Category Archives: Percival Everett

Foreword and Onward

In a funny and thoughtful piece in the Millions, Bill Morris wonders who actually finds blurbs useful. Not booksellers: The one Morris speaks to is skeptical. Not readers: Colum McCann figures most people “see through the bullshit factor.” And certainly not the writers asked to do the blurbing: McCann despairs of being snowed under by all the blurb requests he receives, and the more profligate blurbers tend to get a bad reputation.

Like Morris, my introduction to the disingenuous world of blurbing was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a recurring feature in Spy magazine that exposed how incestuous the publishing industry could be.* That’s not to say that all the blurbing was insincere. Of course Graham Greene and Paul Theroux would say nice things about the other’s books; it’s no surprise that John Cheever and John Updike would high-five each other. But even if there were honest members of these mutual admiration societies, their blurbing could often be so fulsome and overheated—I’m looking at you, Philip Caputo—that the praise they delivered could easily be ignored.

So, a proposal: If blurbs have a “bullshit factor” problem but are necessary to keep the publishing industry functioning for lesser-known authors, perhaps authors should write fewer blurbs and more introductions for new books they truly admire. Forewords, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and other commentaries are usually reserved for literary museum pieces like reissues an anthologies. But they needn’t be exclusive to such works. Last year I came across a couple of books that I became a little more interested in precisely because a writer I respected took a moment to write not a dozen words but a couple hundred praising it. In a preface to Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen, Percival Everett writes: “I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning.” Hey, me neither—and you neither too, hopefully. And introducing Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia, Dan Fante writes: “Here the scenes between Max and his lady love are open heart surgery done with an ax. If you’re a Henry Miller or Bukowski fan then Hating Olivia is fresh meat.”

Everett and Fante aren’t bringing any more intellectual heft to their praise than the average blurb does, it’s true—I had to go back to the books to recall what it is they had to say, which turned out to be not very much. But the fact that their praise ran longer than a sentence was meaningful to me—I likely wouldn’t have read Boggs’ book at all were it not for Everett’s benison. Requests that writers submit not just blurbs but two-page introductions might only make McCann’s life worse. But it might also be freeing: Instead of feeling obligated to say nice things about every young writer around, a writer can pick his or her spots, submit their praise only when it’s actually warranted, and avoid any accusation of being dishonest. After all, Morris’ article about the book he was asked to blurb is much more interesting—and made the book in question seem much more interesting—than the blurb he wound up writing.

* There’s a bit of irony in the fact that Kurt Andersen, a Spy cofounder, was once one of the most unavoidable blurbers around.

Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”

Links: Go Tell It on the Mountain

At the Rumpus, Eric B. Martin writes, “if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws.” Why can’t reviews of all books just do the second thing? When somebody shouts “Read this book!” from a hilltop, who finds that alone convincing?

Adam Langer, whose next book is about the publishing industry, on the strangest thing about publishing: “That sometimes it’s easier to lie and get away with it, than to get away with telling the truth.”

Southern Methodist University Press is at risk of closing due to budgetary concerns. Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell (the press’ closing would be “a body blow to American literature”), Richard Russo, and others have registered their displeasure.

Richard Price on what to do when Hollywood comes calling about adapting your work for the screen: “Take the money and run.”

“I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them.”

Shalom Auslander works a stomach-churning but not inaccurate metaphor to describe the experience of writing.

Current events have a way of leading back to The Grapes of Wrath.

Percival Everett‘s entertaining comic novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, picks up the annual Believer Book Award.

D.G. Myers, bullish on litblogging: “For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves ‘fre­quently and at length with contemporary work.’”

The case for slow reading.

Philip Roth and Judy Blume are inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

In related news, Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah: “I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down.”

Thomas Mallon takes the helm of the creative writing program at the George Washington University, just a couple of months after the school announced that Edward P. Jones has joined the English department faculty.

On Saturday, Al “Red Dog” Weber, who is 84, will impersonate Ernest Hemingway at a book festival in Laguna Hills, California. How will you be channeling Papa, Mr. Weber? “A lot of rum, honey. I’m going to be bombed out of my gourd and in perfect character.”

