Thanks to the shoddy service of my DSL provider, I haven’t been able to post new reports for you. This is sad because I have many great books to tell you all about. But now it is too late since I am off to Europe this afternoon and I have far too much to do before I leave. If the facilities are adequate and I have the time, I will try to update from Europe. If not, please check back in two weeks when I will pick up right where I left off. Bye bye everyone!
I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, ” the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years,” the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover.
The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh’s cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace’s editor, to get his thoughts.
The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today’s readers?
Michael Pietsch: I’m astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page.
The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can.
TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision?
MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity.
I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art.
MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
Some bloggers mentioned Penguin UK’s “goodbooking” campaign last spring when it was first announced, but now that it’s been up and running for a while, I wanted to revisit it. Oh… my… God. Apparently it’s not possible to get people interested in reading unless you provide them with a Maxim magazine-style melange of bold graphic design, a dumbed-down system for rating books, and busty models handing out cheques for a thousand pounds. Somehow the idea that an unsuspecting guy will be presented a large sum of money this month by a hired model for reading Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? doesn’t quite compute. Setting aside the models for a moment, have a look at the bizarre rating system that they have concocted to get people interested in reading their books. So, if I’m reading this right, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood delivers three doses of death, two of crime, and one each of fast cars, greed, and politics. But don’t worry everybody, this isn’t just a ridiculous marketing ploy, it has been scientifically proven that “women are attracted to men who read books.” (P.S. it’s ok if you’re gay.)Oh, those crazy Brits… anyway, on to more serious matters. Earlier this week, several book bloggers (myself included) posted about books that could help people digest/deal with/move on from Tuesday’s election. Now, an Ask Metafilter thread, inspired by book bloggers, asks, “Can books make a difference?“Speaking of important books, here’s a batch of lists that cover some different takes on what makes up the canon of great literature.I suppose everyone has noticed the new look for The Millions. Pretty snazzy, eh?
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)