Category Archives: Sam Lipsyte

Aside

At the New York Review of Books blog, Elaine Blair delivers a kind of update on Katie Roiphe‘s 2010 broadside on the (in Roiphe’s view) insipid boyishness of the generation of male novelists who followed Updike, Mailer, and Roth. Blair … Continue reading

Links: This Is Just to Say

Aleksandar Hemon‘s “The Aquarium” is one of the most powerful, heart-in-the-throat pieces of magazine nonfiction I’ve read this side of Gary Smith‘s “Higher Education.” Amelia Atlas is of a similar mind about it, and she thoughtfully explores Hemon’s discussion of the nature of storytelling and how he proposes “an avenue for thinking about the relationship between literature and cognition that doesn’t compromise human expressivity.”

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway‘s suicide. His hometown is stepping lightly around it.

What are your favorite tricks in literature?

An excellent post by Caleb Crain on giving up on a novel: “I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters…. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was.” There’s something to this: Even if you’re reading critically, a novel that works works best when you’re easily immersed in it. If you’re feeling too compelled to apply real-world analysis to a story while you’re reading, the author is probably doing something wrong. (If I’m particularly sucked in by a book, I usually just highlight passages while I’m reading—doing the work of figuring out what I saw in those highlighted passages, and by extension the whole book, generally comes after the fact.)

On Fanny Fern, a witty satirist of relationships between husbands and wives in the mid-1850s—a talent that was all the more striking given her horrendous marriage.

Three unpublished letters from Margaret Mitchell.

Couldn’t agree more with this line from Ruth Franklin‘s essay on why gay marriage hasn’t gotten more attention in literature: “The affair between two men in Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, to give one particularly graphic example, is one of the most moving depictions of obsessive passion in recent writing.”

A rant from Michael Dirda on the evils of bestseller lists, though I suspect he’s overstating the degree to which readers take direct guidance on what to read next by consulting lists.

Tom Nissley gathers up some great moments of dialogue in literature; I’m a fan of the same passage of Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask he quotes.

I’ve been reading a forthcoming biography of William Carlos Williams, who often struggled to balance his dual lives as a poet and physician. Publicly he’d claim his practice energized his poetry, and it certainly gave him the opportunity to know the working-class people who featured in works like Paterson; privately, though, he despaired over his poems and having the time to write them. So the thoughts of novelist-doctor Chris Adrian on the matter are of interest: “[T]here’s something nice about getting to go to a day job where there are concrete expectations of you and concrete things to be done that generally are helpful to other people, whether that’s something as complicated as organizing a course of treatment for a child with cancer or just writing an antibiotic prescription for an ear infection. But it doesn’t take much time spent in either world to want to go back to the other.”

On making a documentary on Nelson Algren.

Visiting the sites of Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (via). And revisiting his unfinished novel Unanswered Prayers.

In praise of Lydia Davis‘ new chapbook, The Cows.

Dorothy Parker: “ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS.

A middle-school principal’s commencement speech reportedly had a lot in common with David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech. But then, Wallace and Tolstoy had a little in common.

Links: Back in Town

I spent much of last week in New York City, where I helped select the winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards. It was my first year as a board member taking part in the process, and though the proceedings are confidential, I think it’s OK to say my worst fears didn’t come to pass. I recall little discussion revolving around identity politics, reputation burnishing, or turning a literary award into a lifetime achievement award; the conversations about the books ultimately turned on the merits of the books themselves. (Though that’s not to say the discussions always went smoothly; things get noisy when two dozen smart people get in the same room to talk about books.) Regardless, despite having voiced a few complaints about Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I’m happy it took the prize in fiction. And I wish we could have given some kind of prize to Donna Tartt, who delivered a stellar, hilarious reading from Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies the night before the awards.

Goodreads is hosting a panel discussion on short stories this week with Alan Heathcock, Danielle Evans, Valerie Laken, and Emma Straub. I’m particularly intrigued by Heathcock’s writing process, which involves more thinking than drafting: “I don’t like sitting at the computer until the life is full in my imagination. I call this “hitting critical mass”—the point where the character (in the situation, in the place) is so alive in my imagination that it’s clawing at the backside of my eyes to get out. About 80% of my process is spent not putting words of a blank page, but doing anything I can/need to do to reach critical mass.” (My review of his debut collection, Volt, should be online soon.)

Ishmael Reed on his new book, Juice!: “Since I don’t like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist.”

Snooping on John Fante‘s papers.

Ethan Canin on being a novelist without a sense of place.

This is Téa Obreht‘s moment. Though I wasn’t as seduced with The Tiger’s Wife as many seem to be.

Sam Lipsyte on his early days: “I would hoard my words, hoard my decent pages. I didn’t realize you just have to keep throwing everything away and squandering everything because you’ll find out that the real stuff starts to come. It’s learning not to be too precious about a few sentences you’ve written.”

One paragraph from Philip Roth on Thomas Wolfe.

