Category Archives: Lorrie Moore

Links: Gag Rule

Shalom Auslander answers most of the questions in his Q&A with the Rumpus with jokes. Which makes moment when he (more or less) doesn’t, in response to a question about the connection between comedy and morals, interesting: “Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny)…. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness—its preachiness—and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.” I’m a fan of Hope: A Tragedy, though it deserves a fuller treatment than that linked blurb.

Caitlin Flanagan bids Joan Didion farewell.

Lorrie Moore considers the Roches, who “sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.” (Suzzy Roche has just published a novel.)

Robert McCrum on skimming novels.

Madison Smartt Bell offers a brief survey of New York City in fiction: “I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon.” (Thomas Caplan‘s 1987 novel, Parallelogram, which I hadn’t heard of, sounds interesting—proof, Bell says, “that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book.”

Jonathan Lethem: “Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away. I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.”

“The best rock novels I’ve read are more embodied with rock than overtly about rock.” (Related.)

Darin Strauss on when to start stories, drawing on an assertion by one of his former teachers that “story equals trouble.”

On the New Yorker provocateur Wolcott Gibbs.

Spin magazine is pursuing a Tweet-heavy reviewing strategy. I’m not panicking: It might work for book reviewing if somebody were skilled enough to do it well. As Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts noted in a recent interview, what gets taken away in reviewing is often replaced with something else. What’s changed (maybe) is some of the the economic incentive for long reviewing: “[Y]ou take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure.”

Pico Iyer‘s essay on long sentences has one bum sentence, a short one: “If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us,” he writes. This seems to imply that there was once a time when people didn’t oversimplify debates by reducing them to simple sentences—or a time when people didn’t try to oversell points by inserting them in brocaded ones. If books are shelters from “the bombardment of the moment”—and that’s not all they ought to be—it won’t be the length of the sentences that matter.

Links: Filing Extension

I’ve read David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King but feel at a loss to say anything about it. That’s partly due to its sheer sprawl; the time required to get a grip on it and say something cogent is time I don’t have. But that’s a bit of a lie, because there’s something else, something Robert P. Baird gets at in his essay on how much we can or should connect the text of The Pale King to its author’s suicide. As Baird suggests, a common instinct (and certainly my instinct) is to avoid the matter entirely by indulging in some New Critical close reading, but I’m more resistant than even that—I have an urge to say, screw it, that the whole enterprise of cobbling a novel together from the scraps he left behind was foolishness, and that it would’ve been better if Little, Brown had just released what is now chapter 22, the book’s masterpiece, as a trim, self-contained novella and left the rest for scholars to fight over. Or publish all of it, however large, because, as Baird writes in explaining why Wallace’s afterlife so ties us up in knots, “Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic.”

Karen Russell on Joy Williams‘ dialogue: “Exchanges as doomed and hilarious as those in a Beckett play fill her books. This speech rarely reads like a realistic transcription of the way that ‘normal’ people talk—but it gets at the primitive forces lunging under language.”

Dinaw Mengestu remains unhappy that his second novel, How to Read the Air, is being characterized as an “immigrant novel”: “The characters I’m writing about are Americans, even though they may be immigrants. So for critics to bring in part of my own identity, to say this is part of the novel as well, I find very problematic.”

Kyle Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the way an opening sentence can. (A commenter points to the American Book Review‘s list of the 100 best last lines from novels, in a thread that also includes a good conversation about the last line of As I Lay Dying.)

Much of Lorrie Moore‘s essay on memoirs in the New York Review of Books feels like a series of cheap shots. The very structure suggests it: Here are two well-promoted memoirs about death from major New York publishers, and isn’t it interesting that they are bested by a little self-published book—one that, on the quoted evidence, seems stuffed with cliches and commonplaces. But I keep thinking about what seems at first like the weakest complaint in her review, about Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye: “O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention.” I admire the book, and I don’t see it as losing something for lacking an investigation into Garden State carcinogens. But if we’re to respect memoirs as more than exercises in solipsism—or respect them at all, these days—a second effort to avoid trafficking in what Moore calls the “poetry of bereavement” may be worth the while.

William Maxwell is best known as a New Yorker editor, but he also wrote six novels. William Lychack recalls his correspondence with Maxwell and enthuses about his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Audio of Lydia Davis discussing her translation work.

Audio of Marilynne Robinson on the Old Testament roots of Christian liberalism.

Audio of Don DeLillo on the writer as a “bad citizen.”

George Saunders: “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.”

Robert Gottlieb on how important editors are to writers: “Whether you’re a good editor or a bad editor or a non-editor, it doesn’t matter: You represent the crucial reading. Yes, his spouse has read it. Yes, her agent has read it. But you represent authority, even if you don’t deserve it. You also represent money. And if you have a decent reputation, a writer wants to know what a person with a decent reputation thinks. And of course, if it’s a writer you’ve worked with over the years, it’s even more crucial because there’s a visceral connection.”

