Category Archives: Thomas McGuane

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: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!

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.”

Links: The Two Percent Solution

I haven’t the slightest idea what New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman means by this comment, made in a New York Times feature about Dinaw Mengestu‘s excellent second novel, How to Read the Air: “He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations, but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.” Perhaps if he didn’t write about immigrant life and aspirations, he’d be 100 percent an American writer, wholly comfortable in his own voice?

Richard Ford discusses his forthcoming novel, Canada, with Canada’s National Post.

On James Ross‘ 1940 debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, and his quiet, failed efforts to publish a follow-up.

Elizabeth McCracken on what it means to be a National Book Award finalist: “It didn’t change the way that I felt about my work, but I do know that it changed the way other people felt about my work. And that was a great gift.” (The only book among this year’s finalists I’ve read is Lionel Shriver‘s So Much for That, which I have a few problems with; I’m currently reading Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel, though it’s too early for me to comment on its sprawl.)

Brock Clarke on discovering Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes: “Exley was also a great writer: sometimes he sounded like a guy who didn’t know he wasn’t on stage (‘I saw myself a kind of Owl-Eyes come to Gatsby’s wake…sequestered from the one or two mourners, a curiosity weeping great, excited tears in the blue shade of funereal elms’), and sometimes he sounded like a guy who’d learned to talk in a bowling alley (‘Wake up, yuh good-for nothin’ bum!’), but no matter how he spoke, and no matter what he was speaking about, now matter whether he was self-pitying or self-deprecating, lyrical or profane, Exley was brilliant, and the proof of his brilliance was this book.”

Jennifer Egan attempted to put a little epic poetry into her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.

I’m planning to get to Andrew Wingfield‘s Right of Way, a collection of stories set in the gentrifying Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. He explains the neighborhood’s appeal to a fiction writer: “Gentrification is an abstract term. Like many abstractions, it describes a real phenomenon and has some value because of that. But fiction deals in details. My stories dial down into specific families, specific relationships and lives and places, and in writing them I’ve come to see how messy and complicated and never-finished a neighborhood’s transformations can be.”

Jonathan Franzen
delivers to Oprah without comment a list of his favorite works of fiction (Andrew Seal has helpfully typed up all the titles in one post, sparing you about 30 clicks), topped by Russell Banks‘ 1985 novel, Continental Drift. I would’ve figured that what Franzen admired in that book is the way it applies an epic scope to a domestic story, addressing the American way of politics, race, and class, in some ways more successfully than Freedom does. But writing about Banks’ Rule of the Bone for the Times in 1995, what Franzen seemed to most admire was its guy-ness: “In novels like Affliction and Continental Drift Mr. Banks has deepened Hemingway’s investigation of American maleness, lending a voice to working-class fathers who want to be ‘good’ men but are reduced, by economic brutalities and some essential rage riding on the Y chromosome, to bad ones.”

Thomas McGuane: “I’ve really been longing for a lighter heart in American literature. Dickens, Fielding and Twain were all great writers who could write with humor. We’re at the point now where Dostoevksy is funnier than the average American novel.”

“Some of it’s indelicate.”

The Detroit Free Press recently headed to Arizona to catch up with novelist and Michigan native Jim Harrison, who’s become much more prolific in recent years. According to the story, much of his newfound productivity comes thanks to some (relatively) clean living, but it’s also due to an impulse to get closer to his roots:

“I miss the U.P. terribly,” Harrison says. “It became a retreat for me from the real world. … It was like, after a disgusting two weeks of movie meetings, and then a day later you’re at the Dunes Saloon in Grand Marais after taking a 4-hour walk with your dogs and never seeing anybody, because I’d say 99% of my hiking, I never saw another human being. Which is the way I liked it.

“I know I’ve written about Michigan a lot lately, and I wonder if the origin isn’t homesickness. Which is a very deep feeling, what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s that longing for a place.”

Harrison spent much of his career with fellow Michigander Thomas McGuane as his closest peer and friend, making for a literary orbit I confess I don’t have much feel for. I didn’t much care for books like Harrison’s 1990 story collection, The Women Lit By Fireflies, and early McGuane novels like Ninety-Two in the Shade can be obnoxiously showy, products of the worst of the Beat era and the New Journalism combined. (Sometimes he verged into the just plain nonsensical: According to Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, McGuane once wrote liner notes to a Jimmy Buffett album that praised him for being “one of the last of the sucking chest wound singers to sleep on the yellow line.”)

