Category Archives: Richard Ford

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Crises Averted

Last Sunday the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a panel called “The Crisis of American Fiction,” though the assembled panelists couldn’t agree that there was one. According to a report from the Times of India (the fest’s sponsor), Richard Ford figured we wouldn’t recognize the crisis if we were living in it, while Junot Diaz argued that the crisis has more to do with time-strapped readers than writers. Both Martin Amis (moving soon to Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies him to weigh in) and Jay McInerney took the long view, saying they’ve heard this story before:

McInerney said: “By the 50s and 60s, writers like Truman Capote and Mailer began turning to non-fiction. By the 1970s, there was a crisis with Realism. By the 1980s, post-modernism or `PoMo’ was the catchword. American writers began soul-searching over whether fiction was about the world, or simply a game of words, with no connection to reality.”

Maybe it’s more correct, then, to say fiction is in a perpetual state of crisis, and that its survival largely depends on its capacity to respond to whatever we’ve just decided is killing it this time around. To work with McInerney’s series of examples: Capote and Mailer‘s abandonment of fiction was counterbalanced by John Updike‘s ascendance; Don DeLillo denied postmodern death-of-the-author chatter by finding a way into both realism and pomo acrobatics; David Foster Wallace, and, sure, Junot Diaz recognized the limits of fiction as a method of describing reality but could still find a way to capture feeling. And those are just the big names, though big names are necessary here—you haven’t responded well to the “crisis” if you haven’t brought readers along with you. And even so, we could all name a dozen or so lesser-known writers who successfully pushed back against its theoretical sworn enemy of the moment. (I bet we could even come up with a few who were products of MFA programs, yet another oft-claimed source of American literature’s decline.)

What’s different this time, though, is that the enemy isn’t a theory but a fact—available time, which is now reportedly less dedicated to reading because the internet has been eroding our attention spans. Might it spell doom for authors too? This is the anxiety that Union Atlantic author Adam Haslett voices in a Financial Times article pondering a “kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect.” He quotes editor Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books (Diaz’s publisher), who says, “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.”

Haslett is careful not to drift into woe-is-us-nobody-writes-long-letters-anymore complaints, which is as it should be. Just because more people dash off text messages than write letters, it doesn’t automatically follow that fiction becomes more text-message-y, or that readers won’t pay attention to someone who can write well-crafted sentences. (Did people ever worry about what telegrams were doing to our brains? To our fiction?) In Salon, Laura Miller takes an optimistic view and argues that novelists are only just now beginning to come to terms with how the internet reshapes our lives and our relationships. Novels now serve as a repository for “museum-quality depth,” she writes—the place we go when we’ve had it with our e-mail, Tweets, and Facebook friends. They’re also where writers increasingly go to show us who we are: Freedom‘s Walter Berglund’s sincerity is revealed as mere crankiness once a rant of his goes viral, for instance. Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story and Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad are also called out for special attention, though Miller doesn’t dwell much on how, in both books, the internet enlivens the sentences Haslett is so concerned about. Both novels skewer the online lingo that attempts to reduce us to database metrics (“need,” “reach,” “and corruptability” in Egan; “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450″ in Shteyngart), and they do it by showing how miserably they fall short of understanding who we are. Fiction writers will increasingly have to learn how to exist side by side with an audience whose patience is increasingly tested, but the value of the fiction writer won’t necessarily be reduced from that effort.

Links: Last Words

You likely don’t need to hear one more commentary about the Huckleberry Finn foofaraw, but consider reading Jon Clinch‘s, as somebody who spent a lot of time attempting to inhabit Twain’s world in his 2007 novel, Finn.

What happened to the literary prodigy Barbara Follett? (via)

Granta‘s 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue, which featured stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Carter, and many more, is claimed as the best single issue of a literary magazine ever. (via)

Two editors discuss their discovery of three previously undocumented Zora Neale Hurston stories.

Toward a complete guide to Dashiell Hammett‘s Baltimore haunts.

On the growth of David Foster Wallace studies.

Richard Ford on his home state, where he’s returning to teach: “I think the state, in the hands and eyes of its writers, has a lot that needs to be explained. Writers are imaginative explainers. There’s a lot of received wisdom, history, a lot of drama in the fabric that is Mississippi that could be seen not to make a whole lot of sense.”

Why Paul Theroux will not be writing an autobiography.

The National Book Critics Circle gathers up some recommendations for books that should be back in print; I put in for Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel I wrote about here last spring.

“[T]he relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”

Paul Auster is a potato, not a tropical flower. Allow him to explain:

Links: The Two Percent Solution

I haven’t the slightest idea what New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman means by this comment, made in a New York Times feature about Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent second novel, How to Read the Air: “He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations, but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.” Perhaps if he didn’t write about immigrant life and aspirations, he’d be 100 percent an American writer, wholly comfortable in his own voice?

Richard Ford discusses his forthcoming novel, Canada, with Canada’s National Post.

On James Ross‘ 1940 debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, and his quiet, failed efforts to publish a follow-up.

