Category Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

New Yorker Magazine; Fiction; Keywording

You’re reading a novel. “What’s it about?” somebody asks. What do you say?

The question grates; there’s no good answer for it, no easy way to address it. Book reviewers who are trained to avoid all but the briefest sketch of plot summary know that talking about the storyline is a poor way to register enthusiasm about a book. (“Well, there’s this couple, and they have three kids, and it’s 1986, and they’re unhappy because….”) Shifting gears and talking about themes and ideas instead doesn’t improve matters—done wrong (and it often is, in conversation), it comes off as highfalutin. (“Well, it’s about this couple, but it’s really about how globalization, particularly when it comes to personal technology….”) Maybe it’s best to just answer the question with a grunt of setting and characters. (“It’s about an unhappy couple. In rural Oregon.”)

I imagine this struggle going on among the world’s librarians and metadata experts whenever I look at the Library of Congress cataloging information for a work of fiction. For instance, here’s the complete listing for an acclaimed 2006 novel celebrated for its verve and wit and sprawl:

1. Young women—Fiction.

Here’s one for an older novel, a National Book Award winner by one of American literature’s signature 20th century authors:

1. Americans–Mexico–Fiction. 2. Failure (Psychology)–Fiction. 3. Chicago (Ill.)–Fiction. 4. Depression–Fiction. 5. Young men–Fiction. 6. Mexico–Fiction.

And, back to the present again, a relatively recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

1. Greek Americans–Fiction. 2. Detroit (Mich.)–Fiction. 3. City and town life–Fiction. 4. Suburban life–Fiction.

If you keep up with fiction at all, you can probably take a good guess at the titles of the last two books. (No need to prolong the mystery: In order, they’re Marisha Pessl‘s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Saul Bellow‘s The Adventures of Augie March, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.) But few people would discuss what those novels are about in the Library of Congress’ terms. Indeed, the information for Middlesex seems to avoid the book’s most relevant plot point (Hermaphroditism–Fiction.).

All of which is a long way of saying for the past month I’ve been amused and baffled by the metadata for short fiction on the New Yorker‘s website. For about a month, I’ve been logging examples at my Tumblr, and the ongoing effort to summarize fiction with streams of keywords feels at once charming and pointless, like a child trying to capture moonlight in a jar. New stories on the website are keyworded with an entertaining profligacy, as in the case of the Jonathan Lethem story that inspired me to start logging keywords in the first place:

Pornography, Clerks, Stores, Threesomes, Sex, Videos, New York City, Critics, Reviewers, Transsexuals, Sex Machines, Vomit

This kind of labor goes on constantly in editorial hives today, though it often goes undiscussed—editors are logging, tagging, keywording, catagorizing, metadata-ing. The Great God CMS must be pleased. It is tedious but essential work: Because there is no telling how articles—sorry, “content”—will be used in the years to come, those words are the necessary toeholds for databases in the future. And because nobody knows what information we’ll need years, centuries from now, the more keywording the better. The New Yorker has done its bit to make sure that anybody researching the role of sex machines, or vomit, in the first decade of the Tea Party era will be able to reckon with Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic.”

Older stories are keyworded much more parsimoniously—perhaps this is because because the responsible party is concerned only with finding the essence of a story, but more likely because this work is being done in a hurry. Even so, if you studied English in high school, you know this story:

Lots; Mob Violence; Small Towns; Stoning

You probably know this one too:

Adolescence; Bathing Suits; New England; Supermarkets

Those scattered terms can be enough to let you know what a story is. But it’s not enough to say what it’s about, not really, at least partly because emotional states don’t get keyworded at the New Yorker. There’s nothing in the metadata for Vladimir Nabokov‘s “Symbols and Signs” (“Insane; Birthdays; Children; Parents; Russia, Russians; Gifts: New York City; Immigrants”) that would get at its tone of emotional devastation, the despair in its line about “neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners.” The three keywords for Alice Munro‘s “A Wilderness Station” (“Canada; Letters; Murder”) are almost comically insufficient at summarizing a story about guilt, accusation, and suppression that stretches across decades.

