Category Archives: Marilynne Robinson

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: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.

A Sense of Where You Are

“For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels,” writes D.G. Myers, lamenting the death of regionalism in American fiction. Myers lays the blame for all that sprawl on writing workshops, though it could just as easily say something about how the explosion of information in the past two generations has broadened writers’ horizons; if nothing else, the research is now easier. I’d also figured that writers’ breadth of interests, geographic or otherwise, mainly reflected the fact that Americans in general have become much more mobile in the past 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t actually the case; a majority of Americans haven’t moved from the state in which they grew up, and a majority of those people—more than a third of the U.S. population—have never moved from their hometown.

Of course, writers are different from the rest of us, and many successful ones will likely have to at least consider leaving town and finding a perch in academia. If that means we have a generation of writers who are promiscuous about place, so be it—I’m not convinced Michael Chabon would be a better writer if he’d ditched his MFA program and decided to focus exclusively on writing about hometown of Columbia, Maryland. But Myers’ post does make me realize that regionalist writers in recent years are hard to come by, and even then they tend not to stick around long. Adam Langer, the last great hope for the great Chicago novelist (or at least the most recent great hope) wrote two sprawling novels about the city and then shifted his focus to New York; Stuart Dybek, the great Chicago hope who preceded him, is now in Michigan.

Being a regionalist writer today seems to mess with your productivity; time was, William Faulkner could write a steady stream of novels and stories about Yoknapatawpha County, but now Marilynne Robinson has a long career with only three novels to show for it. And Edward P. Jones—the name that springs quickest to mind when I think of great contemporary regionalist writers—takes his time as well. Perhaps it’s less stressful to be a polymath with an MFA than a writer interested in the details of a particular place.

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.

Paul Harding’s Conversion

I haven’t read Paul Harding‘s debut novel, Tinkers, and I have only the vaguest memory of the band he used to play drums for, Cold Water Flat. (I want to say I saw them open for, say, Buffalo Tom, back in 1995, but I was going to three or four shows a week back then, and much of that period is now a blur.) But I found his interview with Bookslut interesting on a number of levels. So few musicians seem to successfully make the shift to fiction (Wesley Stace, Nick Cave, and Willy Vlautin being a few exceptions that prove the rule), but Harding also took the matter seriously, studying at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa with Marilynne Robinson. A strong sense of discipline comes through reading the interview with Harding, especially when it comes to reading: By knowing Robinson, he began devouring theology books that seem to inform Tinkers, though it’s not a book about religion:

[I'm read a lot of theology] [p]artially because of my friendship with Marilynne Robinson. Probably practically speaking that’s why I started. The thing that sustains me is the quality of the theological writing that I read. I grew up kind of an off-handed atheist. A middle class white boy charging around with my copy of Good and Evil, and I never really thought about [religion] until I’d been Marilynne Robinson’s student for some time. It occurred to me one day that this writer I admired was also one of the most profoundly religious people I’ve ever come across. I thought there can’t be a complete disconnect. She’s very much identified with Calvin, so I read a lot of Calvin, and then I started reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I’ve just been doggedly chewing on the Church Dogmatics for the past five years. It’s gratifying on every single level that you could want as a writer of fiction, as a person who contemplates. It’s just some of the most vigorous, consistently world class thinking and writing. It absolutely helps me with my own fiction writing.

Robinson blurbed Tinkers, which certainly helped the novel, published by the indie Bellvue Literary Press, get some attention. But it also helped that the publisher bent over backwards to help booksellers get the word out, as Pat Holt detailed back in March. Lise Solomon, a sales rep for the book distributor Consortium, told Holt:

“The buyer at Book Passage in Marin County loved ‘Tinkers’ so much that she asked if there was any way Bellevue could print a hardcover edition for the store’s First Edition Club. The publisher did a short run of 500 copies, which sold out quickly, and ended up printing another 500. Then Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (the Northwest rep loves the book, too) asked about selling its own proprietary hardcover edition, too, and Bellevue printed 750 copies that presold out quickly.

“But most stores responded to the trade paperback. They were willing to bring in 4-12 copies of an unknown author from an unknown press.”

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.

Building Strawmen With Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a perfect fit for Yale’s Terry Lectures, in which writers, philosophers, and scientists speak about the intersection of science and religion. Few American writers of recent vintage engage with religion with as much depth and sincerity as Robinson—even a lesser novel like last year’s Home is miles ahead of other writers on the subject. Still, on the evidence of the Yale Daily Newsstory on her first lecture, she wasn’t making her arguments particularly clear. The paper reports:

In the first talk of the four-part 2009 Dwight H. Terry lecture series, Robinson dismissed the notion that humans have reached a stage where they have fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, an idea she called the “crossing of the threshold.”

