There is a fantastic story in this week’s New Yorker by Thomas McGuane. But hurry, because it will only be on the website for a couple more days. If you enjoy it and want to read more, try reading McGuane’s novel from 2002 The Cadence of Grass.
Most fiction is about people breaking up, right? So why not collect a bunch of fiction together and call it what it is.Two years ago Philadelphia based writer Meredith Broussard decided to do just this. She put together an anthology of stories about relationships gone wrong: 26 of them – arranged alphabetically – by various female authors. The result was The Dictionary of Failed Relationships, which includes stories by Heidi Julavits, Anna Maxted, Thisbe Nissen and Jennifer Weiner. Now Broussard is back with a follow up anthology from the men’s point of view – again, 26 stories about love troubles arranged alphabetically – called The Encyclopedia of Exes with stories by, among others, Adam Langer, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart and Neal Pollack. Tou can find out more about both books at failedrelationships.com.
The WGA writers’ strike (should that all be capitalized? has it been trademarked yet?) has hit the economy of Los Angeles in a big way, hurting everybody from the top down. Some idiot actually predicted that the strike would be over by Christmas (D’oh!). Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and LA has really suffered. But will anyone actually benefit from the writers’ strike? It seems to me that Fox and the NFL might.With the Super Bowl looming this weekend, it would seem to me that Fox is in a position to demand record prices for its ad time, already the most expensive TV ad time of the year. Networks have been running reruns, game shows, and reality TV for the past three months, leaving TV advertisers with smaller and smaller audiences (or eyeballs, as they apparently say in the biz). The Super Bowl, already the launching pad for many national advertising campaigns, might be the only interesting programming on TV for some time, especially if the Academy Awards end up airing a watered-down version of its annual show (The Academy Awards are set to air on Sunday, February 24), as is planned unless the WGA and the studios reach an agreement by then. Couple this with the fact that there’s major national interest in the game, with the undefeated Patriots facing a team from the nation’s largest media market, the New York Giants. It has the makings of the proverbial perfect Super Bowl storm.On the subject of the writers’ strike, I recommend anyone interested in the history of screenwriting check out Marc Norman’s excellent book What Happens Next. His book provides terrific context for how the entertainment industry has dealt with previous technological changes (which, after all, is exactly what this strike is all about).
Pat Conroy recently unleashed a verbal beating on a West Virginia school district that, prodded by complaints from parents, suspended the teaching of two of his novels. English teachers, in particular, will smile when they read this. It begins:I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.Keep reading.
After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”Update: Vonnegut talks about the new book on NPR.Later: Vonnegut’s late in life success
I’m heading to Chicago this afternoon to scope the place out. This summer, after Miss Millions and I get hitched, we’re moving to Chicago where I’ll be attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. Chicago will be a big change for us… the weather alone is a little daunting, but I’m excited about getting to know a new city, and I will do my best to keep The Millions going while I’m in school. In fact, one of the things that keeps the Millions going is the great book stores in LA where I can keep track of the latest books and even meet authors from time to time. I happened upon Golden Rule Jones, which will keep me informed of readings and other literary events, but I need to find a good book store that can be my home base in Chicago, preferably somewhere on the North side of the city, since that’s where we’ll be living. So, I probably won’t be blogging for the next few days, but I will be checking back here. I’m hoping that those of you with knowledge of Chicago will leave some bookstore recommendations in the comments area so that I can check them out. Thanks guys!
They’re starting to get excited about Adam Langer’s next book here in Chicago. I’m not sure how much of this is new information, but it looks like the new book, Washington Story, is a sequel to his debut, Crossing California. From the Sun-Times:In it, Jill Wasserstrom and Muley Wills, the young heroes of the first novel, are now high school students. Over the five years from 1982 to 1987, the world around them expands from the boundaries of Rogers Park and changes immensely including the Chicago mayoralty (Harold Washington is a character in the story).It’s due out August 18th.
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)