Favorite Books of 2009

At some point today, barring technological and editorial hiccups, my end-of-the-year piece should appear on the website of Washington City Paper, including my top-ten list and a few brief thoughts on what e-books might mean for print books. I’ll likely be offline when the article goes live (following City Paper‘s coverage of the gun at the snowball fight should keep you busy in the meantime), but there’s no reason not to offer the list proper now. Update: Here’s the article. So:

1. Zoe Heller, The Believers
2. Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters!
3. David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
4. Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson
5. Pervical Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier
6. Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
7. Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
8. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
9. Yiyun Li, The Vagrants
10. Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

All have their flaws (though The Believers has fewer than even most good books), and heaven knows this isn’t an exact science: There are a few books that could easily have made it on the list were I in a different mood while compiling it: Jayne Anne PhillipsLark & Termite, Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Paul Auster‘s Invisible, and the reissue of Don Carpenter‘s Hard Rain Falling. And as usual, I could offer a much longer list of disappointments and failures, topped off by Pete Dexter‘s Spooner, Victor LaValle‘s Big Machine, and Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. What I can’t do is pull out some kind of common theme about the year’s best books, as I have in the past. I’m content to admire the books I liked for what they are, and hope that 2010 has better ones.

With that, I’m pretty much wrapped up for 2009. I may step in here once or twice before the new year, but I’m more likely to be on Twitter to the extent I’ll spend much time online at all. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have safe travels and good company in the final days of this year. Talk to you soon.

Links: The Meta Angels of Our Nature

The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, lists 61 essential postmodern reads. Lists are designed to be argued over, so there’s no real point in interrogating all the selections. One thing, though: Reading Percival Everett‘s I Am Not Sidney Poitier a few weeks back, I didn’t think for a moment about whether it was “postmodern” or not. At the risk of invoking some ungainly term like “post-postmodern,” it may be that the postmodern novel is just something that happened, not something that’s happening—a method of wrestling with an increasingly mediated existence in the years before mediated existences became commonplace, before a ten-year-old kid could embed video and songs on a MySpace page and make virtual friends with some stranger in Bali. A lot of the stuff on the list, like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, seems more like metafiction than postmodernism, which aren’t synonymous terms. At any rate, I’m sure one of those ten-year-olds will grow up to write a novel that sorts it all out for us.

Scott McLemee considers the new biography of Saul Bellow‘s ill-fated colleague, Isaac Rosenfeld.

A book on Flannery O’Connor‘s Catholicism is in the works.

And a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth might be.

Also in the works: A documentary about bad writing. The trailer features George Saunders delivering one of the smartest and most succinct explanations of what bad writing is that I’ve heard.

The Ransom Center has an online exhibit of artifacts from Norman Mailer‘s coverage of Apollo 11.

And Ted Gioia considers whether the moon landing was science fiction writers’ finest hour, and one from which it never quite recovered.

There’s too much damn fiction from Montana writers coming out. (Though I did enjoy Kevin Canty‘s new collection, Where the Money Went.)

Lionel Shriver: “I probably had more reading stamina and much loftier literary tastes at the age of 16 than I do now.”

“I am a man in my mid-50’s and starting to feel the weight of the years. I am wondering if there are some good books for me to read that address my station in life. I have never read any Updike or Roth, but I have the impression these authors address the concerns of the aging male. Do you have recommendations?

The Elegant Variation has just wrapped up a four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill.

Museums dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are celebrating anniversaries.

H.L. Mencken once inscribed a book for Carl Van Vechten with a list of the kinds of alcohol he drank during the three years he was writing it. It’s a long list.

Two Authors in Search of an Author as a Character

I recently finished I Am Not Sidney Poitier, a rambunctious comic novel by Percival Everett about the adventures of a young man, Not Sidney Poitier, who spends his childhood and early adulthood squaring off against racism in the South. Much of the book references the films of the actor whom the protagonist resembles—the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? section is a commentary on passing, not relationships between blacks and whites—but the satire is much broader, including mass media, money, and academia.

