Category Archives: Lydia Davis

Links: This Is Just to Say

Aleksandar Hemon‘s “The Aquarium” is one of the most powerful, heart-in-the-throat pieces of magazine nonfiction I’ve read this side of Gary Smith‘s “Higher Education.” Amelia Atlas is of a similar mind about it, and she thoughtfully explores Hemon’s discussion of the nature of storytelling and how he proposes “an avenue for thinking about the relationship between literature and cognition that doesn’t compromise human expressivity.”

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway‘s suicide. His hometown is stepping lightly around it.

What are your favorite tricks in literature?

An excellent post by Caleb Crain on giving up on a novel: “I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters…. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was.” There’s something to this: Even if you’re reading critically, a novel that works works best when you’re easily immersed in it. If you’re feeling too compelled to apply real-world analysis to a story while you’re reading, the author is probably doing something wrong. (If I’m particularly sucked in by a book, I usually just highlight passages while I’m reading—doing the work of figuring out what I saw in those highlighted passages, and by extension the whole book, generally comes after the fact.)

On Fanny Fern, a witty satirist of relationships between husbands and wives in the mid-1850s—a talent that was all the more striking given her horrendous marriage.

Three unpublished letters from Margaret Mitchell.

Couldn’t agree more with this line from Ruth Franklin‘s essay on why gay marriage hasn’t gotten more attention in literature: “The affair between two men in Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, to give one particularly graphic example, is one of the most moving depictions of obsessive passion in recent writing.”

A rant from Michael Dirda on the evils of bestseller lists, though I suspect he’s overstating the degree to which readers take direct guidance on what to read next by consulting lists.

Tom Nissley gathers up some great moments of dialogue in literature; I’m a fan of the same passage of Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask he quotes.

I’ve been reading a forthcoming biography of William Carlos Williams, who often struggled to balance his dual lives as a poet and physician. Publicly he’d claim his practice energized his poetry, and it certainly gave him the opportunity to know the working-class people who featured in works like Paterson; privately, though, he despaired over his poems and having the time to write them. So the thoughts of novelist-doctor Chris Adrian on the matter are of interest: “[T]here’s something nice about getting to go to a day job where there are concrete expectations of you and concrete things to be done that generally are helpful to other people, whether that’s something as complicated as organizing a course of treatment for a child with cancer or just writing an antibiotic prescription for an ear infection. But it doesn’t take much time spent in either world to want to go back to the other.”

On making a documentary on Nelson Algren.

Visiting the sites of Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (via). And revisiting his unfinished novel Unanswered Prayers.

In praise of Lydia Davis‘ new chapbook, The Cows.

Dorothy Parker: “ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS.

A middle-school principal’s commencement speech reportedly had a lot in common with David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech. But then, Wallace and Tolstoy had a little in common.

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.”

Links: Speaking Terms

Cormac McCarthy on working with scientists in his role as writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute: “I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.” (via)

Peter Mountford‘s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, centers on a duplicitous, craven low-level hedge-fund employee. It was apparently a tough sell: “An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made.” It’s a good first novel; review forthcoming.

“‘What a phenomenon people are!’ exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. ‘If you meet—if you really meet a person, how interesting.'”

The Civil War deeply influenced American literature, even if there is no great Civil War novel, writes Craig Fehrman. Plus, an interesting sidebar on photography and Nathaniel Hawthorne at Fehrman’s blog.

“Big wet sky of the republic over the big wet land”: Nelson Algren‘s poetry.

A member of the committee that gives the Nobel Prize in literature says that Horace Engdahl‘s 2008 comments about “insular” Americans was taken out of context. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America,” says Kjell Espmark.

Lynne Tillman, whose new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, I’m enjoying, chats with Lydia Davis. The interview is focused on her 2006 novel, American Genius, but much of what she says about the use of autobiographical material applies to the new book: “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.” (via)

An excellent piece on New York novels by Tom LeClair, who’s concerned about the future of the form: “I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism.”

“No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris.”

Walter Mosley‘s Devil in a Blue Dress conjures up the tone and style of much older hard-boiled detective fiction—which, for Rohan Maitzen, makes it a bit less appealing.

“[I]n the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story.” A few examples to the contrary follow. (via)

A report from a reading by E.L. Doctorow at the George Washington University:

“How much of what you write is true?” called a voice from the crowd.
“Does it sound true?” replied Doctorow.
“Well, yes.”
“Then it is true.”

