Category Archives: Saul Bellow

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on among the world’s librarians and metadata experts whenever I look at the Library of Congress cataloging information for a work of fiction. For instance, here’s the complete listing for an acclaimed 2006 novel celebrated for its verve and wit and sprawl:

1. Young women—Fiction.

Here’s one for an older novel, a National Book Award winner by one of American literature’s signature 20th century authors:

1. Americans–Mexico–Fiction. 2. Failure (Psychology)–Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)–Fiction. 4. Depression–Fiction. 5. Young men–Fiction. 6. Mexico–Fiction.

And, back to the present again, a relatively recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

1. Greek Americans–Fiction. 2. Detroit (Mich.)–Fiction. 3. City and town life–Fiction. 4. Suburban life–Fiction.

If you keep up with fiction at all, you can probably take a good guess at the titles of the last two books. (No need to prolong the mystery: In order, they’re Marisha Pessl‘s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.) But few people would discuss what those novels are about in the Library of Congress’ terms. Indeed, the information for Middlesex seems to avoid the book’s most relevant plot point (Hermaphroditism–Fiction.).

All of which is a long way of saying for the past month I’ve been amused and baffled by the metadata for short fiction on the New Yorker‘s website. For about a month, I’ve been logging examples at my Tumblr, and the ongoing effort to summarize fiction with streams of keywords feels at once charming and pointless, like a child trying to capture moonlight in a jar. New stories on the website are keyworded with an entertaining profligacy, as in the case of the Jonathan Lethem story that inspired me to start logging keywords in the first place:

Pornography, Clerks, Stores, Threesomes, Sex, Videos, New York City, Critics, Reviewers, Transsexuals, Sex Machines, Vomit

This kind of labor goes on constantly in editorial hives today, though it often goes undiscussed—editors are logging, tagging, keywording, catagorizing, metadata-ing. The Great God CMS must be pleased. It is tedious but essential work: Because there is no telling how articles—sorry, “content”—will be used in the years to come, those words are the necessary toeholds for databases in the future. And because nobody knows what information we’ll need years, centuries from now, the more keywording the better. The New Yorker has done its bit to make sure that anybody researching the role of sex machines, or vomit, in the first decade of the Tea Party era will be able to reckon with Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic.”

Older stories are keyworded much more parsimoniously—perhaps this is because because the responsible party is concerned only with finding the essence of a story, but more likely because this work is being done in a hurry. Even so, if you studied English in high school, you know this story:

Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning

You probably know this one too:

Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets

Those scattered terms can be enough to let you know what a story is. But it’s not enough to say what it’s about, not really, at least partly because emotional states don’t get keyworded at the New Yorker. There’s nothing in the metadata for Vladimir Nabokov‘s “Symbols and Signs” (“Insane; Birthdays; Children; Parents; Russia, Russians; Gifts: New York City; Immigrants”) that would get at its tone of emotional devastation, the despair in its line about “neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners.” The three keywords for Alice Munro‘s “A Wilderness Station” (“Canada; Letters; Murder”) are almost comically insufficient at summarizing a story about guilt, accusation, and suppression that stretches across decades.

So be it. If fiction could be summarized in a series of nouns it would stop being fiction; its abstractions render abstracts meaningless, or at least beside the point. Still, I was disappointed to see how shabbily James Thurber has been treated on this front by the keepers of the New Yorker archives. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, is entirely bereft of relevant keywords. (Just “The New Yorker, magazine, subscription”—when in doubt, pitch a subscription, apparently.) If you want to know what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about, you’re just going to have to read it—which, in a perfect world, is just as it should be. But how much has the story’s lack of keywords diminished its chances of being discovered and read?

An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976’s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Links: Heat Treatment

The spring books issue of the Chicago Reader features remembrances by Chicago authors of their favorite writers. Luis Alberto Urrea and I disagree on the virtues of Ninety-two in the Shade, a book that for me exemplifies the notion of “you had to be there” in the late 60s and early 70s, but we agree on this much: “You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal.”

McGuane: “I remember feeling when I started Driving on the Rim that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy. I’m happy to see that some of our best young writers are going after this problem tooth and nail.”

Salman Rushdie picks a handful of books by American authors for bedside reading at a New York hotel.

Arthur Phillips—whose new novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I very much enjoyed—on the disingenuousness and uselessness of the question, “What is the author trying to say?” Phillips’ point that you shouldn’t/needn’t read a novel as an author’s autobiography makes sense, though he so eagerly pushes the notion that a novelist has no real argument to make I’m left wondering why he feels fiction is worth writing at all. The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t the didactic novel he studiously avoids, but its satire of memoir is crystal-clear.