Michael Copperman voices his frustrations with being a non-black writer who works in black dialect. I don’t know enough about the internal politics of literary magazines to validate his argument that there’s a reflexive aversion to Copperman’s choices as a writer; it strikes me that dialect-heavy stories in general can be hard to come by. (Even Mark Twain, who least needed to justify his choices as a writer, felt compelled to explain his use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn. Joking as the explanatory note is, he clearly sensed the matter needed addressing.) And, at the risk of diminishing the issues of racial politics Copperman discusses, dialect may simply be especially challenging on a rhetorical level, as difficult to pull off as a multithreaded historical narrative or a convincing work of magical realism. If editors have to get past a lot to accept a dialect-heavy piece of work, writers have to work through a lot to make one worth reading.

Anyway, I asked Richard Price about this a few years back in the context of his 1992 novel, Clockers. What he says strikes me as reasonable, though of course he had built a reputation before Clockers that perhaps made it less likely to raise the hackles of editors:

You don’t have to be a crack addict to write about it. Anybody can bear witness. I never for a second ever presumed to think I know what it’s like to be black. At the same time I also feel like, is everything between black and white so exotic that a white writer dare not write about being black? Because we have no human traits in common? In a way it’s like, the human heart is the human heart. I don’t sit down and think, “Now I’m gonna write a black character.” I’m gonna write a character. And this character happens to be black. And I feel like I don’t have to be black to write about a black character anymore than a writer has to be white to write about a white character, or a writer has to be gay to write about a gay character.

I always say this: You can’t get into this vicious game where you have to be the thing that you write. That’s deadly. Because if I can’t write about being black, or if I don’t want to see any black people write about being white, and if I can’t write about being gay, I don’t want to see any gay writers writing about straight people, because you don’t know what it’s like to be straight. You don’t know what it’s like to be white, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish or Christian, or Muslim.” The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits. If you’re writing about a group of people, and you do a clichéd job, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. If you’re just contributing to a stereotype.

Believe me, I was so aware of this while I was writing. I was scared to death about the whole charge of cultural piracy. It was a very hard thing to convince myself I had a right to do. But once you get a roll going, it’s like, This guy’s a human being.

Crisis Management

The New York Times is apparently determined to make a man out of me. In January Katie Roiphe chided the post-Boomer generation of writers for being diffident about sex, if not outright scared of it. Now, A.O. Scott laments the wussiness that he believes seems to pervade members of Generation X as they—as I—approach middle age. “How can a generation whose cultural trademark is a refusal to grow up have a midlife crisis?” Scott asks.

Exhibit A in Scott’s argument is Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask, a very funny novel about modern-day Weltschmerz, but one that says more about particular moment in life than any particular generation. That’s not to deny that Milo, Lipsyte’s schlumpfy anti-hero, is an Xer, or that his concerns and tone don’t have a uniquely Gen X spin to them. The cynicism about a culture that broke up their parents, that argued against corporations, and that handed them a recession as soon as they got out of college—it’s all there. And a degree of shock over what everyday success and attainment might meant to them is there too. Milo notices early on that his doppelgangers stalk the streets of his neighborhood:

A man who looked a bit like me, same eyewear, same order of sneaker, charged past. They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.

If that’s an X-ish experience, the sense of disorientation captured in those sentences isn’t so specific, which speaks to the creakiest beam in Scott’s essay. “Earlier versions of the crisis were, by and large, reactions against social norms,” he writes. “Members of the Greatest Generation and the one that came right after — the ‘Mad Men’ guys, their wives and secretaries — settled down young into a world where the parameters of career and domesticity seemed fixed, and then proceeded, by the force of their own restlessness, to blow it all up.” But Xers, like every generation, were raised with social norms too, just an inversion of what Boomers were raised with—the new rule was that we were going to have to figure out a lot of this ourselves, because families, corporations, and government had largely proven themselves untrustworthy. The norm was to be entrepreneurial, to the point of investing heavily in crackpot Dot-com Boom projects. To the extent you consider yourself more or less successful by that standard, the more or less susceptible you might be susceptible to a midlife crisis.

Which is to say that there’s no good reason to think that any of the midlife-crisis novels Gen Xers will increasing pump out in the coming years will be much different than the ones that came before them—every generation grow up to clash against the standards they were raised with. After reading Scott’s essay, I couldn’t help but think of The Ask as a kind of cousin to Richard Yates‘ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road. A grumpy, bitter, alcoholic cousin, to be sure. But the despair that stalks that novel’s hero, Frank Wheeler, has the same wellspring as the one that stalks Milo—the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job with ridiculous demands, of believing you were destined for bigger and better things. When Frank first takes a gig at his father’s employer, a stand-in for IBM called Knox Business Machines, he does it with a sense of irony that would cheer the heart of anybody who caught Reality Bites when it opened in theaters:

And so it started as a kind of joke. Others might fail to see the humor of it, but it filled Frank Wheeler with a secret, astringent delight as he discharged his lazy duties…. And the best part of the joke was what happened every afternoon at five. Buttoned-up and smiling among the Knox men, nodding goodnight as the elevator set him free, he would take a crosstown bus and a downtown bus to Bethune Street … and there a beautiful, disheveled girl would be waiting, a girl as totally unlike the wife of a Knox man as the apartment was unlike a Knox man’s home.

