Category Archives: Michael Cunningham

#fictionpulitzergate

“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—’Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others,” she writes. “In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.” But hang on: Juries and judging panels, in my experience, don’t reach a deadlock because they’re disinterested. It happens because something was in dispute. It may be that the Pulitzer board doesn’t care much about fiction in general, but they were charged with caring about three works of it, and for the sake of literary discussion—if not sales—it would have been interesting to hear what the squabbling was about. That’s the other grating thing—a prominent group of people had some kind of disagreement about what qualifies as a good work of fiction, but we didn’t get to find out what they disagreed about.

And because board deliberations are secret, we’ll likely never know. Maybe the Pulitzer bylaws could be tweaked in some way to force the issue. In the case of a no-decision in any category, the board shall be obligated to release a statement detailing the nature of its disagreement—a fate so godawful that the board will select a winner just to avoid it.

Me, I thought The Pale King and Swamplandia! were both interesting but flawed novels, and Train Dreams remains, as it has been for a while, one of the countless novels I hope to get to soon. Like Janice Harayda, I would have liked to have seen Steven Millhauser‘s magisterial, elegant, and strange short-story omnibus, We Others, capture the Pulitzer’s attention. It would have been nice: It would have made a few people ask, “Is this really the best thing out there?” and I could’ve said, yes, it’s pretty close.

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976′s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983′s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for aarp.org; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

An Almost Autistic Insistence

I haven’t kept up with Michael Cunningham since The Hours—which I didn’t like as much as A Home at the End of the World—but the reviews of his new novel about a New York art dealer, By Nightfall, seem positive enough that I’d like to get to it. In an interview with Artinfo (via), he discusses his own early efforts to make it in the art world, and how they led him to writing:

I started writing as something to do that wasn’t painting. I didn’t necessarily feel that I was hugely gifted as a writer, but I did find that I had a much different, and more urgent, level of interest in the process: the fundamental question of trying to produce something like life using only language, using only ink and paper. I’ve actually come to suspect that what we call talent is a real thing, but it is probably closely related to some other capacity to just focus and focus and focus and focus and focus, and just keep at it until you finally produce a decent painting or a paragraph worth reading. And I found that, for writing, I had this almost autistic insistence that I couldn’t quite muster for painting.

Cunningham expanded on that obsessiveness in a New York Times essay: “Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write,” he writes. “It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction.” (Mark Sarvas of the happily resuscitated The Elegant Variation discusses a few problems with the piece overall.)

Coping Strategies

Steve Almond wasn’t included in the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ issue, and he’s candid enough to know that the fact that he was too old to make the cut offers little comfort. “[T]oo often, we turn on each other,” he writes. “Particularly when a Big Daddy like the New Yorker singles out his most talented children for praise. The rest of us are left feeling we’re doomed to obscurity, that these 20 hot young thangs are going to suck up every bit of cultural oxygen that exists for fiction writers.”

Almond’s advice for getting past those petty feelings of jealousy is sensible: “Forget about the other guy. Remember who you are.” Which is nice if you’re just trying to get past being ignored by the New Yorker. If you still want to be published by the magazine, stubborn persistence is in order. Recently, at a writer’s conference in Homer, Alaska, Michael Cunningham discussed spending ten years collecting rejections from the magazine before finally breaking through, largely because the “man in charge of rejecting me” moved on. “You have to be patient enough to out-wait these people,” he said. “One day, there will be a change in staff or a change in the weather, and some magazine will buy your story.”

Links: Installment Plan

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegel argues that we are no longer living in an “episodic” era for fiction, stories more about events than transformations featuring Huck Finn and Augie March. We are now, somewhat unfortunately, living in the “narrative” era, where we crave closure and emotional growth in our characters. This is, of course, all 9/11′s fault. Arguments to contrary will abound, I’m sure—hasn’t popular fiction always been “narrative,” and aren’t most satirical fiction writers today (George Saunders, etc) dealing in “episodic” fiction, as comic writers always have? Somebody organize a conference!

Speaking of: The International Conference of Mark Twain Studies is going on now in Elmira, New York. According to the video, discussions of cats and studious beard grooming are on offer.