All three of those subjects—as well as race—are subjects that are ripe for that treatment, though they’re difficult to satirize effectively. Everett himself pulls it off in two ways. First, he’s good with a quick comic jab: Upon first meeting Not Sidney’s father figure, media titan Ted Turner, one character says, “I hate colorization.” Beat. “I’m not speaking metaphorically.” The second and perhaps more important way has to do with the fact that the character speaking is an academic named Percival Everett. Not Sidney first meets Everett while attending Morehouse College, where he teaches Philosophy of Nonsense and spouts smart-sounding blather like this: “Let’s consider art as a kind of desacralization, perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that undoubtedly connected or a the very least traceable to an amalgam of very common yet highly unusual sociohistorical factors.” Throughout the novel, Everett is good for a non sequitur or bit of eccentric, irreverent behavior.

Why go this route? Clearly Everett (the author) means to send up academia (he teaches at the University of Southern California), but he didn’t need to name a character after himself to do that, no more than Roger Rosenblatt or Don DeLillo or Kingsley Amis did. Here, it’s a structural device that at once deepens the identity-crisis theme of the novel, yet provides an absurdist touch that keeps the novel light on its feet. That approach is riskier, but it does have the neat effect of complicating Everett’s satire even while simplifying it—if a writer is willing to poke fun at himself so openly, what’s your problem if you’re not laughing?

Everett has done this before: A 2004 novel cowritten with James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, As Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, was, as best as I can tell, designed to send up the publishing industry much in the same way the new novel tweaks the ivory tower. But overall, the writer-as-character is a device is relatively rare. Paul Auster employed it in City of Glass to help establish the book’s off-center, anti-detective-novel tone; presumably Bret Easton Ellis felt like he had good reasons to insert a Bret Easton Ellis into his 2005 novel, Lunar Park, which I haven’t read. (This is probably a richer genre than I know of, but I’m hard-pressed to think of too many examples. Is it just a guy thing? Joyce Carol Oates, who’s probably experimented with more literary gambits than any other living American writer, never gave this one a shot?)

At any rate, I Am Not Sidney Poitier pushed me directly into Philip Roth‘s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession, in which Roth not only makes himself a part of the story but chases down somebody very like his doppelganger, who’s exploiting his good name while attending the trial in Israel of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. (My timing in picking up the book was fitting, or uncanny, or strange, or something; Demjanjuk, now in his 80s, was deported to Germany last month to face trial again.) Roth’s approach gives him a frame within which to discuss the is-he-or-isn’t-he issues that surrounded Demjanjuk, and one of most powerful and disturbing passages in the book is Roth’s conjuring of the almost erotic joy that an SS guard may have felt being so powerful and murderous. (Operation Shylock is generally regarded as the last novel Roth wrote before he published Sabbath’s Theater and “got good again,” but it’s by no means a weak novel. It may simply be that “memoirs of a horny, bitter puppeteer” is a more appealing premise than “talky metafiction about Israel.”)

But like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Operation Shylock is a comic novel, too: The structure provides Roth cover to skewer some of the sanctimony that surrounds many discussions of Israel and Palestine, and to give voice to ideas about Israel that he’d have a hard time presenting in any other form. Roth’s double, for instance, is an advocate of “Diasporism,” which proposes reducing the role of Israel and instead reintegrating displaced Jews into central Europe. “Israel is no longer in the Jewish interest,” Roth’s doppelganger tells Roth the author (who in this moment of the book is impersonating a French journalist; it gets tricky). “Israel has become the gravest threat to Jewish survival since the end of World War II.” The punchline comes a few pages later, when Roth the author delivers an assessment of Diasporism: “With all due respect, Philip Roth, your prophecy strikes me as nonsense. It sounds to me like a farcical scenario out of one of your books.”

It’s probably foolish to hope that more authors try going down this route, which is bound to produce plenty of solipsistic junk. But it does have its uses; the hard part is finding the appropriate structure for using it. The writer-as-character device is freeing, but it puts you in a bind: It requires that you talk about yourself, but it also demands humility—a subservience to plot, a lack of ego.