Aimee Bender: “I know, a lot of people really don’t care for younger narrators but I’ve never understood that; as a reader, I really like a kid’s POV and when writers really submerge themselves in that limitation, often there are such rewards. I just reread The Sound and the Fury, (which was kind of like reading it for the first time since it was a high school assignment years ago and I think I took in about two pages of the whole) and the Benji passages are so amazing to read, really stunning, because of how deeply Faulkner is able to skip over the ways we see the world and show a new view. How light looks, how flowers look. He’s not a kid, but he’s also a kid.”

Francine Prose: “Another reason I don’t teach writing workshops-and why I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist-is because other people’s suffering has become so painful to me that I can’t bear it.”

The Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticism—for art writing, not book reviewing, but his comments on the form at ARTicles apply generally: “It’s not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn’t actually said whether he thinks the thing he’s looking at is good or bad.”

Yiyun Li on translating Chinese author Shen Congwen‘s letters.

Paul Harding on how the tricky language of Tinkers makes it something an asset for translators: “Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation…. The translators aren’t limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language.”

The would-be American Writers Museum makes its pitch to the Twin Cities.

A brief history of the speculation over the authorship of Henry AdamsDemocracy.

“Why are these young American Jews trying to find out things about their fathers and grandfathers? I think each is attempting to answer the question: how does one write Jewish-American novels after Bellow and Roth?”

Would Saul Bellow support the Tea Party?

I would not be surprised if Joyce Carol Oates is working on a coffee-table book about cats.

Links: Revolutionary Roads

Andrew Alan Stewart Carl: “It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story.”

Roxane Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and why writing to satisfy (or undercut) your perceived place in the socioeconomic matrix is too. Richard Price had a story to tell related to this in a 1996 Paris Review interview:

I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust . . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t it.

I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx?

He says, No. From New Jersey.

Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang?

He says, No. My father’s a fireman out in Toms River.

Oh, so he’s a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don’t you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff?

He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff.

What if they do? First of all, they don’t. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don’t know?…. [H]e went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.

Adam Levin lists some of works of American fiction that have had the strongest influence on him, including a spot-on defense of Philip Roth‘s Operation Shylock.

Does pursuing a Ph.D. do a crime writer any good?

Mark Kurlansky on returning to his roots as a fiction writer to contribute to Haiti Noir.

A visit to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library:

Benjamin Taylor talks with Dissent about his experience editing Saul Bellow‘s letters. The passage from Henderson the Rain King he cites as an example of Bellow’s greatness is one of my favorites as well—that book has the best ending of his major works. (via)

Confronting Henry James‘ late works.

Victoria Patterson isn’t hearing the argument that an author has to be all over social media to promote his or her work. “I don’t have an optimistic, sunny personality. Why should I pretend to be a social person?

Reynolds Price died yesterday at 77. I’ve read none of his many works (recommendations about where to start are welcome), but I do like this line from his 1991 Paris Review interview: “I think I’m a comic writer always. I hope I am—in the long run anyhow—because I think our existence is comic, finally.”

What’s that? Somebody’s bemoaning the lack of a great Washington novel again?

Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Links: Kitchen Duty

Saul Bellow: “We all carry the same load of unwashed plates from life’s banquet.” His widow, Janis Bellow: “It wasn’t just the 80-year-old elder statesman who gave ‘em what for, but also the young man who didn’t hesitate to tell a publisher, “If that’s all you got from reading The Adventures of Augie March I don’t want you even looking at my next book and I’ll go elsewhere.”

Lorin Stein recently spoke about literature at Yale, inspiring bright young minds: “I want to be a writer and my first reaction was, ‘Wow, I need to pick up a book that’s not a textbook from Yale,'” reported one attendee.

I wished that Edwidge Danticat‘s new book of essays, Create Dangerously, felt less like a grab bag, but Scott McLemee finds a connecting thread: “Some of the pieces are personal essays; others are critical reflections on the work of Haitian writers and artists who worked as emigrants. The difference in focus does not involve a difference in tone, however. In either genre, Danticat registers an acute awareness that dislocation or relocation are, after all, common experiences.”

Toni Morrison receives the French Legion of Honor award.