So be it. If fiction could be summarized in a series of nouns it would stop being fiction; its abstractions render abstracts meaningless, or at least beside the point. Still, I was disappointed to see how shabbily James Thurber has been treated on this front by the keepers of the New Yorker archives. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for instance, is entirely bereft of relevant keywords. (Just “The New Yorker, magazine, subscription”—when in doubt, pitch a subscription, apparently.) If you want to know what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about, you’re just going to have to read it—which, in a perfect world, is just as it should be. But how much has the story’s lack of keywords diminished its chances of being discovered and read?

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.’”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham's] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

Links: Lost Pages

A run of Lolita had to be pulped after the publisher neglected to include the novel’s faux foreword. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.

“The odds are stacked against someone I know writing a good book,” says Gary Fisketjon, leading into a lengthy interview with Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross, a friend of Fisketjon’s.

A plaque honoring Julia C. Collins, author of the first published novel by an African-American woman, The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride, will be installed this weekend in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Clive Owen is Ernest Hemingway.

The two scholars who helped bring Ralph Ellison‘s second novel to light.

A piece by Mark Z. Danielewski will be in the debut issue of Slake, an LA-based literary journal.

Daniel Clowes on why graphic novels gravitate toward themes of angst: “[T]hink about the job. It only attracts a … certain kind of person, really. It’s hard, and solitary. We only come out periodically. You’ve got to write for four hours a day, and even then you’re not done, because you’ve still to draw the panels.”

It’s nice to see Lola Pushlight get the respect she deserves, though frankly I prefer her embryonic work.

Links: Leftovers

What foreigners might read to better understand the “American character.”

An author gives up on writing criticism: “I know intimately that the worst novels ever written took more fearlessness, will and soul than the best book reviews ever written.”

To buy the time work on a play or another book, Richard Price is working on a screenplay for Lush Life.

Raymond Carver biographer Carol Sklenicka: “It boggles the mind how someone who is said to be gentle can hit his wife over the head with a wine bottle and sever her artery.” I have a review of Sklenicka’s book in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird keeping Southern writers from addressing race?

Colum McCann
‘s win at the National Book Awards somewhat redeems Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Rick Moody starts tweeting a story tomorrow at @BlackClockmag.

A visit to the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. And the guy who played Coach on Cheers.

The publication of Vladimir Nabokov‘s The Original of Laura is an opportunity to dump on living authors: “Richard Powers drones on in high, wooden prose about love, Philip Roth engages in bottomless carnal rumination, Foerian pornographers of tragedy eagerly show us their wares—and Nabokov’s fragments … reveal how hollow so much serious (a synonym, these days, for self-serious) contemporary literature is.”

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity for Roger Ebert to write about the film version of Lolita for Playboy. [NSFW]

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity to come up with some new covers for Nabokov’s backlist.

Jonathan Yardley likes Ben Yagoda‘s book on memoirs, though he’s not much for the recent spate of memoirs themselves.

Jonathan Lethem on the Kindle: “I like old, crapped-out books. For me, it’s an unapologetic fetish, and my house is loaded with them and I’ll always be in love with these things. I worked in used bookstores for a long time. But again, in the cause of not being the cranky old man, even though I can feel all kinds of intense sensory resistance to this thing I choose not to believe it’s the enemy. I’m just going to decide that the world has enough room for this innocuous little guy, too. Why not?”

Links: Sad State of Affairs

Happy Friday! Here’s a guide to depressing novels.

Jonathan Lethem recalls his longtime relationship with the works of Philip K. Dick (via i09).

NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank talks with Washington City Paper about its reissue of Don Carpenter‘s excellent debut novel, Hard Rain Falling.

The Road director John Hillcoat is looking to film The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant‘s bracing 2008 novel about Virginia bootleggers.

Newark, New Jersey, makes its pitch to be a “major cultural capital” by landing a major poetry conference. Jayne Anne Phillips approves.

Meanwhile in Newark, Amiri Baraka turns 75.

Flavorwire has a Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates, who reveals that she’s working on a memoir titled The Seige: A Widow’s First Six Months.

Liked the book? Buy the handbag.

Elmore Leonard will receive PEN USA’s lifetime achievement award.

Why Vladimir Nabokov‘s unfinished novel The Original of Laura won’t be available as an e-book.

