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.”

Roth and the Grandmother Cell

A story in Discover magazine points out an interesting wrinkle in the world of neurophysiology that involves Philip Roth‘s Portnoy’s Complaint. For decades, researchers have been investigating whether there are such things as “grandmother cells”—cells that respond only to particular people. The first person to propose the idea that such cells might exist was Jerry Lettvin, an MIT neuroscientist who explained the concept by inventing a fable in which Alexander Portnoy is done the extreme kindness of having all the cells in his body that allow him to recognize his mother removed. As Lettvin tells the story [PDF], the neurosurgeon quizzes Portnoy after the deed is done:

“You remember a red dress that walked around the house with slippers under it?”
“O certainly.”
“So who wore it?”
(Blank)

The thrust of the Discover story is that the “grandmother cell” theory, long dismissed, is enjoying a revival. Researchers have noticed certain neurons that respond only to certain particular chosen stimuli, such as images of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston, which suggests that the researchers may have some of the same fixations as poor old Portnoy.

—–

Updating yesterday’s post about Song of Solomon being pulled from the curriculum of an AP English class at Shelby High School in western Michigan: WZZM reports that the school board voted 4 to 3 to reinstate the book in the class, though apparently it’s a moot point. According to a Ludington Daily News story, the class won’t be taught next year, due to lack of interest. Which makes this tale all the weirder: If the class isn’t going to happen next year, and the school year is almost over—graduation day is May 29th. Go Tigers!—why did the superintendent so forcefully lay down the law just two days ago? Regardless, nobody who has a problem with Toni Morrison‘s novel has volunteered his or her opinion to a reporter, nor appeared by name in any of the news stories about the kerfuffle. The WZZM story notes only that at the school board meeting, “parents said the book’s content is unacceptable and compared it to pornography.”

Morrison Off the Reading List

The superintendent of Shelby High School in Shelby, Michigan, has pulled Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon from a list of required books for an AP English class. A May 13 story in the Oceana Herald-Journal, written as the novel’s place in the curriculum was still under discussion, quotes superintendent Dana McGrew as saying, “there’s a bunch of different things that some people object to it.” A story yesterday in the Muskegon Chronicle reports that McGrew ultimately decided to yank the book from the required-reading list. From the story: “[McGrew] said a group of citizens around the end of March began handing out information at community and school activities protesting the use of the book at the high school.”

Somebody’s falling down on the job here: Here are two newspaper stories about an effort to pull a novel from a high-school reading list, and neither reflects an attempt to find a single person who has a problem with the book. The Chronicle did at least get hold of the class’ teacher, Jane Glerum, who declined to comment. On the evidence of the class’ syllabus, there’s nothing especially provocative about Glerum’s class—it looks like standard-issue AP English fare to me. The quote at the top takes on a new resonance, now, though: “To paraphrase Toni Morrison, I hope this class will help ‘give you the strength life demands of you and the humor with which to live it.’”

A petition protesting the school’s move is making the rounds.

(via January Magazine)

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.