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

The Sway of Forward Progress

David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto is an inspirational book, the kind of extended piece of criticism that is so passionate about its argument and so clever in its execution that it’s hard to resist letting your feelings rise up to match his. Yes, yes, up with mashups! Down with traditional novelistic structures! Away with the notion that fiction can create a reality that substantially differs from the reality of the author who created the fiction in the first place! “The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama,” Shields writes in one of the 600-odd paragraphs that is in fact his and not repurposed from another source*. His argument is that the clearest, most intriguing literary works foreground the author and the things from which he stole—and that the author is now compelled to do this foregrounding thanks to the upheavals in other forms of culture. There’s no better proof that the strategy can succeed than the existence of Reality Hunger itself. After all that talk about the death of the author, it’s nice to see somebody argue for the life of it.

But—and there’s always a but, because if history teaches us anything it’s that it’s best not to reflexively embrace everything with the word “manifesto” in the title—one problem with Reality Hunger is that Shields is better at venting his exasperation with traditional narrative structures than he is at showing why, exactly, they fail. “If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting,” he writes, “I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of forward progress.” Even if I resist my instinct to write this behavior as poseurish nonsense, Shields doesn’t address what benefits he might derive from such a backwards reading. And though twice he voices his enthusiasm for Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat as an example of the kind of anti-narrative, anti-“realistic” novel he aches for, he dwells little on what in its structure (or lack of it) inspires him so.

Of course, spending time discussing rules for successful anti-fiction would be programmatic and thus run counter to his intentions—it’s going to have to be enough to say that what works is anything that helps the reader avoid that “sway of forward progress.” Shields knows that this kind of writing is nothing new—his inspirations go back to Borges and encompasses Spalding Gray, Art Spiegelman, Lydia Davis, and more. Wherever memoir and fiction merge is where he wants to be, and whatever rejects the traditional satisfactions of storytelling is where the author can truly be found. “You don’t need a story,” he writes. “The question is How long do you not need a story?

Well, apparently you can’t go on too long before a story is what you want. Speedboat (which I haven’t read) is less than 200 pages long. Davis’ “French Lesson I: La Meurtre,” to pick one of many great stories of hers that dismantle narrative expectations, would wear out its welcome at more than seven pages. Gilbert Sorrentino’s beguiling A Strange Commonplace, works primarily because it bounces brief chapter against brief chapter—were it longer, the reader would be less compelled to do follow that bouncing. Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren’s slim prose poem on his native city is an impressionistic, personalized, mashed-up snapshot that captures a lot of the city but gets in and out quickly—certainly much faster than Mike Royko’s Boss (untrustworthy reportage by Sheilds’ thinking) or, say, Adam Langer’s Crossing California (unlikable formal novelistic narrative that’s chock-full of forward progress.)

The mash-up, the collage, the remix—this is the stuff of the future, and this is the stuff that Shields’ great fiction of the future must embrace. More Davis and Sorrentino, less Langer and Franzen. It will be brief, it won’t pretend to hide the author, and in its formal invention it will resist all efforts to assimiliate it. Yesterday, thinking of a good shorthand for Shields’ preferences, I thought, “Anything that repels parody,” because something needs to have a structure, or at least some obvious working parts, to be parodied. But then last night I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos**, and one of the segments featured a series of “mash-ups”—embarrassing moments over which the same footage of wailing wedding attendees is superimposed. Somebody trips and falls, here come the wailing ladies; a minor picnic mishap, and the wailing ladies return again. If a cultural movement has grown so powerful that the least intellectually challenging show on network television can make something simple of it, it may not be an especially powerful method of experimentation.

That’s not to say that Shields is wrong—better there be more interesting fiction experiments than more hackneyed novels with stale plots. Just that people have a powerful capacity to turn yesterday’s innovations into today’s bad habits, which is something Shields never quite addresses. And as more artists break “larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work,” producing more and more of the kind of fiction Shields is agitating for, that kind of fiction might very well become its own cliche.***

* I think he wrote this. An appendix to the book lists all the cases where Shields repurposed text from other sources, but the footnotes seem slightly out of order. At any rate, because one of the tentpoles of the book’s structure is that somebody else’s statements can stand in for your own, it’s not really a problem if I make an attribution error, at least by Shields’ way of thinking.

** Look, my home Internet access is down, OK?

*** The process may be hastening. In April essayist Ander Monson will publish Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an entertaining essay collection that uses strategies similar to Reality Hunger to study memoir at a time when the genre’s factual integrity is increasingly called into question. “Maybe what memoirs offer us is another fiction: that of understanding,” he writes. “By reading memoir we can pretend to comprehend a life.” To show how closely the narrative tools of memoir and fiction merge, Monson fills the book with sections called “assembloirs,” mini-narratives built out of snippets of a few dozen memoirs. In showing how alleged “truth” has an artifice behind it, he ends up constructing small stories that hold together, albeit in oblique ways. Monson and Shields are both skeptical of the Great American Novel (or Memoir), but I don’t think that either would disagree that whatever replaces it is going to have to work very hard to figure out how much or how little it wants to address storytelling’s familiar satisfactions.