Category Archives: Raymond Carver

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

Lishing vs. Copyright Law

There’s something amusingly through-the-rabbit-hole about reading a discussion of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that’s written in legalese, as Matthew J. Nelson does in a piece published last year in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal. (Apparently it’s only drifted online a few months ago.) “Publishing Raymond Carver’s “Original” Stories as “Fair Use” (click on “One-Click Download” for a PDF of the paper) covers the long-running effort led by Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, to publish the What We Talk About stories in their unadulterated form, before editor Gordon Lish reshaped them. (And, inarguably, improved them.)

Nelson’s article was apparently written and published before the matter was more or less settled—the pre-Lish stories were published last year as “Beginners” in the Library of America’s collection of Carver’s work. (Gary Fisketjon, who was Carver’s editor before his death and who has protested Gallagher’s efforts to publish “Beginners,” now seems content to agree to disagree.) Legal experts can make more of Nelson’s paper than I can, but he basically seems to argue that the publication of “Beginners” qualifies as fair use because it now serves as a resource for commentary on the original work:

With regard to the more interesting question of whether Carver’s estate could or should be able to publish his “original” stories, there is a convincing argument for fair use. It is vital to this claim, however, that any potential publication embody the spirit of comment or criticism, which would serve the public interest. Indeed, such a publication could easily be viewed as vital to the study of the relationship of editors and authors or valuable insight into Carver’s style, life and work. As noted above, such a publication would have to be carefully created in order not to supersede or devalue the Knopf version.

The Library of America edition would seem to satisfy that need not to “supersede or devalue the Knopf version,” but, again, I’m not a lawyer. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, who blogged about Nelson’s paper today, points out that a judge could see it differently: “[As long] as the work is published specifically to comment on the editorial differences between the two — rather than setting itself up as a “competitor,” there’s a much stronger fair use claim,” he writes. “But, as with many fair use claims, it really comes down to a judge deciding how much weight to give the various four factors.”

Links: Leftovers

What foreigners might read to better understand the “American character.”

An author gives up on writing criticism: “I know intimately that the worst novels ever written took more fearlessness, will and soul than the best book reviews ever written.”

To buy the time work on a play or another book, Richard Price is working on a screenplay for Lush Life.

Raymond Carver biographer Carol Sklenicka: “It boggles the mind how someone who is said to be gentle can hit his wife over the head with a wine bottle and sever her artery.” I have a review of Sklenicka’s book in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird keeping Southern writers from addressing race?

Colum McCann
‘s win at the National Book Awards somewhat redeems Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Rick Moody starts tweeting a story tomorrow at @BlackClockmag.

A visit to the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. And the guy who played Coach on Cheers.

The publication of Vladimir Nabokov‘s The Original of Laura is an opportunity to dump on living authors: “Richard Powers drones on in high, wooden prose about love, Philip Roth engages in bottomless carnal rumination, Foerian pornographers of tragedy eagerly show us their wares—and Nabokov’s fragments … reveal how hollow so much serious (a synonym, these days, for self-serious) contemporary literature is.”

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity for Roger Ebert to write about the film version of Lolita for Playboy. [NSFW]

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity to come up with some new covers for Nabokov’s backlist.

Jonathan Yardley likes Ben Yagoda‘s book on memoirs, though he’s not much for the recent spate of memoirs themselves.

Jonathan Lethem on the Kindle: “I like old, crapped-out books. For me, it’s an unapologetic fetish, and my house is loaded with them and I’ll always be in love with these things. I worked in used bookstores for a long time. But again, in the cause of not being the cranky old man, even though I can feel all kinds of intense sensory resistance to this thing I choose not to believe it’s the enemy. I’m just going to decide that the world has enough room for this innocuous little guy, too. Why not?”

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

Links: Brought to You by Dell and Folgers Coffee

Earlier this week the FTC released new guidelines on how bloggers must disclose their relationships with commercial entities. I haven’t spent much time thinking about this—unlike smart people who have—mainly because I suspect any battle between the gummint and bloggers will attack women and children first. Relatively speaking, me and my modest stack of advance reader’s copies aren’t worth anybody’s attention and trouble. I’ve always considered ARCs as a tool to do my job, not some great prize; I receive them, but, like editors at newspaper book reviews, I feel no particular obligation to review them, acknowledge their existence, or announce their provenance if I do get around to mentioning them.

