Archive for September, 2008

My Joyce Carol Oates review on PopMatters

This morning PopMatters is running another review of mine, this time on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel My Sister, My Love.

(I’ll be writing more substantive blog entries again soon–it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and most of my writing time has been dedicated to working on an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers Contest, which I’ve now completed and submitted.)

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My Coltrane/Davis book review on PopMatters

This morning PopMatters is running my review of Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington’s book Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever.

And coming soon on the same site: my review of Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel My Sister, My Love.

The writer as a loving god

In a column in the Washington Post, Robert Olen Butler discusses the first and entirely failed decade of his writing life, during which he produced (by his own account) around “a million words of dreck” before finally stumbling upon an approach that made his fiction far more successful. For Butler, it came (oddly enough) in a dream about Richard Nixon, which demonstrated to him the importance of trusting the impulses of the unconscious, while also teaching him a lesson in compassion. Butler writes:

Moreover, the insight itself, as in any work of art, was imbedded not in ideas or abstractions — of which there were far too many in early works — but in the moment-to-moment sensual details: a man dressed in a conservative business suit, sobbing; a pair of socks fallen down at the ankle. Perhaps most important, I understood that an artist has to be compassionate. We create characters — virtual souls — and ask our readers to see them as true reflections of some aspect of the human condition. And we place those characters in situations where they must make choices that inescapably imply a universe of values and standards. In essence, we writers act out the role of God. And if we’re going to do that, then it is incumbent on us to be a loving God.

The God bit is a little grandiose for my taste, but all the same, I think Butler basically right here: writers need to feel compassion for the characters in their stories—even if they’re as unlikable and deeply flawed as Richard Nixon. When a reader feels nothing for a character, there’s little reason to care about the results when that character is put to some kind of ethical or personal test. But when a writer reveals the human in characters who are otherwise repulsive or even evil, those characters’ struggles and choices become meaningful in human terms.

On the impending demise of the (corporate) publishing industry

For several days now, book bloggers have been all over Boris Kachka’s piece in New York magazine about the increasingly dire state of business at the big publishing houses. Some folks have taken issue with the article, noting (reasonably enough) that the doom and ruin of the publishing industry has been predicted on numerous occasions in the past. But Kachka’s article strikes me as extremely perceptive and well-informed, and I think he makes an extremely convincing case against the sustainability of many present-day business practices (such as huge advances and pushing for blockbuster sales in an era of ever-shrinking readership) at the big corporate-owned imprints. Books, Kachka notes, aren’t a mass medium any more (if they ever truly were at all)—but the major houses can’t admit as much, mostly because their business models have become so heavily reliant on pushing many hundreds of thousands of copies of a few blockbuster bestsellers.

Kachka isn’t predicting the end of books here—rather, he’s just pointing out that the current model for mainstream corporate publishing simply isn’t working. But there are other models out there, as Kachka notes near the article’s end:

One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

Sounds a lot like what some folks in the music industry have begun trying, doesn’t it? And though it’s not at all clear exactly what will work for either books or music in the long run, it seems to me that aiming rich content at niche audiences is bound to be far more successful than attempting to push a few bestsellers to everyone (and thus also no one in particular) on earth. Why? Because all audiences for books are niche audiences these days—and the same is basically true for music. This doesn’t mean that there’s no money to be made in books or music—but the profits will almost certainly have to come on a smaller scale. And that’s fine by me—I don’t think the quality of books reaching the market is going to be hurt any if they’re actually aimed at the people who read them, instead of at some entirely imaginary general reading public.

Literary fiction as a subcultural genre

Science fiction blogger Charlie Jane Anders has literary fiction’s number. In a “rant” on the blog io9 (link via GalleyCat), Anders expresses some doubts as to whether science fiction stands to gain anything significant through its increasing literary respectability. It’s all well and good that literary writers like Michael Chabon have brought positive attention to science fiction of late, and have thereby introduced some literary-minded readers to the pleasures of the genre. But literary respectability, Anders argues, no longer equals mainstream cultural importance, nor offers any kind of guarantee of quality. Though some literary writers do become minor cultural stars, most will never gain the attention of anyone outside of the tiny subculture of little magazines and their dedicated readers. Science fiction writers face similar circumstances, only in a different subculture: for every Neal Stephenson or J.K. Rowling, there are numerous other writers whose works are highly valued only among the small but passionate community of science fiction readers.

Literary fiction, Anders argues, is nothing more (or less) than another genre, just like science fiction. Some literary writers are good at what they do, and others are bad, but none can really claim to be doing anything than writing under the influence of the aesthetic standards and strictures of a genre with its own rules and expectations.

In the post, Anders contrasts literary fiction and science fiction in order to highlight the genre characteristics of each. On prose style, for example:

Most science fiction stories and novels use language as a tool to get the story across. They’re usually written serviceably, but not sparklingly. There are usually way too many adverbs, too many passive sentences, and too much use of the verb “to be.” In literary writing, by contrast, there’s an obsession with prose style. Every sentence must dapple, like sunlight through a baboon’s toes in the jungle.

Some people prefer lapidary literary language; others have a taste for lean and functional prose, even if it does sometimes sacrifice elegance in favor of moving the story along at a rapid clip. Either way, it’s a matter of aesthetics—and what claim could literary fiction possibly have to inherent aesthetic superiority?

I love literary fiction myself, and I fully embrace its aesthetics. But I think Anders is absolutely right here: the subculture of literary fiction is very small (and getting smaller by the day), and definitely isn’t at the center of the world. Like it or not, the true center is probably something more like American Idol and Monday Night Football. This isn’t to say that literary writers (or for that matter, science fiction writers) aren’t producing great work, or that literary work isn’t important. But it isn’t important to everyone, and lots of people have perfectly valid reasons for finding other modes of creative expression more to their liking.

Annie Proulx and dirty fan fiction

Most authors are thrilled for the attention and sales that a major movie adaptation will bring, and Hollywood has been kinder to Annie Proulx than to most. But as it turns out, the film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” has recently been bringing her a particular kind of attention that she’d much rather do without. The Guardian is reporting that since the film’s release, Proulx has been bombarded by letters and emails from fans containing pornographic rewrites of her story. Apparently many of the writers have even gone so far as to tell her that they sincerely believe that they’re improving on the original, on the grounds that it had an insufficient amount of explicit gay cowboy sex for their tastes. In the article, Proulx sounds perturbed—though also much more good-humored about her unsolicited (and unwanted) emulators than J.K. Rowling, who recently went after a fan who compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia without her permission, and succeeded in shutting his project down.

In case you’re curious: Maud Newton links to a related Guardian piece which offers some choice selections from ten “Brokeback”-related fanfic opuses, all of which are available on the web, and no doubt very juicy.

David Foster Wallace, R.I.P.

Edward Champion and the Los Angeles Times have reported that David Foster Wallace has committed suicide at the age of 46.

I tore through the whole of Wallace’s sprawling, inventive, and magnificent novel Infinite Jest in the middle of an academic term in college—it demanded my attention and kept me up very late for many nights running. It’s a wildly ambitious, sometimes exasperating, and absolutely fascinating book, and no doubt one that I’ll return throughout my life.

Of all of Wallace’s fiction, I think my favorite book is probably not Infinite Jest, but rather the story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which offers an effective balance of formal experimentation and genuinely moving storytelling. Perhaps Wallace’s greatest strength was his ability to fully put his heart into stories and forms that in the hands of many other writers would feel like mere technical exercises. Wallace’s work was often simultaneously richly philosophical and deeply felt.

I’m surprised and saddened to learn of his death. I’m sure he’ll be sorely missed by many.


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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