: Lionel Shriver

Some Housekeeping Notes

1. Ron Slate, who runs the thoughtful blog Above the Seawall, invited me and 11 other writers to recommend a recent work of fiction. I wrote about Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, The New Republic, which you may have heard is not new—she tabled the book for more than a decade, and many critics have dinged it for growing musty in that time. Me too. But it would be unfortunate if the novel simply became “that novel about journalism and terrorism back then that doesn’t have anything to say about journalism and terrorism right now.” A snip:

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism resembles less Islamic radicalism than Irish republicanism; the SOBs and its semilegitimate political wing, O Crème de Barbear (referred to with the intentionally revolting term the Creamies) evoke the IRA and Sinn Fein. And even the most cynical, seen-it-all reporter would have a hard time embracing Shriver’s argument that the media perpetuates terrorism as a kind of act of job preservation. The New Republic is an artifact from a time when we could look at both journalism and terrorism more callously — as if the former would always be there and the latter might affect us, but not too terribly much.

Yet personality crises never get old, and the novel’s strength is in Edgar’s character reinvention, his reckoning with second selves past and present. We’re reminded often that Kellogg was the stereotypical fat kid as child, until he obsessively pursued a fitness regimen upon which his sense of confidence hinges. It’s a shallow way to frame your sense of well being, and Edgar will slowly grow aware of that. But he also knows that perception is often reality: “[P]eople will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one.”

2. If you’re in the D.C. area, on Saturday, April 21, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, where I’ll be interviewing novelist Howard Norman about his work. I highly recommend his 1994 novel, The Bird Artist, and I hope we’ll touch on his most recent novel, What Is Left the Daughter, as well as his forthcoming memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. (I wrote a bit about Norman here last May.)

3. The following day, April 22, I’ll be at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, taking part in a panel about “The Future of the Book Review.” Yes, it has one. I’ll be joined by Washington Post reviewer Dennis Drabelle and biographer David O. Stewart, founder of the new-ish literary website, the Washington Independent Review of Books. Hope to see you there.

Links: A Familiar Story

My first thought when I began reading this article about how literary experimentation has been abandoned in favor of plot was Tom McCarthy‘s C. John Lucas then mentions the book, only to assign it the role of an exception that proves the rule. But isn’t that just as true of William GaddisThe Recognitions, the novel that inspired the article in the first place?

Related: Gravity’s Rainbow was exceptional enough to be rejected by Pulitzer Prize board despite the strong support of the fiction committee. Charles Johnson riffs on that and a few other problems, particularly involving race, with that prize.

Also related: “[R]egardless of the pleasures afforded by novels, was there ever a time when most readers turned to them for a refined aesthetic experience rather than the narrative?”

A fine essay on the unlucky life of writer Allan Seager, author of the much-borrowed short story “The Street.” (via)

Reasons to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film version of Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“The top 80% of all published stories in the [Best American Short Stories] 2005 through 2010 as well as notable stories mentioned in the back pages came from the same 42 journals.”

Colson Whitehead: “The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well.” (via)

Connecting the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case with Dinaw Mengestu‘s 2010 novel, How to Read the Air. (Lloyd Jones‘ very good forthcoming novel, Hand Me Down World, hits at some similar themes as well.)

Patrick Kurp on the virtues of reading widely.

“[T]he book review will undoubtedly survive. So will screeds against it, which is only fair: our age is one of constant comment, and the book review must take its lumps as stoically as the books in its pages do.”

On William Burroughs‘ ongoing ill will toward Truman Capote. (via)

A novelist-psychologist argues that “the more fiction you read, the better you are… at understanding other people.”

Lastly, if you’re in the D.C. area, tomorrow marks the very first Indie Lit City Summit, an all-day gathering of indie presses, magazines, and other literary folk from the D.C.-Baltimore region to talk shop and share ideas. The keynote speech will be given by Electric Literature‘s Andy Hunter; more info at the website.

Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

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!

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

Links: For Want of a Blurb…

Novelist Robert Girardi, author of Amelia’s Ghost Madeleine’s Ghost, has run into some bad luck of late and is now working janitorial and maintenance jobs in the D.C. area—though I can only work up so much sympathy for a guy who wound up in jail after “he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle [his wife] to the floor.” Girardi fumes that he’s been unfairly neglected by the Washington Post—“You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher”—but there are some problems even a book review can’t solve.

Independent publisher MacAdam/Cage, which seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, is apparently active again, sending out galleys and saying it plans to put out some of the books it had delayed. The MacAdam/Cage website suggests the revival is not yet complete—the homepage is still pushing Brendan Short‘s Dream City, which came out in 2008—but I’m hoping that Jack PendarvisShut Up, Ugly eventually hits shelves.

Southern Methodist University Press isn’t quite saved from the chopping block, but its existence now seems a bit more secure than it did a week ago. Ron Hogan has spent the past week at Beatrice catching up with some of the writers SMU Press publishes.

Annie Proulx sees a bit of her life in Wyoming in the wood sculptures of British artist David Nash.

Lionel Shriver values her life at around $20,000. “They have actually put a literal price on human life in [Britain]; it is worth $15,000 a year… I thought that was a little on the low side. If it were a matter of my life I might throw in an extra five grand.”

Julia Keller sounds a dissenting note about Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, advocating instead for Susan Fromberg Schaeffer‘s 1989 novel, Buffalo Afternoon.

John Waters has some suggestions for a high-school reading list; his heart is in the right place, though it’s doubtful he’d get much teaching work. “You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about ‘The Life of Benjamin Franklin'; I wanted to read ‘Naked Lunch.’

If Curtis Sittenfeld is going set a book in Wisconsin, shouldn’t she know better than to use a non-word like “Wisconsonian”?

John Updike‘s typewriter will be auctioned next month. A study of the ribbon reveals that he used the machine to inform his typist that “her services will no longer be needed because he purchased a word processor.”

Links: Boy Meets Tractor

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

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

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

Are vampire novels dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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