George Saunders reports from a homeless tent city in Fresno, California.

Jane Smiley discusses her first novel for young adults, The Georges and the Jewels.

Sherman Alexie
: “If I had been talking about drowning polar bears [instead of the Kindle], people would have been weeping with me. But nobody recognizes that a bookstore or library can also be a drowning polar bear. And right now in this country, magazines, newspapers, and bookstores are drowning polar bears.

Paul Auster laments the death of independent bookstores in New York: “In my own city of New York, so many superb bookstores have gone out of business in the past years that the epidemic has reached tragic proportions. The Eighth Street Bookstore, the grand literary emporium of my youth, has been a shoe store for more than two decades now. The Gotham Book Mart (‘Wise Men Fish Here’), the home of the James Joyce Society, the home in exile for André Breton and other French Surrealists during World War II, closed its doors recently. Books and Company is gone. Endicott Books is gone. Coliseum Books is gone.”

A personal consideration of Raymond Carver along with some thoughts on Lishification, and a profile of his widow, Tess Gallagher.

A cache of Mark Twain‘s papers, including letters he wrote during the last months of his life, goes up for auction later this month.

Jonathan Lethem on his new novel, Chronic City: “I had to figure out, ok what should I be writing? I thought, the answer is always, I should write the thing that if I don’t write it, it wouldn’t exist… Maybe I could write a realistic social epic of the Upper East Side; it’s possible that I could do that. I feel that I’ve acquired a lot of those tools and inclinations, but to merge it with the dream-life material, I feel that’s my special task.”

Chicago gets a literary hall of fame.

What He Could Live With

Jeff Baker‘s lengthy feature on Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver‘s widow, closes with a sweet detail—there’s a little mailbox at Carver’s grave, and visitors can use the pen and paper nearby to leave him a message. (“I wanted to thank you in person,” one note reads.) But the feature exists thanks to a controversy—namely, Gallagher’s ongoing fight to have the stories in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love published in their original form, before they were heavily edited by Gordon Lish.

The pre-Lish stories now exist in the new Library of America Carver edition, but not in its own standalone version. Gallagher believes that such a collection, titled “Beginners,” is what Carver would’ve wanted; others disagree, for both legalistic and personal reasons, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that when it came to all this Carver was, to pick the most precise term available, wishy-washy. Carol Sklenicka‘s forthcoming biography of Carver shows how much his moods changed when it came to Lish’s enthusiastic blue-penciling. He was by turns the nervous up-and-comer grateful for any editorial attention; the fragile alcoholic in a panic over what the What We Talk About edits would do to his psyche; and, toward the end, relatively disinterested in turf wars and seemingly aware of Lish’s positive contributions to his reputation. Carver didn’t take well to Lish’s actions early on, but as he neared his first publication in Esquire he cooled off slightly, Sklenicka writes:

A year earlier [in 1969], Carver had cringed under Lish’s criticism and begged for simple rejections, but now he thanked Lish for taking a pen to his manuscripts. In his glee, Ray compared Lish’s work to the corrections he’d received from John Gardner when Ray was his student. The stories were now “first class,” Ray told Lish.

By 1987, when Carver was famous and assembling his defining collection, Where I’m Calling From, he and his editor Gary Fisketjon agreed to a mix of old and new stories, many Lish-free but eight from What We Talk About that were edited by Lish. Sklenicka writes:

The volume of thirty-seven selected and new stories would be called Where I’m Calling From. These, Ray told Maryann [Burk, his first wife], were stories he felt “he could live with. And, yes, be remembered by.” In an introduction for the deluxe edition, he emphasizes that the stories were written over a twenty-five-year span, and concludes that “any writer will tell you he wants to believe his work will undergo a metamorphosis, a sea change, a process of enrichment if he’s been at it long enough.”

The open question—and Sklenicka wisely renders no judgment on the matter—is how critical Lish was to that “process of enrichment.”

Links: Mall Rats

Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, the quintessential big book about Washington power players, turns 50.

Lorrie Moore: “I don’t feel I’m a natural writer. I feel every paragraph I write stinks. But I’m a pretty good editor. I’m not that fluid in getting the sentences out right the first time. There are times when you lose confidence. There are scenes that are hard to write. So I make changes. I am still making changes.”