Hands up: Who makes the argument that we have unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, or believes in anybody who says so? After coming down hard on a line of thought that nobody believes in anyway, she goes on:

Robinson also found fault with the tendency of academics to take the “intellectual high ground” and dismiss the belief systems of seemingly primitive societies. “Religion is a point of entry for anthropological inquiries whose intents are largely invidious,” Robinson said. “But that ancient religions contemplated cosmic origins should instill awe at what humans are, the mind is.”

Again, it’s hard to imagine that academics are so cavalier in their thinking about ancient/primitive/non-Western societies. If Robinson believes that the very act of an anthropological inquiry is “invidious,” she’s making a broad-brush and hard-to-respect dismissal of an entire academic discipline; if she had evidence of a particularly invidious recent anthropological pursuit, hopefully she actually cited and discussed it. Of course, it’s hard to make too much of this without seeing the text of the actual lecture, and I’m aware that all of this is being run through the filter of a college journalist on deadline. Plus, apparently the talk was a little dense: As one student told the News, “At times it seemed somewhat impenetrable.”

Update, March 29: Videos of the first two lectures are now online.

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

Won’t Somebody Please, Please Think of the Children?

D.G. Myers, who for my money runs one of the best new(ish) litblogs going, recently spent a little time with the question of whether American literature has something of a family problem—he argues that there’s a lack of fiction that addresses parenthood, especially motherhood. The problem, he suggests, may lie with the backgrounds of writers themselves, and to give something of a scientific imprimatur to his musings, he looks at the the authors featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1914-1945) and discovers: “Forty-nine children born of thirty-seven writers—a child-to-writer ratio of 1.32, the fertility rate of a former Soviet Bloc country.”

One problem—heck, let’s call it sample bias—is immediately apparent. By drawing the line at 1945, Myers is neglecting writers who came into prominence after World War II, and might presumably have been having children during the largest burst of fertility in the country—the Baby Boom. John Updike had four children. John Cheever had three. Raymond Carver had two. Michael Chabon has four kids. Female authors? Louise Erdrich: three children by marriage, three by adoption. Marilynne Robinson had two children. Maxine Hong Kingston has one child, as does Alice Walker—though, famously in that case, mom and daughter don’t get along.

Of course, it’s best not to obsess too much over this: I’m being just as selective as Myers is, and there are plenty of childless authors in the postwar era (DeLillo, Roth, Cisneros, Welty, etc). And it wouldn’t change his central concern about “how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing.” There are plenty of families in American literature, he figures—they’re just a lot like the Snopes clan, or the Portnoy family.

Tolstoy’s riff on happy families comes in handy here—it may simply be that normal family life doesn’t make for interesting fiction, in the same way that the workplace rarely does. Though I’m happy that my family life in no way resembles, say, Russell BanksAffliction, that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the book. Ordinary family life makes it into plenty of novels and stories, though that ordinariness can make critics skittish—the chief (and I think wrongheaded) complaint about Ha Jin‘s A Free Life was that it didn’t do much but cover relatively mundane domestic matters. The real trick is to cover those mundane bits of family life in a way that has depth and intelligence; the young mother in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong comes to mind, as does the aging father in Robinson’s Gilead. Whether or not this country has a “low-fertility-rate literature”, as Myers writes, the fact is it hasn’t neglected stories about families—it’s just that the wisest writers seem to know how sizable a task it is to write about them honestly and well.

Field Reports, East, West, and Midwest

Mark Sarvas caught Marilynne Robinson discussing her new novel, Home, at the Los Angeles Public Library last night. My favorite of her comments that evening: “I don’t like plot very much—please contain your surprise. … It becomes a big machine that carries everything after it.” Sarvas also shot a brief video of Robinson reading from Home:

Yesterday New York University hosted a memorial for David Foster Wallace attended by fellow writers, publishers, editors, and agents, including Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders. Sarah Weinman has a thoughtful summary of the event in which she expresses some reasonable concern about the whole thing being overdone. “Every time letters were mentioned or read from, I projected to the inevitable book containing DFW’s edited correspondence,” she writes. “There are public memorials slated for Vancouver, Arizona and probably many other places. But how much is too much? When does group memorial stop being genuine and start being disingenuous?”

On a different note: My current object of book lust is University of Chicago Press’ forthcoming The Chicagoan, a lengthy, extended tribute to a short-lived Jazz Age cultural magazine of the same name. The PDF sampler of some of the magazine’s pages floored me—the magazine’s model is clearly the New Yorker, but there’s plenty of evidence that its makers knew they were in a working-class town, even if the target audience was the folks in charge. (H/T Pete Lit)