Category Archives: Stephen O’Connor

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: Stuffing

If you survived Thanksgiving intact, you can appreciate why the holiday gets so much traction in fiction: “It’s a perfect plot and setting device to get a family together and expose the gap between the myth of American family and the reality.”

The latest issue of Conjunctions has a city theme. Stephen O’Connor‘s fine breakup story, “‘Til There Was You,” isn’t online, but a pair of typically funny-and-sour brief stories by Etgar Keret are. The journal’s website also recently published a brief story by Barney Rosset about a Chicago dive bar in 1948.

Jay Parini, author of The Passages of H.M., on Herman Melville‘s bisexuality.

News to me: “The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston contains the world’s largest collection of Ernest Hemingway material.” (It’s true.)

Cynthia Ozick‘s Foreign Bodies, her tussle with Henry JamesThe Ambassadors, “is the most readable of her six novels, and perhaps the best thing Ozick has ever written,” writes D.G. Myers. More at his blog.

Talking to David Foster Wallace in 1998.

William Styron
‘s daughter explains the voting tally for the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in fiction:

Bill Morris uses his correspondence with another writer as a launchpad for discussing writing longhand, on typewriters, and on keyboards, and whether it makes a difference in the final product.

Stephen Burt
on what a review can do for a book: “[It can] cause others to pay attention to it. Cause others to be interested in it. Describe it accurately. Do justice to it. Indicate what, if anything, makes the book stand out, seem original or memorable, or, indeed, accurate, or [what makes it] sound good. Describe the book as a work of art rather than as simply a representation. Say, and I’m going to misquote the philosopher Arthur Danto here, what is in the book that is not reducible to its content. Cause others to talk about the book. Indicate what about the book is deeply flawed so that artists and readers with interests similar to the author of the book will do better next time. Engage in a public dialogue with the author herself about her new book and her prior books and, perhaps, her next book. Indicate, as in the case of James Wood and hysterical realism, what is, for good or for ill, and it often is for ill, typical or representative about a book, either of kinds of books, or of the age, or the culture that the book comes from. Differentiate the book from other books that seem similar. Indicate that the books has some kind of internal variety or is divided within itself in a way that other readers of the book, [if it] is widely reviewed, haven’t noticed. Bring, and this is my very favorite thing to try to do as a reviewer, bring to the attention of other readers a book, an author, or a work, that doesn’t seem to have been noticed at all, and that deserves attention.” (Follow the link for audio of the Minneapolis event where Burt, my colleague on the NBCC board, spoke these wise words.)

Mark Twain‘s autobiography suggests that “What he loathed, apparently, was dealing with the plain, old, not-necessarily-funny truth about himself,” writes Judith Shulevitz. (Also: If you buy the book, you’re doing your bit for Michigan’s manufacturing economy.)

My review of Andrew Wingfield‘s short story collection, Right of Way is in this week’s Washington City Paper. The book is the fiction winner of an annual contest held by the D.C.-area literary nonprofit Washington Writers’ Publishing House; residents of the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria and fans of Winesburg, Ohio are encouraged to investigate.

Links: Running Numbers

Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”

The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.

Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.

What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)

In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”

Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?

Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James HynesNext. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.

Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”

“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”

Stephen O’Connor on how he came to write the brilliant, peculiar story “Ziggurat.”

On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.

Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”

Gish Jen:

Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”

Ed Park reviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.

Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”

Links: All Talk

Thomas McGuane on reviews: “John Updike said reviews are inexorably mixed—and that’s true. But it doesn’t exempt you from the storm and stress of them as they roll in. You’ll get one from the daily New York Times that says you’re the worst writer in the world, and one from the Sunday New York Times that says you’re the best writer in the world; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says somebody ought to shoot you, and the San Francisco Chronicle says, ‘Let’s welcome him to Mount Parnassus.’”

HTMLGiant interviews Stephen O’Connor about his fine story collection, Here Comes Another Lesson. (A few thoughts on the book.)

Elaine Showalter on the connection between Albert Camus and Philip Roth.

The Paris Review is currently working on an interview with Samuel R. Delany. Says editor Lorin Stein: “I don’t think Delany’s books have ever sold many copies, but if you want to know what’s going on in American literature, you had better know about him and his literature. So, in that sense, it may become a more parochial interview than it was; it may do less to encourage international understanding, but I think that now the literary community in the United States feels that it’s more marginalized than it used to be.”

Ted Gioia talks up his Postmodern Mystery project with Scott Timberg.

Karen Tei Yamashita
discusses the massive amount of research she conducted for her National Book Award-nominated novel, I Hotel. The intensity of her research is certainly on every page, to a fault—during much of the time I was reading it, I wished the book were an oral history of San Francisco’s International Hotel, and at times the book’s novelistic elements were so thin I suspect Yamashita occasionally did too.

“In whole fields of discourse, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book—a static, authored, discrete hunk of prose—is starting to seem quaint.”

On Herman Wouk‘s Marjorie Morningstar: “By choosing Morality over Marjorie while indulging Marjorie over Morality, Wouk creates a character, call her a puritanical sybarite, much more intriguing than he may have intended.”

Scott Esposito on online literary criticism.

Russell Banks: “People more and more resemble people in the 1930s. Maybe that tradition of socially conscious novels written by Dreiser and Dos Passos will re-emerge. In my own work I’ve always had that dynamic conflict between high art and a narrative that’s socially conscious. There’s always been a healthy kind of back-and-forth. Maybe today’s crisis will bring that tradition back into view. I hope so.”

Allegra Goodman on revision.

Stanford is launching a multidisciplinary year-long program addressing war and ethics. Tobias Wolff is handling the literature part.

Anne Rice on sex and Catholicism.

On teaching graphic novels. A good chunk of Alexander Chee‘s reading list is unfamiliar to me, but we seem to share an admiration for Lynda Barry‘s memoir/writing primer, What It Is.

If you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month—or just writing a novel, I suppose—some extended advice on writing female characters: “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.”

Dinaw Mengestu on a Times review that concluded with a hope that his fiction might “expand to the world beyond his own experience“: “Saul Bellow spent his entire career writing novels that pretty much concern the experience of Jewish American second generations—and obviously I’m not comparing myself to Bellow, but would you say, “Bellow needs to stop writing about that”? No. Philip Roth—“Just get over the Jewishness.” Toni Morrison should get over her African American experience thing in her fiction. And Edward P. Jones, my God, how many times is he going to write about black people in D.C.? It’s absurd.”

Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?