Audrey Niffenegger recalls her early days in Chicago’s art scene.

Henry Louis Gates recently handed out the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which are given to best books about race in the past year. Among the winners is Louise Erdrich, for The Plague of Doves.

New York magazine talks with Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death,” the lead story in his new collection, The Double Life Is Twice as Good, is a genius riff on noir themes matched with Ames’ traditional acts of self-flagellation.

Serpent’s Tail Press (which has published some of my favorite David Goodis noirs) is launching a classics series. It’s an interesting take on classics: Among the first batch of reprints are Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin and George PelecanosShoedog.

An excerpt from Raymond Carver‘s “Beginners,” included in Library of America’s new Carver collection.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, has a new story collection, The Man From Kinvara.

A chat with the head of the Kurt Vonnegut Society in San Francisco.

Tortilla Flat is a good name for a John Steinbeck novel, but a bad name for a Southern California sports bar.

And a Thomas Pynchon scholar picks precisely the wrong guy with whom to cop attitude about television.

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.

Workshop Prose

My in-flight companion during the past long weekend was a galley of a forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver. I’ll scribble more about that when the time comes, I’m sure (it’s out in November), but for now I’ll say that one of the many striking things about Carver’s life was how much traveling he did as he was launching his career—from college to college, program to program, anything that was going to allow him to stabilize his always-wrecked finances and give him a quiet space to write. The shame of his lost years is how much of his time was squandered on drinking instead of working; in Iowa City he and John Cheever timed their mornings to show up at the liquor store just as it opened in the morning.

Still, those programs were critical to him as a writer. Well before Gordon Lish allegedly “made” him, Carver worked hard under the tutelage of Grendel author John Gardner at Chico State University, where he learned the importance of revising, revising, and revising some more. Years later he’d put some of that advice into a letter to his daughter: “When something feels complex or complicated to you, write it out carefully and thoughtfully, several different times if necessary, until it flows smoothly and expresses exactly what you want it to communicate and nothing else.” Sounds like a no-brainer—you read it and wonder why we need writing classes at all, practically everything you need to know is in that one sentence. But for Carver that simple guidance was hard-earned. And of course, it’s advice that’s damn hard to execute.

Carver is of course now synonymous with “workshop prose”—once his reputation was made in the 80s, so many aspiring writers were seduced by the simplicity of his writing that they thought it was simply achieved, and they signed up with MFA programs en masse to achieve it. I suspect that much of this is covered in a recent book I haven’t read, Mark McGurl‘s The Program Era, but as a shorter defense of the workshop, I liked the comments by Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner. She’s teaching fiction for the first time, and talked to the National Post about it:

There’s this argument — I mean, you see it percolating up in the Amazon review comments — that, ‘Oh, this reads like workshop prose.’ But the idea of the workshop is not totally new. Flannery O’Connor took a workshop. Nabokov was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher. So at least in the United States there’s a real tradition of this. And most of what I’ve learned as a writer I learned after the workshop. But the workshop allowed me to place myself in a context of peers and try to assess with a colder eye wether or not I should keep going.

If “workshop prose” is showing up in Amazon review comments, it’s probably time to officially designate the term a tired cliche and move on.

Links: Very Strange or Very Famous

What kind of writer was Raymond Carver? As the new Library of America collection of his work shows, it’s complicated, largely for reasons having to do with Gordon Lish.

Related: “When Novelists Sober Up”

Portnoy: Gay?

Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian.”

Alice Hoffman on how Fahrenheit 451 rejuvenated her.

A musical about the last days of Ernest Hemingway (“complete with a cheery song about how to load a gun”) stinks, and it’s closing early.

William Kennedy is finishing his first novel since 2002′s Roscoe; it’ll be an addition to the Albany Cycle.

Amitav Ghosh would love to hang out more with his neighbor Jhumpa Lahiri, but she tends to be busy.

An inventive approach to book shelving. But heaven knows where my Robot Chicken DVDs would fit in this scheme.

George Pelecanos‘ UK publisher sure is pushing the Wire angle hard with the cover of his new novel, The Way Home. He’s so popular in England that they let him open for the Pogues:

On that note, I’ll be taking some time off from the blog for a few days, enjoying some time off the grid, listening to music, and spending a little more time reading books than chattering about them. We’ll get this thing plugged back in around the middle of next week.