Back in the Hole

If you’ve already seen The Wire, Lorrie Moore‘s excellent essay on the show in the New York Review of Books won’t tell you much you haven’t already heard or read about it. The essay’s appeal is solely that of a smart, top-shelf writer giving her attention to a show that does a lot to get a smart writer’s brain working, and she gets a few great lines in: “Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore” nails it. (The only apparent reason for the NYRB to take on The Wire now, even though it ended its run in 2008, is the appearance late last year of a collection of scholarly essays about the show, though there’s little evidence in the essay that Moore read more than the table of contents.) But if there’s anybody’s left who needs convincing of the novelistic qualities of the show, the essay should help settle matters. The show, she suggests, isn’t just “novelistic,” but a forceful attempt to expand what we consider “novelistic” today in terms of who gets to be written about in literary fiction:

The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

This shades close to Walter Benn Michaelsfuming about how American literature hasn’t produced a great novel about the income gap. But Moore doesn’t dwell on the show’s politics within literature, just its power as a narrative—how it is, as she writes, “arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.”

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.”

“To Their Parents!”

I’m holding off on posting my best-books-of-2009 list for another week because I’m actually getting paid to compile one this year. (Here’s a hint about one of the entries.) But right now I could do up a pretty satisfying list of best non-2009 books I read in the past 12 months: Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings, Saul Bellow‘s Herzog, Henry JamesThe American, David GoodisBlack Friday, Flannery O’Connor‘s Wise Blood, Ward Just‘s In the City of Fear, and, especially, Lorrie Moore‘s Self-Help. Maybe Herzog was better and more ambitious, but with Bellow I had a sense of what I was in for; with Moore I was left with the very palpable sense of embarrassment that comes with realizing you missed the boat a long time ago.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t meant I’ve had the opportunity to read A Gate at the Stairs, let alone the rest of Moore’s books. For the time being I compensate by reading interviews with Moore, which have a lot of the snap, emotion, and well-earned sarcasm I admired in Self-Help. In a profile in the Chicago Tribune, she cuts loose on her writing students and the need for fiction to be transgressive:

[T]hey don’t feel the transgressive nature of literature yet. Especially undergrads. They worry about offending people, and that’s fine. They don’t want to upset people. They show their writing to their parents. To their parents! I say, ‘OK, Becky, now write something you wouldn’t show your parents.’ Becky says, ‘I couldn’t!’ But, see — they’re nice kids.

And she closes by wondering whether the Midwest has lost any of the qualities that inspired her in the first place:

[T]here’s a sameness that’s sweeping the country. The Midwest is losing whatever made it so foreign. The South — same thing. I wrote a lot from that dislocation. Someone’s visiting, and there’s disruption. It’s a classic story construction, and maybe there’s just less of a reason for it now.

The whole profile is worth a read, including comments from New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and Moore’s editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, as well as more from Moore herself.

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: 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.

Roundup: Strange Cargo

Edward P. Jones still isn’t working on another novel. After a reading at Boston University last month (video here, which also features Catherine Tudish and Ha Jin), he told the audience, “even if I were, it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing. It’s like you’re pregnant, and somebody talks about the future of your child, at 5, at 10, at 15, but all you’re hoping for is happiness and health. You can’t think much beyond that.”

I hadn’t heard about the Kinky Friedman precedent until I read an interview with Jonathan Miles in USA Today. Miles talks about his new novel, Dear American Airlines, which didn’t get much static from the carrier thanks to Friedman’s Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. Not that he wasn’t concerned: “American seems euphonious and iconic,” he says. “‘Dear JetBlue’ doesn’t work as well.”

Blogging from the Hay Festival, John Freeman notes that Lorrie Moore was asked by an audience member whether the United States is more receptive to short-story writers. Jhumpa Lahiri comes in handy in answering that question these days:

America has annual anthologies, such as the Best American Short Stories, which regularly sell over 100,000 copies a year, as well as prizes for stories and workshops galore. Occasionally a collection strikes a cord and people buy it. Ethan Canin’s The Emperor of Air was a bestseller, as was Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” which is tremendous, debuted on the “New York Times” list at number one (you can read an extract here).

Lahiri’s phenomenal success in the form is still, of course, an aberration. In response to the publisher’s question from the audience, Moore ultimately argued that Lahiri’s book of stories was such a phenomenal success because the publisher believed in it (and because it’s also a very good book).

New in 2008: Love

Maybe it’s just that we’re sick of all the war stories we didn’t bother seeing in theaters anyway, and tired of paging through stacks of Iraq/al Qaeda/failures-of-the-Bush-administration tomes that have arrived in the past year. I know I’ll need one more example here to argue for a trend, but I have two books in hand collecting top-shelf literary writers on the topic of love. Last week I received a copy of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance, in which writers reimagine the love letter. Among the participants: David Bezmozgis, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Audrey Niffenegger.

And today, Very Short List (a daily e-mail I’ve found very addictive, spot-on as it often is in its recommendations) is pushing My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, a collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sez VSL:

This handsome new anthology contains 26 exhilarating and heartache-producing love stories written by familiar masters (Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov) as well as some new ones (Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, Eileen Chang). From the early-adolescent longing in Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” to the crushing choices made in Alice Munro‘s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (the basis for last year’s film Away From Her), each tale chips away at the mysteries of the human heart.

That’s some purple prose there. But the book is for a good cause: Proceeds benefit literacy nonprofit 826 Chicago.