McGuane has transformed his prose style beautifully in recent years, though, and perhaps Harrison has as well. Maybe they even spent time commiserating over the matter, though we won’t know that for a while yet. The Free Press story mentions that while Harrison’s papers reside at Grand Valley State University, his correspondence with McGuane is strictly off-limits until 2015 (PDF). “Some of it’s indelicate,” Harrison tells the paper. “It contains actresses’ names and dirty stuff. Stacks of it. He writes beautiful letters.”

Don’t try to be clever and attempt to get at the sordid details from the other side: McGuane’s papers reside at Michigan State University, but Harrison’s letters to him are accessible only with his written permission.

Roundup: Money Changes Everything

A Lansing, Mich., TV station covered last week’s summit of Michigan-bred authors Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane—nice to see this kind of thing mentioned on the nightly news, even if the anchor offers a very puzzling mispronunciation of “McGuane.”

Donald Ray Pollack‘s Knockemstiff is being met with positive reviews in England, though I trust nobody there thinks the short-story collection is a window into contemporary American life.

Which might be the case with Ethan Canin‘s America America.

The Washington Post Magazine dedicates its feature well to personal essays by Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Safran Foer, Julia Glass, and Ha Jin. I gravitated toward the last one, in which Jin recalls his very earliest experiences in America; for anybody who was deeply struck, as I was, by A Free Life, it’s a must-read:

For new arrivals in America, there was always the sinister attraction of money. Suddenly one could make $4 or $5 an hour, which was equal to a whole week’s wages back home. If you were not careful, you could fall into the money-grubbing trap. Some Chinese students didn’t continue with their graduate work because they couldn’t stop making money. One fellow from Shanghai started working part time in a museum on campus but soon stopped showing up in his lab in the physics department, dropped out of graduate school within a semester, and began taking courses to learn how to sell real estate. Another in American studies, who loved teaching as a profession, could no longer write his dissertation after taking a clerical job in a bank — sometimes he put in more than 60 hours a week, the overtime even harder to resist.

Roundup: The Juice Is Loose

Power’s back on (though my Internet connection is still a bit balky). A few things I missed:

Pakistan’s Daily Times has the complete text of Ernest Hemingway‘s “A Very Short Story.” Summary: war, letters, gonorrhea.

All those complaints about Truman Capote‘s shabby reporting are finally starting to penetrate: In Cold Blood is a “Classic American novel.”

In Michigan next Tuesdayon July 10? Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane will all speak at MSU on June 10 as part of the Michigan Big Read. The last two should at least have some good Jack Nicholson stories.

Irish author Polly Devlin writes about running into Mary Gordon and soon decamping to teach at Columbia University in New York City, where “you are judged on your grooming and your status—not on your age.” Oh, Polly, you’re judged for everything there…

Cutting Crew

Quarter Horse News (“the newsmagazine of the performance horse industry”) has a lengthy profile of Thomas McGuane. The piece is focused mainly on his second career as a rancher, and on his history as a fan of cutting horses (it’s less violent than it sounds). The sport, in McGuane’s estimation, has apparently sold out in recent years, but though some of the story’s details are a bit snoozy, he gets off a good quote or two that evokes his own earthy, rough-hewn prose:

“Cutting has this mystery at the center of it. The only thing that brings that mystery is the individuality of the horse,” he said. “If the horse is over-corrected or over-disciplined, over-controlled, it’s at the risk of losing some of that [mystery]. On the part of the human factor, there has to be an element of restraint about what we ask of the horse because we don’t want to take the spirit out of the horse. Everyone has to be judged as another living entity, and that’s the way you have to look at cutting horses if you’re ever going to get very far. There are mechanics out there that can train a horse to do things correctly and by the rules, but those horses are never real winners. You come to an agreement about the correct way of doing things without breaking the spirit of  the horse.”

Better English Through the Apocalyptic Novel

Voice of America Special English, which is designed to help listeners improve their command of the language, has a feature on Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. I like the idea of using either of them as literacy-improving devices–The Road, in certain ways, seems clear and simple and irony-free enough to do the job very well.

The transcript of the piece includes this bit:

Thomas McGuane recently spoke at a literature event held by the Pen Faulkner organization in Washington, D.C. He praised the group for inviting writers to speak from all areas of the United States. Then he read two short stories. He also talked about what it was like to make movies. He talked about working with the actors Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson for a movie he wrote called “Missouri Breaks.” He said that when he worked on movies in the nineteen seventies, the industry was very different from what it is today.

I was there, and McGuane also talked about what it was like to get 3 a.m. phone calls from a fucked-up Steve McQueen. But maybe that sort of thing is only for advanced readers.

My critic’s pick on Thomas McGuane for this week’s City Paper is here. McGuane is reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library this Friday as part of PEN/Faulkner’s excellent reading series. Should be fun, wintry mix or no.