Category Archives: Susan Straight

Links: Whatever

“[Stuart Dybek] submitted a story called ‘Thread’ to a literary magazine without the label of fiction or nonfiction. A representative at the publication demanded a classification for the story. He responded with what he calls a ‘shrug of the shoulders,’ and the story went on to be published in Harper’s in 1998.”

Scenes from the ceremony inducting the first class of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Matthew Hunte‘s “75 Notes for an Unwritten Essay on Literary Prizes” is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the peculiar, heartbreaking, often compromised processes involved in celebrating one author ahead of others. The 1996 C-SPAN video of an NBCC panel, linked to from the article, is particularly revealing in terms of how the PEN/Faulkner, NBCC, NBA, and MAN Booker prizes function, or at least functioned at the time. And it’s great to see Paul Fussell in action. (Also: a look back at the disastrous 1980 American Book Awards.)

Susan Straight (intensely) appreciates Toni Morrison‘s Sula.

“O unteachable ass”: Mark Twain responds to an editor.

Adam Ross on making the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (And, from the archives, wondering why bad sex writing is getting picked on when there are so many other forms of bad writing out there.)

“The work of the class of 2010 is also reflective of a certain hard-to-define American malaise. [Joshua] Ferris‘s novel The Unnamed and Rivka Galchen‘s Atmospheric Disturbances are both about mysterious maladies that overcome their protagonists without warning. The subjects of Wells Tower‘s stories are inclined to unexpected outbursts of violence and depression; [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie‘s wandering African émigrés are perpetually disappointed by the stifled promise of American life. The stories of 20 Under 40 are similarly weighed down by a creeping unease that seems emblematic of life in the United States today.”

Claim: John Steinbeck‘s Travels With Charley isn’t factually accurate.

Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary on the writer, screens in D.C. this Sunday as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival (via). The trailer:

Francine Prose: “It’s very hard when you are writing a novel because you really have to get back into that imaginary world. So unfortunately, sometimes, if I have been away from it for a long time, like two or three weeks, I will actually have to go back to the beginning, to start writing again … just so I can get enough momentum and kind of figure my way back in.”

A quick gloss on why Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem” works.

Walter Mosley: “The biggest misconception that people have about the literary life is the romance of it. That, you know, that a writer has this large world available to him or her of people, of ideas, of experiences, of interchange of ideas; that they don’t understand really, not how isolated the life of that person is because the life of that person is dependent on who they are, but the literary life of that person. How hard it is to get recognized, how hard it is to get people to read your books. How hard it is to get people to even to understand what they’re reading when they’re talking to you about their books.”

A few good books Ruth Franklin didn’t get around to reviewing this year.

Louis Auchincloss wasn’t like Trollope. He was worse.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Links: Keeping It Classy

A few reactions to Tuesday’s Bookforum-sponsored event featuring Walter Benn Michaels trying to convince David Simon, Susan Straight, and Dale Peck that American literature is off the rails because there’s not enough poverty in it, or something:

“The animated exchanges…demonstrated how everything Benn Michaels said could be totally right, as far as it went, yet be achingly incomplete.”

“David Simon got excited for a second while making the point that slavery DOES TOO STILL EXIST, HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE GAS STATION BY MY HOUSE, but that line of thought was pretty quickly abandoned.”

Michaels: “The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They’re victims of capitalism. The one thing no one wants to talk about is capitalism.”

None of the reports convince me that Michaels is being anything besides a little doofy and a lot willfully provocative, or that he’d be satisfied with any novel you’d recommend to him.

Better to just read a sensible commentary on the current primacy of historical novels.

Or the “bible” for The Wire that Simon wrote before pitching the show to HBO. (h/t Whet Moser)

AbeBooks.com lists ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Nearly all of them are news to me, but Karen Vanuska is doing some research.

Dinaw Mengestu‘s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears a novel set in Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood before it was revived by the city’s housing boom, has been adapted for the stage. It premieres tonight. In Seattle.

A scene from the funeral for Minnesota author Bill Holm: “Bill was laid out in his coffin with Bach sheet music and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ in his hands.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher weighs in on the closing of College Park, Maryland, store Vertigo Books: “When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal–some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.” The store’s “Wake & Potluck” is tomorrow evening.

What Did You Write During the Class War, Daddy?

What does Walter Benn Michaels want? In a frustrating essay in Bookforum, he argues that in recent years American literature has fallen down on the job, mainly because it has failed to get into the business of “criticizing the primacy of markets.” Instead writing novels about, say, the widening income gap, we’ve written much-praised novels that spend too much time looking backward to slavery or the Holocaust—Beloved, The Plot Against America, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are particular failings for Michaels on this front, while American Psycho is praised for at least working off the premise that this country is sickened by its consumerism.

Setting aside for a moment the implied argument that what American literature really needs is a good novel about the widening income gap, the maddening thing about Michaels’ piece is the author’s seemingly arbitrary decisions about what books get to be considered as worthy. If he wants to say that historical novels, by definition, fail to look at the present, that’s fine as far as it goes. (Though The Plot Against America had plenty to say about present-day anti-Semitism and propagandistic administrations.) But, strangely, memoirs are wiped off the table because their stories are not about society but individuals. Margaret Thatcher is quoted to exemplify the problem here; Michaels cites her saying, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So a book like Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior would be too shallow, concerned as it is with just one family; apparently so would Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family (while we’re talking about nonfiction), even though it’s one of the best-researched, most granular portraits of the effects of that widening income gap you’ll ever read—and it was written during the boom years, which according to Michaels caused this current failing in American letters. (I’m sure LeBlanc will be disappointed to hear that during that all those years of reporting in the Bronx she was just playing into Maggie’s hands.)

But The Woman Warrior has a double failing for being a story about immigrants, according to Michaels:

And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages.

Here, I’d love to shove a copy of Ha Jin‘s A Free Life in Michaels’ hands; though he may be obligated to dismiss it for being an immigrant story, it is a story about money for the mortgage. It may not be the Great American Class War Novel he’s dreaming of, but he’s never going to find it if he keeps paging through novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. (Presumably the latter’s portrayal of Newark in American Pastoral didn’t scratch the itch for Michaels in the way he’d prefer.) He’s also not going to find it if he keeps moving the goal posts.

If you’re in New York tonight, you’ll be able to catch a discussion about all this, featuring Michaels, critic-novelist Dale Peck, novelist Susan Straight, and journalist David Simon. Simon’s Great American TV Show, The Wire, is praised by Michaels at the end of his essay, so I have to imagine that at some point during the conversation Richard Price‘s Clockers will come up—the novel was, as Simon has said many times, a key inspiration for The Wire, and a better argument for the book Michaels is looking for than American Psycho. One question I hope somebody asks: Would anything change if we had more novels of the kind Michaels wants? (Assuming, of course, there’s been any drop-off in them.) Would we have better public policy? A better society? Simon, I suspect, would say no—in numerous interviews he’s shied away from any big statements about the show’s impact. Novels simply don’t change the world in that way. Some time back I asked Price about the legacy of Clockers, and he figured the book mainly affected how his books were shelved:

Q: What do you think is Clockers’ legacy?

A: There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers….” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.

So before we get into too many high-flown statements about what responsibility fiction has to society, it’s worth considering whether fiction has any capacity to transform it.