Essays From the Nick of Time, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Mark Slouka, is one of my favorite books of 2010. Though his interview with the Rumpus is mostly focused on politics, he does discuss wearing two hats as an essayist and a fiction writer: “I can’t tell you anything about myself—why I got married, what I had for breakfast this morning—that isn’t a story. So, aside from certain conventions of voice, a certain stance toward ‘fact,’ I’m not sure the line exists. One side bleeds into the other all the time.” (I’ve read none of Slouka’s fiction; recommendations welcome.)

Dennis Lehane in the Wall Street Journal: “If I have to be labelled, I want to say my books are about the ethos of a city. I’m not a mystery novelist, I’m definitely not a literary novelist. I think I’m kind of an urban novelist.” (Buried in the story is the news that he’s writing an HBO movie with fellow Wire writer George Pelecanos.)

John Irving on critics: “Many practicing critics don’t write novels; I’ve written 12. What can someone who hasn’t written one novel—or has possibly written a couple of mediocre novels—teach me about my writing? Nothing. I will keep saying this till the day I die: when you’ve written a number of novels, the process of being reviewed is often an exercise in being condescended to by your inferiors.” If only the point of book reviewing were to teach John Irving something about writing…

Short and Cranky

Like his mentor Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has been dedicating much of his late career to writing short novels. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal timed to the release of his new novel, Nemesis, he recalls discussing the art of concision with Bellow:

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?'”

Unfortunately, the interviewer decided either not to follow up about what Bellow’s response was, or chose not to ask. I’ve spent some time trying to dig up some information about Bellow’s philosophy of the short novel, especially the ones he wrote during his own late period, but I haven’t had much luck. (They’re not my favorite books of his; though I have distinct memories of having read 1989’s A Theft and 1997’s The Actual, I can’t recall them packing much of a punch.) A Theft, in fact, isn’t really a short novel at all—it’s a short story that was deemed too long to run in the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Atlantic by their editors, so Bellow decided to go the then-unusual route of publishing it as a paperback original.* The problem, Bellow made clear to the New York Times, wasn’t the story but the growing contempt magazines had for serious fiction. ”I had already suspected for a long time that they are not interested in fiction very much any more,” he told the paper. ”Most of the serious magazines feel it necessary to have one story per issue, and the minimalists are much in favor because they don’t take up too much space. That way you can have all that room for advertisements.”

I may just be using the internet, Google Books, and Lexis-Nexis incorrectly, but it seems no journalist wondered why a novelist who made his name with bricks like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog would shift gears later in life, and what differences there were between his widescreen novels and his novellas. Bellow did discuss the appeal of brevity for him, though somewhat quietly—he buried it in the afterword he wrote for his 2001 Collected Stories.** “[I]n my early years I wrote more than one fat book,” he writes. “It’s difficult for me now to read those early novels, not because they lack interest but because I find myself editing them, slimming down my sentences and cutting whole paragraphs.”

But his urge for tightening prose, he explains, involved more than just an editor’s instinct—the afterword as a whole is a lament for the death of readers’ attention spans, though his frustration is so velveted it takes a moment to actually register as frustration. His mood slowly darkens in the course of a paragraph:

[W]e respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read—my own or other people’s works—it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. There is a modern taste for brevity and condensation. Kafka, Beckett, and Borges wrote short. People of course do write long, and write successfully, but to write short is felt by a growing public to be a very good thing—perhaps the best. At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

From there, some gorgeously rendered passages of get-off-my-lawn-ism ensue: Complaints about Michael Jackson’s new record deal making the arts pages, and then a list of all the things jockeying for our attention instead of books: “automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, etc.” Bellow suggests that future writers will have to both compete with and address this new way of living: “Such a writer will trouble no one with his own vanities, will make no unnecessary gestures, indulge himself in no mannerisms, waste no reader’s time. He will write as short as he can.” But he closes with a line I can’t help but read as a screw-you: “I offer this as a brief appendix to the stories in this volume,” writes Bellow, a man who had little patience with being told to write to length.

The mentee makes clear what the mentor would only state indirectly. “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” Roth recently told Reuters. In writing a short novel like Nemesis, he said, “I am with the times.”

* According to a 1989 story in the Independent, 60,000 copies of the British edition of A Theft had to be pulped because the cover misrepresented the title as Theft—a tale that echoes present-day events.