Elizabeth McCracken on what it means to be a National Book Award finalist: “It didn’t change the way that I felt about my work, but I do know that it changed the way other people felt about my work. And that was a great gift.” (The only book among this year’s finalists I’ve read is Lionel Shriver‘s So Much for That, which I have a few problems with; I’m currently reading Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel, though it’s too early for me to comment on its sprawl.)

Brock Clarke on discovering Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes: “Exley was also a great writer: sometimes he sounded like a guy who didn’t know he wasn’t on stage (‘I saw myself a kind of Owl-Eyes come to Gatsby’s wake…sequestered from the one or two mourners, a curiosity weeping great, excited tears in the blue shade of funereal elms’), and sometimes he sounded like a guy who’d learned to talk in a bowling alley (‘Wake up, yuh good-for nothin’ bum!’), but no matter how he spoke, and no matter what he was speaking about, now matter whether he was self-pitying or self-deprecating, lyrical or profane, Exley was brilliant, and the proof of his brilliance was this book.”

Jennifer Egan attempted to put a little epic poetry into her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.

I’m planning to get to Andrew Wingfield‘s Right of Way, a collection of stories set in the gentrifying Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. He explains the neighborhood’s appeal to a fiction writer: “Gentrification is an abstract term. Like many abstractions, it describes a real phenomenon and has some value because of that. But fiction deals in details. My stories dial down into specific families, specific relationships and lives and places, and in writing them I’ve come to see how messy and complicated and never-finished a neighborhood’s transformations can be.”

Jonathan Franzen
delivers to Oprah without comment a list of his favorite works of fiction (Andrew Seal has helpfully typed up all the titles in one post, sparing you about 30 clicks), topped by Russell Banks‘ 1985 novel, Continental Drift. I would’ve figured that what Franzen admired in that book is the way it applies an epic scope to a domestic story, addressing the American way of politics, race, and class, in some ways more successfully than Freedom does. But writing about Banks’ Rule of the Bone for the Times in 1995, what Franzen seemed to most admire was its guy-ness: “In novels like Affliction and Continental Drift Mr. Banks has deepened Hemingway’s investigation of American maleness, lending a voice to working-class fathers who want to be ‘good’ men but are reduced, by economic brutalities and some essential rage riding on the Y chromosome, to bad ones.”

Thomas McGuane: “I’ve really been longing for a lighter heart in American literature. Dickens, Fielding and Twain were all great writers who could write with humor. We’re at the point now where Dostoevksy is funnier than the average American novel.”

State of Independence

For the past few weeks the Kelly Writers House, a writers’ center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been uploading a host of videos featuring visiting authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Mary Gordon, Tad Friend, and more. It’s worth skipping around a bit, but I particularly liked a brief video from 2006 of Richard Ford talking about how fussy he is over words:

After arguing that the novel is an antidote to “a mindless, feckless, irresponsible use of language,” he adds: “A careful novel will try to say, ‘Oh, you think you know what this word means? Well, let me tell you what the consequences of this word is.’ Like ‘independence,’ for instance. You think you know what ‘independence’ means. But I’m going to write 478 pages to show you that something else is meant by ‘independence.'” The whole video is worth watching to hear him talk about how fixated he can be on finding exactly the right word.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Just a Regular Guy

In the new Bookforum, Richard Ford addresses the question of whether his three Frank Bascombe novels were intended to make their hero into an American everyman. He says he’s flattered whenever the subject comes up, but the question also seems to raise his back hairs a little—on top of seeing the idea as too simplistic, he also fears that it may put off some people thinking of reading him for the first time. He writes: “I realize I may not be telling a prospective reader exactly what she or he wants to know about these books, imagined as a ‘trilogy,’ but am only saying what’s on my mind as I’ve begun to think about them all together for the first time—and wanting to free a new reader from some binding and unlikable expectancies, while admitting him to better ones.”

As somebody who hasn’t gotten to the Bascombe novels—a sad admission given this site’s nameplate, I know—I can say that I’ve never been put off from reading the books because critics saw something emblematic in them. If anything that made them more appealing, like an opportunity to meet Rabbit Angstrom’s brighter, more thoughtful cousin. Ford makes a good point, though, that intent is everything in this case—that deliberately trying to create an everyman type (unless you’re Philip Roth) is setting yourself up for failure. The best part of the essay describes how Bascombe tried to force himself into the narrative of Independence Day, and Ford’s ultimately failed attempts to keep him from knocking down the door:

[O]ver that time I began to notice that all the father’s projected calculations about life and events seemed, in my notes, to “sound” like those of Frank Bascombe—the character who’d narrated The Sportswriter. I made dogged efforts to scuttle all thought of a “linked” book. I was fearful of helplessly writing that first novel over again; fearful of having more ambition than skill or sense; fearful of gloomy failure. And yet these fears finally succumbed to the recognition that to be given a “voice” and with it an already-plausible character who can transact the complex world in reasonably intelligent, truthful, even mirthful ways was just too much of a gift from the writing gods to decline. And so Independence Day, after some considerable prewriting adjustments to my original plan, came into existence.