Category Archives: Matthew Sharpe

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.”

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.