Category Archives: Nicholson Baker

The Baker Connection

The new issue of the Quarterly Conversation includes an interesting essay by Barrett Hathcock proposing that Nicholson Baker is a kind of missing link between John Updike and David Foster Wallace. Baker, Hathcock argues, fetishized Updike’s concern with exacting detail, made that detail a fictional destination in itself, and Wallace in turn took that hyperprecision even further. Hathcock admits it’s a bit contrived to try to set the three authors up in a row, and the idea of chronological progression among the three is a bit off—Wallace’s first novel came out a year before Baker’s first novel, so who’s influencing whom here? But there’s some value in knocking the three guys against each other. A little surprisingly, Hathcock finds the clearest distinctions among the three in their nonfiction:

Updike is the great Professional of postwar letters; the man wrote everything with a postal regularity. The lesson of his career seems to be that one ought to be able to do everything all the time. Post-Baker, Wallace also writes nonfiction but does so in a way that dramatizes his unsuitability for the task at hand. Think of Wallace in “Up, Simba,” slowly scanning the political tour bus and positioning himself as anything but a professional journalist. This is the unique quality of his journalism: it offers a behind-the-scenes view of its own reportage; it dramatizes its own wrong turns, its own attempts at coherence. Where Baker sews in his own mistakes in U and I, Wallace adopts this mistaken identity as his very authorial persona.

I do think Baker and Wallace had more in common as nonfiction writers than the essay suggests, though. Both were clearly influenced by the New Journalism, which allowed the writer to step into the narrative, question the idea of narrative, and pursue unlikely angles. Both could take a topic and research it into the ground—think of Baker’s investigation of the word “lumber” or Wallace’s essay on what usage manuals might say about democracy. As stylists, both are adherents of the fussy, footnote-y school—though Hathcock suggests Wallace was a moralist in a way Baker never has been. Even so, it’s surprising Hathcock can’t dig up much evidence of one having read the other, though I don’t doubt a Baker novel or two was in Wallace’s library.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Links: Post-Colonialism

About a year ago I posted about Michael Fauver, a novelist who was blogging about his experience at writers’ retreats. A few people in the comments to that post expressed their dislike for such places. Fauver has read those comments, and he responds in “In Defense of Colonies and Workshops.”

Samuel R. Delany‘s epic dystopian novel Dhalgren has been adapted for the stage as Bellona, Destroyer of Cities.

Walter Mosley: “Through my veins run 10,000 years of history that touches every continent, deity, and crime known to humanity.”

Lewis Lapham on how the recession might affect writers: “It might make them see more clearly what kind of society that they’re living in. A lot of the writing for the last 20-odd years has been very self-absorbed — the memoir instead of the portrait of the society. It might encourage writers to engage more with the society as a whole. It might force them to look more carefully at other people.”

The Web site of Canada’s National Post is hosting a roundtable on Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin.

American fiction about the Vietnam War doesn’t attract much interest in Vietnam.

Ray Bradbury figures the idea that new technologies distance us from ourselves isn’t anything new: “I grew up with radio, I saw what radio did to a people. I saw that it was beginning to disconnect us in society.”

Years of BASS uses Nicholson Baker‘s story “K. 590″ as an opportunity to discuss archiving techniques at newspapers.

A Smithsonian article on the early history of the paperback shares a great anecdote about a wounded soldier biding his time in a foxhole reading Willa Cather‘s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “He grabbed it the day before under the delusion that it was a murder mystery, but he discovered, to his amazement, that he liked it anyway.”

A few metalheads are disputing whether Metallica‘s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has anything to do with the Ernest Hemingway novel. Which is besides the point; as I’ve pointed out before, Cormac McCarthy is the truly metal American novelist.

Roundup: You May Have the Falcon…

Stephanie Salter tries to get her head around Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon. My old place in San Francisco was just a couple of blocks from the apartment where Hammett wrote that novel; back in 2001 I wrote a story about the guy who lived (lives?) there.

Nicholson Baker writing “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing” is like Rick James saying “Cocaine is a hell of a drug”–the dude’s found the thing that’s going to reshape his life for years, for better or for worse. As he points out: “All big Internet successes—e-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcraft—have a more or less addictive component—they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you’re trying to sleep.”

A couple of DoSP notes. I have a brief review of Adrian Tomine‘s Shortcomings in Washington City Paper; Tomine is at Politics and Prose on Wednesday. My review of Richard Price‘s excellent new novel, Lush Life, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. At the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, I’ve been gathering up various materials related to Price’s Clockers; an extended version of the interview with Price that first appeared on City Paper’s Web site is running in three parts. Parts of that interview dedicated specifically to Lush Life are now up at the Chicago Sun-Times Web site. Many thanks to NBCC president John Freeman for proposing the idea, and to Price for giving up so much of his time to weather a fusillade of questions about something he did three books ago.