Category Archives: Toni Morrison

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: 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…

Links: Research and Development

Nicholas Carr unearths a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon from the New York Times Book Review about the virtues of being a luddite. “If our world survives,” writes Pynchon, “the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.”

Coincidentally, a recent Pynchon symposium at Swarthmore discussed the author and his feelings about the Web: “Later, Pynchon became more paranoid about the connectedness of the Internet, even going so far as comparing it to peering into others’ lives when they are not expecting it.”

So, then, how well does literature adapt to changing technology?

Walking through Holden Caulfield’s New York.

“Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.”

Angela Jackson discusses her debut novel, Where I Must Go, which is about a young black student at an overwhelmingly white, Northwestern-ish university in the late 60s.

Greil Marcus discusses criticism as “the individual’s desire to get it right, to say exactly what he or she means, to capture the feeling that impelled you to write about this particular thing in the first place and not betray it. To live up to the song, the movie, the political speech, the horrendous disaster on the other side of the world or next door.”

Did Mark Twain ever camp on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe? Why did the effort to save his home in New York City fall apart? How did his work become so influential around the world?

Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon has been pulled from a classroom again by an outraged school-board member.

[Victor] LaValle was asked if he’d drawn from any myths or legends in developing his literary style and he mentioned how he had read the Bible all the way through—a volume, he said, drawn from so many previous ancient sources that if functions like an anthology.”

At a recent panel, London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers “praised blogs as being more relevant than newspapers because of their brevity and the diversity of opinions,” according to a New York Press report. “This point was undercut by her own admission that the only blog she reads regularly is the one written by The London Review of Books.”

On a somewhat related note, I’ve started a series at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, in which I toss a few questions to people who run literary Web sites (i.e. sites that have a strong focus on books and run reviews from a variety of contributors). The first Q&A, with the Rumpus, is up now; a second is in the can and will be online soon. I love to hear your recommendations of sites that ought to be featured, either in the comments or via e-mail.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

Links: The “Intergalactically Challenging Jacket” and More

The summer issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is dedicated to travel, excerpting Paul Theroux‘s Dark Star Safari, Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead, Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life, and Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, among many other writers around the world and throughout history. The journal’s Web site features James Franco reading that Kerouac excerpt in an appropriately slackerish way. The most entertaining piece, though, not online, is a 1935 article from Pravda describing the despairing life of American cities, which are sad and largely empty of people. Contrary to popular belief in the Soviet Union, the authors write, in New York and Chicago “brokers don’t run down the sidewalks knocking over American citizens; they simmer, invisible to the public, in their stock exchanges, making all kinds of shady deals in those monumental buildings.” The West Coast is no better: It’s home to the “American film industry, which releases around a thousand well-made but egregiously tasteless and idiotically stupid films per year.”

Speaking of Theroux, he recalls hanging out at Michael Jackson‘s Neverland, and talking with the late pop star on the phone in the wee hours about, among other things, his reading habits: “‘Somerset Maugham,’ he said quickly, and then, pausing at each name: ‘Whitman. Hemingway. Twain.'”

Jennifer Weiner
on studying under Toni Morrison: “Toni Morrison used to read her students’ work out loud, and hearing her read it made me believe that it was good (of course, Toni Morrison being Toni Morrison, she could have been reading my grocery list and I would have thought, ‘Genius!’ She’s one of the world’s all-time great readers).”

Edgar Allan Poe, supernatural detective.

The sad, long struggle of Kaye Gibbons.

Ernest Hemingway‘s grandson has reworked Papa’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, in a way that “attempts to give the impression of a work which is not completed but which is nevertheless readable.”

The second issue of Wag’s Revue is now online, with an interview with T.C. Boyle as its centerpiece. Excerpt: “I do not reveal much of myself, either publicly or in the work. I may have no problem wearing an intergalactically challenging jacket on TV and cracking jokes with the best of them or investing everything I have in a performance of a story, either live or recorded, but all of that is simply a way of rubbing up against the public world while all the while keeping the private world private.”

