Category Archives: Steven Millhauser

#fictionpulitzergate

“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others,” she writes. “In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.” But hang on: Juries and judging panels, in my experience, don’t reach a deadlock because they’re disinterested. It happens because something was in dispute. It may be that the Pulitzer board doesn’t care much about fiction in general, but they were charged with caring about three works of it, and for the sake of literary discussion—if not sales—it would have been interesting to hear what the squabbling was about. That’s the other grating thing—a prominent group of people had some kind of disagreement about what qualifies as a good work of fiction, but we didn’t get to find out what they disagreed about.

And because board deliberations are secret, we’ll likely never know. Maybe the Pulitzer bylaws could be tweaked in some way to force the issue. In the case of a no-decision in any category, the board shall be obligated to release a statement detailing the nature of its disagreement—a fate so godawful that the board will select a winner just to avoid it.

Me, I thought The Pale King and Swamplandia! were both interesting but flawed novels, and Train Dreams remains, as it has been for a while, one of the countless novels I hope to get to soon. Like Janice Harayda, I would have liked to have seen Steven Millhauser‘s magisterial, elegant, and strange short-story omnibus, We Others, capture the Pulitzer’s attention. It would have been nice: It would have made a few people ask, “Is this really the best thing out there?” and I could’ve said, yes, it’s pretty close.

Last of the Summer Reading

Four books I’ve reviewed in the past month, each recommendable to some degree:

Amy Waldman, The Submission (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): Waldman’s debut has been eagerly covered as a “9/11 novel” because the plot’s driver is a competition for a 9/11 memorial. But the attacks are covered only glancingly here, and The Submission is more a media critique than anything—Waldman is at her best when she focuses on the ways that cable news and partisan newspapers steer public opinion, and the ways that nonpartisan coverage gets manipulated for its own ends.

Steven Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): It’s been a good year for victory-lap short-story collections, including Charles Baxter‘s Gryphon, Edith Pearlman‘s Binocular Vision, and this one from Millhauser. Certain themes emerge when his stories are placed in such close proximity—the uncertainty of childhood, the power magic both real and conjured, the authority of collective voices (“we” is the protagonist in a number of these stories). But it’s his precision that’s most impressive, particularly in “August Eschenberg,” which, fittingly, is about a young man obsessed with clockwork automatons.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility (AARP.org): Gatsby-esque, as a few critics have said, but not just because it’s about the high life in pre-World War II New York. Like Gatsby, Towles’ debut chronicles one man’s hubris from a certain remove, filtered through an outsider’s impressions. Katey Kontent’s voice emphasizes sass and attitude, and Towles’ plot always seems to be busily up to something (now we’re skeet shooting with the gentry! now we’re launching a dishy magazine! now we’re changing the subject when somebody mentions the Anschluss!). But when Towles lets Katey stop and breathe a little, she’s a fine observer of the ways that money, or the need to accrue lots of it, shade character.

George Pelecanos, The Cut (Barnes & Noble Review): Following a string of standalone novels that have ranged from excellent (2006’s The Night Gardener) to rote (2009’s The Way Home), The Cut reads like Pelecanos has finally found a comfortable groove. In Spero Lucas he has a young PI he can work with for a while, and he allows himself more room to discuss how Washington, D.C., has changed since he began chronicling the city in the early 90s. (Though as USA Today reports, his next novel is set in 1972.)

Links: Short Subjects

Paul Kincaid has a thoughtful post at Big Other about the distinctions between the novel and the short story: “Over the duration of a novel, duration being time spent in composition or in reading or simply the passage of time within the fiction, there has to be time enough to seek explanation, to make sense…. Within the compass of a story, on the other hand, the unbidden, the whole, there need be no more than that moment that makes no sense, because it is adrift from history and from future, seen separated from what went before and what comes after which are in their turn what gives it context.”

I’ve been reading Steven Millhauser‘s book of new and collected stories, We Others, which comes out next month, and he made a similar point in a 2003 interview with Jim Shepard in Bomb: “But shortness encourages certain effects and not others. It encourages, for instance, the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment. In the little world of the story, many kinds of desirable effect are inherently impossible—say, the gradual elaboration of a psychology, the demonstration of change over time…. As for novels: in their dark hearts, don’t they long to be exhaustive? Novels are hungry, monstrous. Their apparent delicacy is deceptive—they want to devour the world.”