A lovely collection of Rockwell Kent‘s illustrations for Moby-Dick.

Constance Fenimore Woolson sold more books in her time than her would-be beloved, Henry James, but James got global fame and a bust in the National Portrait Gallery; Woolson gets a plaque on Mackinac Island.

The Bud Billikin parade is this weekend, which may mean nothing to anybody reading this outside of Chicago. But it’s a big deal there—a South Side to-do launched to get the kids excited to go back to school, and the brainchild of novelist Willard Motley, considered “the most prolific novelist associated with the concluding years of the Black Chicago Renaissance.”

Rick Moody listens to music while writing, but no lyrics please: “He has a fondness for ‘experimental or serious music that doesn’t have lyrics.’ For him, this includes music by La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Arthur Russell and Rhys Chatham.”

In addition to writing a new novel and a horror movie, Michael Cunningham is working on the screenplay to a Dusty Springfield biopic.

Larry McMurtry is pretty much done: “I’m about at the end of it. I can write certain things. I don’t think I can write fiction any more. I think I’ve used it up over 30 novels. That’s a lot of novels.”

Budd Schulberg—novelist (What Makes Sammy Run?), screenwriter (On the Waterfront), and Papa’s sparring partner—died this week at 95.

And PopMatters draws a few interesting connections between manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Raymond Carver.

Roundup: Great Plains Drifter

  • Laurie Muchnick, writing at Bloomberg News, has a guide to some recent Brooklyn lit.
  • Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff nicely ties–coils, even–together the multiple authors who’ve obsessed over Nikola Tesla.
  • Kent Haruf (Plainsong) and photographer Peter Brown discuss their book about the Great Plains, West of Last Chance, at the Rocky Mountain News. (The Photo-Eye Web site has some sample images, which call to mind Richard Misrach‘s dusty western landscapes, though Brown’s photos of people are compelling as well.)
  • If you’re in Mississippi next weekend, the Oxford Conference for the Book has an interesting lineup of readings. The conference theme is the work of Zora Neale Hurston, though the schedule looks to be wide-ranging–the Jack Pendarvis-Susan Choi reading in particular looks like fun.
  • Michael Cunningham isn’t interested in what Michiko Kakutani has to say: “I don’t read that shit. Any of it. The good reviews or the bad,” he told an audience at Boston’s Northeastern University. “The bad ones feel like they’re true and the good ones feel like you just fooled that one reviewer.” (Kakutani said that Cunningham’s 2005 novella collection, Specimen Days, “reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise….nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.”)

Lesson: It’s Perfectly OK to Steal Your Mom’s Pack of Kents

Old news to many fans of The Hours, I’m sure, but news to me: Michael Cunningham explains how he came to read Virginia Woolf in the first place.

We lived in Pasadena [Calif.]. I seemed to be growing up to be sort of a skateboard kid. I wasn’t opposed to books — I thought they were fine, but I wasn’t especially interested in them.

One day, when I was a sophomore, I was having a cigarette, in a dusty little section between buildings. I was 15, smoking a Kent stolen out of my mother’s purse, trying to look as dangerous as possible.

I was standing next to this girl, a senior I can only describe as the Pirate Queen of my high school – every high school has one: tough, beautiful, sarcastic, impossibly cool. I, being more ambitious than realistic, started talking to her. I started talking about Bob Dylan vs. Leonard Co hen, that Cohen was undervalued, and she looked down at me and said, “Have you ever thought of being less stupid?”

I had, but I was happy with the stupid I was. She asked, “Why don’t you read a book? Have you even heard of T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf?”

Later on, I went to the school library, a Band-Aid-colored trailer, and there was no Eliot and one Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway,” and that was the one I checked out. I couldn’t make sense of it or tell what was going on, but I could see the beauty and clarity and muscularity of those sentences. I had never seen writing like that. It never occurred to me that you could do with words what Jimi Hendrix did in music.

“Mrs. Dalloway” made me a reader, turned on a little light bulb in my head. . . . I’ve come to think that most of us had a first book, not necessarily a great book, that cracks the world open for us.