Milo could relate. And Yates wasn’t unique; a list of novels that capture similar emotions wouldn’t be too hard to put together. (Add to the tally Saul Bellow‘s Henderson the Rain King, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter, and James Hynes‘ brilliant new novel, Next.) Midlife crises are an American tradition, and Lipsyte (in that knowing, Gen X way), writes as if he’s aware of it—indeed, perhaps the biggest difference between Yates’ brand of despair and Lipsyte’s isn’t so much generational but authorial. Revolutionary Road is written in the third person, with Yates authoritatively applying fear and anxiety onto his poor characters. In The Ask, written in the first person, Milo takes control of the story, embracing his initial inability to manage things when they go off the rails. I’ve read that book and seen that movie, Milo’s character seems to say. Let me figure it out; I’m a grownup.

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.”

Remembering Robert Bingham

The Louisville Courier-Journal has a lengthy feature on the life of Robert Bingham, the fiction writer and founding editor of Open City magazine who died of a heroin overdose in 1999. There’s no strong time hook to the piece, except that his sole novel, Lightning on the Sun, was published ten years ago this month, and that he was born into a family that owned the Courier-Journal. Still, it’s a sad, interesting read, following up on the influence Bingham has had on writers working today, both financially (PEN American Center awards the Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers to debut works of fiction) and in terms of specific guidance to authors, among them Sam Lipsyte:

One of the writers Bingham helped launch was Lipsyte. Lipsyte’s recent novels have won significant awards, but his first break came when Open City published his story collection “Venus Drive.” They met as fellow students at Brown.

“He was really an early champion of my stuff,” said Lipsyte, whose latest novel is “The Ask.” “He was the guy who was calling me up saying, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Within his own fiction, Bingham was keen at being a provocateur. It served him persuasively.

“Rob Bingham’s work has lasted because he was great at the anti-hero, fascinated by failure, and failure is usually the most deeply personal and most difficult-to-satire aspect of storytelling,” said Sam Brumbaugh — whose debut novel “Goodbye, Goodness” was published by Open City — in an e-mail.

Links: The Book of Jobs

The iPad may force designers of print books to think a little harder about the medium in which they work. Should they do so, the results can be beautiful.

What happens when you read the sex scenes in Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead at an impressionable age.

Sam Lipsyte
: “I think I don’t shirk from emotional autobiography. I mean, I stick pretty closely to the feelings. I change a lot of details, just to avoid the court system.”

Granta editor John Freeman is interviewed at ARTicles, the recently revived blog of the National Arts Journalism Program.

Claire Messud is the latest American to sit on the jury for Canada’s Giller Prize.

Harvard Crimson
columnist Theodore J. Gioia—who at last report was criticizing books he hadn’t read—has a few thoughtful things to say about William Faulkner and humor, plus a glimpse of James Wood‘s teaching style.

The literary magazine Shenandoah will become an online-only publication next year. Its final print edition, celebrating its 60th anniversary and featuring works on Flannery O’Connor, will come out in June. In advance, the editors of the journal have posted an essay (PDF) by James L. MacLeod describing the sights and smells—oh, the smells!—of life on O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm.

Two stories that Cormac McCarthy wrote in college will be included in the 50th anniversary issue of Phoenix, the University of Tennessee’s literary magazine. This presumably displeases McCarthy, who once said he “hoped to be long buried and mouldering before they were published again.”

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.

New in 2008: Love

Maybe it’s just that we’re sick of all the war stories we didn’t bother seeing in theaters anyway, and tired of paging through stacks of Iraq/al Qaeda/failures-of-the-Bush-administration tomes that have arrived in the past year. I know I’ll need one more example here to argue for a trend, but I have two books in hand collecting top-shelf literary writers on the topic of love. Last week I received a copy of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance, in which writers reimagine the love letter. Among the participants: David Bezmozgis, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Audrey Niffenegger.

And today, Very Short List (a daily e-mail I’ve found very addictive, spot-on as it often is in its recommendations) is pushing My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, a collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sez VSL:

This handsome new anthology contains 26 exhilarating and heartache-producing love stories written by familiar masters (Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov) as well as some new ones (Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, Eileen Chang). From the early-adolescent longing in Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” to the crushing choices made in Alice Munro‘s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (the basis for last year’s film Away From Her), each tale chips away at the mysteries of the human heart.

That’s some purple prose there. But the book is for a good cause: Proceeds benefit literacy nonprofit 826 Chicago.