** The book treats A Theft and 1989’s The Bellarosa Connection as stories, not short novels.

A Thing About Ideas

The selection of Saul Bellow‘s letters published in this week’s New Yorker (not online)—a book of his correspondence is slated for the fall—is a sort of greatest hits of the Bellow myth. Among numerous other personas, the letters showcase the nervy free spirit, dismissing critics to Alfred Kazin; the Jew defending his kinsmen, slapping William Faulkner for supporting Ezra Pound; the mentor, passing his agent’s name on to a young Philip Roth; the convivial but tough colleague, trying to explain his love of John Cheever to Cheever himself; and the casual misogynist, grousing about the “crooked little slut” who interviewed him for People.

But though this particular clutch of letters seems largely chosen to emphasize star power and provocative statements, they also make up a chronology of how Bellow felt about his work, shifting from arrogance to Herzogian anxiety to, in his last years, a kind of ruefulness about what he avoided even in his most expansive novels. The passage most likely to be quoted (and which Bellow’s widow, Janis Bellow, reads on this week’s New Yorker books podcast), comes from a 1957 letter to Roth responding to his story “Expect the Vandals”:

A company of Japanese committing hari-kari, though, I wasn’t sure about. A great idea, but palpably Idea. I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’s “The Plague” was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.

Being so deliberately anti-idea freed him to write stemwinders like Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. But in his later years, he seemed concerned about what those novels didn’t address, particularly the Holocaust. As he put it in a 1987 letter to Cynthia Ozick: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene…with anything except the terrible events in Poland.” In Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors‘ 2009 book A New Literary History of America—a massive, inventive, entertaining, Bellovian book—Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse expands on that point, writing that, for better or for worse, that kind of denial was critical to Augie March‘s success. “To have taken any greater note of Hitler’s war against the Jews in that novel would have changed the entire balance of its American project,” she writes. “That insouciance is part of Augie’s charm.”

The letters in the New Yorker don’t track how Bellow shifted away from being an anti-ideas man, just how heavily the shift seemed to weigh on him. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that he addressed head-on in his correspondence.

Writing Up Absurd

In the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham pays tribute to Saul Bellow‘s 1964 novel, Herzog, which he thanks for helping him to dig out of a rough time. One attribute of the novel’s healing power, Gooderham suggests, is its clear, firm prose. “It is so precise, so carefully constructed, with not a badly chosen word or comma out of place, that it demands your full attention and focuses your mind so that you are forced to concentrate completely on the novel (one cannot speed-read Herzog. Or at least I cannot),” he writes.

I read Herzog last fall feeling just fine about myself, so I can’t speak to its curative powers*, but it’s true that the novel’s precision is one of its charms; after finishing it, I figured there was nothing I could say about the book that couldn’t be said better just by quoting it at length. But precision isn’t enough by itself to be inspiring—if it were, our hearts would sing more often reading the news. (Of course, there are times when a work of journalism can do that.) It may be more that in Herzog, Bellow openly faces the messiness of what it’s like to be in the midst of an identity crisis—Moses Herzog is one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging neurotics in fiction. Yet writing can be a little sloppy to get neurosis across too. Part of the appeal of a messy cult novel like Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 novel, Nog (reissued last year), is the way it turns confusion into an asset. Jumbling up genres, questioning what’s true and what’s imaginary, clouding up the identity of its main character, shifting perspectives—all of it reflects Wurlitzer’s anxiety about a society straining to order things. “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join,” he writes.

Both Herzog and Nog are 60s novels, and perhaps the following decades have made novels about mental illness a little less interesting. That’s a point Marco Roth made in his recent essay in n+1 magazine, “The Rise of the Neuronovel”—now that we’re better able to identify and treat what’s malfunctioning in our heads, obsessive letter-writing campaigns and genre mashups may seem too frivolous for a writer who’s now more prone to study up on diagnoses and treatments. That, or writers have just sublimated those old neuroses into fake memoirs and stunt memoirs. That’s a notion Daniel Mendelsohn recently floated in the New Yorker:

[T]he trauma-and-redemption memoir, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture…. In a way, not only the spate of memoir hoaxes but the recent proliferation of what [Memoir: A History author Ben] Yagoda calls “stuntlike” memoirs—narratives that result from highly improbable stimuli (“One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States”)—arise from a deeper confusion about where reality ends and where make-believe begins.

So, just like Herzog, James Frey worked through a breakdown by getting it all down on paper. And just like Bellow, he knew it would be more appealing if he made it up.

* When I was having a rough go of it a while back, the only book I felt mentally capable of processing was Sidney Sheldon‘s 2000 novel, The Sky Is Falling, which is horrible in every conceivable way. Either I had it worse than Gooderham, or he’s more ambitious about his reading during his funks.