Joseph O’Neill ponders the president reading Netherland: “I suppose you flatter yourself that the story is the history of the United States. That’s the weird, disorienting feeling you get.”

And, apropos of nothing in particular except that anybody who follows the Washington Nationals badly needs a laugh, this is great.

Links: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

John Callaway, longtime host of Chicago Tonight, the news program of the city’s PBS station, died this week. Among the videos on the tribute page is an interview with John Updike, circa Terrorist.

Jim Thompson discusses his path of going from bartending in Finland to publishing his new novel, Snow Angels

Austin-based hip-hop producer David Williams makes a valid point: “You know what’s a shame about calling your band The Airborne Toxic Event? If that band’s fans haven’t read Don DeLillo, they’re just gonna think, ‘Fart.'” Discussions of Saul Bellow and Walter Benjamin ensue.

On a related note, DeLillo’s next novel comes out next year.

Ha Jin discusses writing in English as his second language.

There’s something charming about the fact that one of the people leading the charge to preserve Ernest Hemingway‘s home in Cuba is Bob Vila.

A group of Ohio University students have made a film version of Russell Banks‘ 1981 collection of interlinked stories, Trailerpark.

Parents in Litchfield, New Hampshire, are outraged that stories by Stephen King, Laura Lippman, David Sedaris, and Ernest Hemingway are being taught in high school. The story ends with a hell of a kicker: “The parents objected to satirist Sedaris’ ‘I Like Guys’ because they do not want their children learning about homosexuality in school.”

Oh, and a couple of school-board members are still blowing a gasket over Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan.

“Pornography is pornography.”

I haven’t been fixated the the foofaraw over Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan, because what’s going on is surprising—school leaders make dumb decisions all the time in an effort to insulate smart kids from smart thought. What frustrated me was the inbalance in the reporting; nearly all the stories on the matter used the school district superintendent, Dana McGraw, as the chief or sole source, with nary a peep from any of the people registering complaints about the novel. That problem, at least, has been repaired: A story by John Cavanagh of the Oceana Herald-Journal describes the proceedings of last Sunday’s school board meeting, offering a window into the thinking of those who wanted the book eradicated from the curriculum. Steve Vinke, one of the three board members who wanted the book pulled (Dave Beckman and Craig Sawyer are the other two), told the paper that “It really has nothing to do with maturity…. Pornography is pornography.” Porn was the big theme among the protesters, particularly for Andrew Near, who feared that once something is read, it cannot be unread: “This is unacceptable,” he said. “You get graphic images in your mind that’s not going to leave you. Where do we stop here? Where do we draw the line?” (Before the Herald-Journal story ran, I invited board members Beckman and Sawyer to comment on the matter. Neither has responded.)

There are at least two positives to come out of the meeting: Morrison’s novel wasn’t pulled from the curriculum (though the course in which it was used won’t be taught next year), and nobody was calling for a book burning. That’s not the case in West Bend, Wisconsin, where four library board members were removed, allegedly for refusing to remove a handful of young adult novels, including Francesca Lia Block‘s Baby Be-Bop, Brent Hartinger‘s The Geography Club, and Stephan Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Publishers Weekly covered the ouster of the board members late last month, but the National Coalition Against Censorship brings news of the latest wrinkle: Earlier this month the Milwaukee branch of the Christian Civil Liberties Union filed a legal claim against West Bend, its mayor, and the library, demanding that Baby Be-Bop be pulled from the shelves. And not just pulled. “We don’t want it put in a section for adults,” Robert C. Braun, president of the CCLU branch, told the West Bend Daily News. “We’re saying its inappropriate to have it in the library, and we want it out or destroyed.” The paper reports that the claim demands that the book “be removed and publicly burned or destroyed as a deterrent to repeating the offensive conduct.”