Last summer Oprah’s book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s East of Eden as “the book that brought Oprah’s Book Club back.” By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen’s high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these “sacred” books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven’t yet read it, here it is.
Over the last year it seems that Spencer Reece has become the poet laureate of The Millions, mostly because his poem in last summer's new fiction issue of the New Yorker was so amazing. Now, finally, his first collection of poetry, named after that poem I loved, The Clerk's Tale, has been released. I've got my copy on order and I can't wait to get it. While I'm waiting, I've been reading this interview with Reece.A NoteFrom the book I'm reading right now: "For it is certainly true that negligence in ladies destroys shame in their maids."
I was poking around Amazon today and I came across a listing for a new book by Pete Dexter called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. I'm a fan of Dexter's (see my review of Train, my review of Brotherly Love, and my review of Paris Trout), so I'm excited to see he's got a new book, but what has me especially thrilled is that, if the subtitle is to be believed, the book is non-fiction. I had the chance to attend one of Dexter's signings once, and he rattled off story after story, many of them from his days as an old newspaper guy in Philadelphia; it was definitely one of the most entertaining readings I've ever been to. This new book is being put out by Ecco. If anyone knows anything else about the book (or can get me a copy), let me know.
The auditions are over, according to my friends in Iowa, now that Ben Marcus - aka the "Dark Horse" - has made his visit to campus to try out for the Director job. During the workshop students noted his nervousness, which they saw as a good sign, that perhaps he's more invested in getting this job than the other three candidates. Marcus handed out passages from published stories that complimented the stories being workshopped. Marcus also went above and beyond with his feedback on the stories, giving each one a three page, single-spaced typed response. At the reading, Marcus' short story "Father Costume" got mixed reactions. Many were confused, but some allowed that it was beautifully written. Marcus' craft talk appeared to get the best reception of all the craft talks. Instead of talking about literary theory, Marcus talked about how he runs a workshop and what kinds of seminars he teaches at Columbia. He talked about trying to be the ideal reader for each text in workshop, and about how he meets with students after their stories are up to help them figure out what of the numerous and diverging criticisms he/she should take to heart. When he opened the talk to questions, he was honest about the kinds of stuff he reads (from Carver to Munro to Barthelme) and the way he chooses applications. He said that often his favorite applicants at Columbia end up coming to Iowa, which proves that both programs can recognize good writing. He even passed out course descriptions of some of his seminars at Columbia, including one about how writers use language to produce emotion in the reader. Rumor mill: Marcus gets thumbs up from the poets and most of the students, but the fiction faculty isn't so keen.So, that's it. Hopefully, we'll get another report when the final decision is made.Previously: Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang, Jim Shepard
There's a very entertaining article at the CBC Web site about the pros and cons of being prolific as a writer. It leads with a discussion of the output of Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame, who regularly churns out 3,000 words at a sitting. Prolific authors are often envied, but if they happen to be genre writers they are likely to be derided as well, even as publishers covet them and count on them to bankroll riskier publishing endeavors: The dream of most publishers is to have at least one "house author," a writer with a robust fan base who can dependably churn out one title a year - giving the publisher the financial solidity to take the occasional flyer on more challenging (read: less gainful) authors.The article also includes a great quote from DFW: Musing on the seemingly inexhaustible John Updike, David Foster Wallace once asked, "Has the son-of-a-bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" Updike's absurdly prodigious output - in the form of novels, as well as short stories, travel writing and literary criticism - has undermined his stature in the eyes of Foster Wallace, as well as many fiction readers. I would tend to agree that volume can degrade one's reputation in the eyes of the reader. The article goes on to mention Joyce Carol Oates whose level of output many seem to take as a personal insult, and closes with an amusing comparison of Oates and Stephen King courtesy George Murray, proprietor of Bookninja.Curious about the output of different writers? This search returns lots of interesting numbers.
It's been hard to watch the news the last couple of days. I've been interning with chicagotribune.com this summer, so, since Monday, I've been pretty immersed in what's been happening on the Gulf coast - as immersed as one can be, I suppose, with out being actually immersed. Judging from the light traffic this blog has gotten over the past few days, I'm guessing most folks have been spending their online time reading the news, as I have. Aside from the major news sources - CNN, etc. - here's what I've been refreshing many times a day: the WWLTV blog, the Times Picayune Breaking News Weblog, The Irish Trojan's blog, and The Interdictor. It's amazing how much all the blogs out there have enriched the coverage of this catastrophe. It's a great time to be a news consumer.But you may, like me, also need a diversion from the news. Luckily, my favorite New Yorker of the year has just arrived at my doorstep: The Food Issue. I can't wait to start reading it. Other diversions:The Chicagoist is giving away three books to promote Picador USA's 10th anniversary event at the Harold Washington Library in ChicagoI might have to try this: Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can tag the books by subject, and the system pulls in Library of Congress cataloging data. Free for the first 200 books and 10 dollars for a 20,000 book limit. (via H2O)Bookfinder.com, the ultimate Web site for tracking down hard to find books, has released their latest list "of the most sought after out of print titles in America."
Anybody who read William Langewiesche's book The Outlaw Sea or is simply interested in the modern day high seas should take a look at Brendan Corr's photo essay from Foreign Policy magazine. It chronicles ship breaking in Bangladesh, the process by which the world's tankers and freighters, ready to be retired but unwanted by any developed nation, are dismantled by hand for scrap metal. It's remarkable and post-apocolyptic and when I heard it in Langewiesche's book (I listened to it on audio) I couldn't quite visualize it because it seemed so outlandish, but these pictures tell the story.