The case for Alice McDermott as an important Catholic novelist.

James Ellroy: “I distrust people who do not err on the side of action. And there’s a distinction between being conflicted and being ambivalent. Ambivalence connotes wishy-washiness, being conflicted connotes a clash of dramatic choices. And so I despise the idea of shades of grey or ambiguity standing as ultimate moral value or literary value.

Links: Dirty Old Men

Playboy will publish an excerpt of Vladimir Nabokov‘s final work, an unfinished novella titled The Original of Laura. Don’t look so shocked: The magazine interviewed him in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway: KGB spy?

The Second Pass takes a look at ten books that need to be tossed out of the canon. First up, Don DeLillo‘s White Noise: “DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic.” I’m not buying the “polemic” bit, and who said he was shooting for realism anyhow?

The Iowa Review has a new editor.

Politico rings up Ward Just for a quote about the death of Robert McNamara.

Eudora Welty‘s estate pulled her name out of the running for the renaming of her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women.

The Atlantic has a modest proposal: Give tax breaks to publishers who support new and little-known writers. M.A. Orthofer retorts, “don’t ‘not-for-profit’ publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?”

John Updike‘s longtime home in Beverly Farms, Mass., sold last month for $2.5 million.

Jim Harrison has a pretty fancy house too, though his actual writing room looks like a cubicle in an abandoned real-estate brokerage.

George Pelecanos doesn’t know jack about writing about shotguns, according to a Field & Stream gunblogger: “Pelecanos in particular will put characters in a tense armed standoff, then have someone say ‘I can shoot you before you have time to rack that pump.’ In real life the immediate reply would be ‘Boom.’”

Links: Gathering Dust

Ann Patchett figures nobody’s read her 1994 novel, Taft.

Cormac McCarthy has won the PEN/Saul Bellow award for lifetime achievement, which should make Michael J. Fox happy.


John Jeter
, author of The Plunder Room, explains why breaking into publishing is a little like his day job of running a music club.

Don’t start an interview with Tobias Wolff by asking about writing process.

Identity Theory’s James Warner avoids a similar kerfuffle in his interview with Yiyun Li, by simply asking what questions she prefers to avoid. This, for once, elicits an interesting reply:

I don’t particularly like to be asked about my views of political situations, both current and historical. As a fiction writer, I believe that what needs to be said about any political situation can not be separated from my fiction, and I feel that I have said enough in my work.

(Though if you write a novel set during late stages of the Cultural Revolution—and The Vagrants is a great book—it’s hard to be surprised that somebody might ask for your thoughts on China today.)

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote down some impressions on the critics who contributed to an issue of TriQuarterly commemorating his 70th birthday—with high praise for scholar Alfred Appel Jr., who died last Sunday. (via Sam Jones)

Independent bookstores around the country are being decimated. Except the ones in Martha’s Vineyard.

Annals of Nabokov

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov‘s birth, an occasion that inspired the New Republic to open up its sizable vaults an showcase a handful of reviews that Nabokov wrote for the magazine, as well as a raft of critical assessments of his work. I was struck by his list of requirements in his 1941 piece, “The Art of Translation.” The bar’s set high:

First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.

The critical pieces, for their part, are largely expressions of enthusiasm. For a literary culture that was apparently hurting for a new Faulkner or Hemingway in the late 50s and early 60s, Nabokov was the chosen successor; note the opening of John Updike‘s 1964 piece, in which he dismisses Norman Mailer and James Jones as “homegrown cabbages loyally mistaken for roses.” Writing on Pale Fire in 1962, Mary McCarthy enthused that it was “one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.” Conrad Brenner in 1958 was given to even broader proclamations, writing that Nabokov “will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize [true in both cases], yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner’s burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic.”

Nabokov, on the evidence, didn’t seem to be anxious for divine intervention to handle all of this acclaim—he simply kept writing, when he wasn’t chasing butterflies. And he clearly kept his sense of humor. In 1999 Jed Perl noted Nabokov’s semi-famous, semi-serious 1972 recipe for boiling eggs (aka “Eggs a la Nabocoque”), displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library:

“Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!),” he begins. A few lines later, the two eggs have slipped “soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan. If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium at an old fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away.”