Also at Big Other, which I really should’ve been keeping up with regularly a long time ago: A word-hoard from Annie Proulx‘s The Shipping News.

“1. Mow lawn. 2. Get rid of that fucking hose.”

Novelist David Carkeet recalls a lifetime’s worth of resonant words and phrases that have a way of worming their way into one’s everyday thoughts. Or, as he puts it, “the crap in my head.” (via)

Michael Dirda considers the literary heritage of his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, and invites readers to share their own hometown authors. (To my knowledge, my hometown of Lyons, Illinois, has produced only one author of note, Jack Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia.)

Regarding The Tragedy of Arthur and other novels in which the author is a character: “The game element of art, the puzzle of the construction, distances us from what really greets us every morning, as opposed to that we confront in the turning of the page. These fictional autobiographies flag a form of deception and collusion between reader and writer.”

Frank Wilson isn’t sold on the third rule for book reviewers in Robert Pinsky’s much-circulated Slate piece. The rule in question: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.” Wilson writes, “Certainly reviews that focus exclusively or even principally on Pinsky’s third rule are a waste.” I agree it’s a difficult thing to pull off, especially in a tight word count, and it risks opening the door to off-point political readings and other ramblings. But it does have the benefit of putting the reviewer’s opinion in context. Perhaps it’d be more helpful to revise the rule or add a corollary to it: “The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about how well the book’s author addressed the thing the book is about.” (Or just dump Pinsky’s rules and go with Updike’s.)

Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” John Barth: let it go.

Going Long-ish

Ann Beattie‘s new book, Walks With Men, is her first novella, clocking in at just over 100 pages. She describes the appeal of the form in a brief interview with the York County (Maine) Coast Star:

Short stories distill language, which can be to the writer’s advantage; novels don’t exactly do the same thing in the same way, because it would get tedious. But in the middle range (the novella), the writer can sometimes trust in the reverberation of language and images and symbols in the same way the short story writer can trust in their inherent weightiness. In a novel — for me — language dissipates, in terms of subtly suggesting things, and other things have to take over.

In saying that, she references a 2003 Bomb interview of Steven Millhauser by Jim Shepherd, where he talks a little more colorfully about the appeal of the middle route:

The novella wants nothing to do with the immense, the encyclopedic, the all-conquering all-devouring prose epic, which strikes it as an army moving relentlessly across the land. Its desires are more intimate, more selective. And when it looks at the short story, to which it’s secretly akin, it says, with a certain cruelty, No, not for me this admirably exquisite, elegant, refined—perhaps overrefined?—delicately nuanced, perfect little world, whose perfection depends so much on artful exclusions. It says, Let me breathe! The attraction of the novella is that it lets the short story breathe.

Sounds nice, though pulling it off successfully is a tougher trick—Don DeLillo has been trying to do it for the past ten years, and only now, with Point Omega, does he seem to have a firm command of that middle length. Last month the Emerging Writers Network dedicated a month-long series of posts to the questions of what the form is and why/if it works. One of the best comments there comes from novelist Steve Stern: “So what if the novella denies you the primary intimacy with its characters that a novel affords; it enhances your awareness of the mystery of their movements, the allusiveness of their speech, while at the same time preserving your appreciation for the beautiful symmetry of the structure that contains them.”

Jewish-American Lit 101

I’ve been killing fair bit of time clicking around the online companion to Josh Lambert‘s book American Jewish Fiction: The JPS Guide—the database includes publication information on a raft of books dating back to 1867. (That would be the year that Nathan Meyer‘s Differences was published. I haven’t heard of it, but Lambert points out that it’s available online.) Though the site has little in the way of commentary, it’s still interesting to see some of the connections between authors and publication dates; Saul Bellow‘s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, appeared the same year as John Updike‘s Bech: A Book, in temperament flipsides of the same coin and reflecting a surge of interest in Jewish themes. Or, as Lambert put it regarding Bech: “By the late 1960s, Jewish writers so dominated the field of American literature that non-Jews began to get jealous.”

The book itself, which I haven’t seen, includes comments by Lambert on 125 books. A few months back he explained his process of arriving at that number. Much of his time was spent talking with Jewish literature scholars, but he also cast a wider net:

Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary’s epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.

Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent of American Jewish fiction–that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples–books like Millhauser’s and Caspary’s are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.