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.
A couple of years ago at my old job as a group of us frittered away the last hours of the night shift, my coworker Lucia, who runs the world’s coolest online book store, entertained us with a fun little trick. She discovered that if you take William Carlos Williams’ famous poem about chickens, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and use Babelfish to translate from English into a foreign language and back to English, the results are quite amusing. Remembering this just the other day, I decided it would be fun to share this game with you:The original:So much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.English –> Dutch –> English:This way much hang from a red wheel wheelbarrow vitrified with rain water beside the white chickensEnglish –> German –> English:hangs as much after a red wheel truck off glazed with rain water beside the white chickensEnglish –> Japanese –> English:So side of the white chicken where the rainwater and the gloss which depend on the red monocycle can be appliedEnglish –> Portuguese –> English:thus very it depends in top of a red stand on hand of the wheel vitrified with water on rain to the side of the white hensEnglish –> Chinese (simp) –> English:Extremely is decided to a red wheel handcart to enamels with the rain water nearby the white chickenAnd finally… my favorite: English –> Korean –> English:Lapse in the rain adjacent waters which depends in the deep-red wheel grave the wheel me in the side of the white chicken
In 1886, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to his brother enumerating the following requirements for his own writing:Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic natureTotal objectivityTruth descriptions of persons and objectsExtreme brevityAudacity and originality; flee stereotypesCompassionI like to present this list at the start of any fiction writing class because it’s wonderful conversation fodder. Everyone has one they cherish (for me, it’s compassion), and one they revile (as my students recently pointed out to me: Can anyone every be totally objective? Isn’t the fleeing of stereotypes stereotypical?). After a discussion of this list, I have my students replace one or two of Chekhov’s rules with their own. Popular answers include: passion; avoidance of adverbs; write what you know; write what you don’t know; and humor. I always add “Bold use of metaphor” – whatever that means. If I were to revise Chekhov’s list, I’d take the “extreme” out of “extreme brevity.” Too wordy.Perhaps Chekhov hadn’t read Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, in which he advised, “Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism.” I have a feeling that Ernest Hemingway did catch this warning, though, for when he was challenged to write a story in six words, he took old Poe to task with this:”For sale: baby shoes, never used.”I love Hemingway’s story – how it attests to the power of implication! For a long time, I thought it very sad, until author Antoine Wilson schooled me otherwise. Now I appreciate it even more.As pointed out on this blog a few days ago, Smith, the online magazine devoted to storytelling and personal narratives, is publishing a compendium of 6-word memoirs by various authors (some of them were previously compiled in the 2007 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.) My favorites include Drew Peck’s “Ex-wife and contractor now have house” (which follows in Hemingway’s footsteps of implication), and Bob Redman’s “Being a monk stunk. Better gay” (for its musical qualities). All entries are fun, and they make you want to try writing one.I myself am terrible at the six-word story, autobiographical or not. Perhaps that’s the real reason why I don’t want the “extreme” in my “brevity.” I use as few words as a story requires – but sometimes a story requires a lot of words. Isn’t that what writers of the long short story – such as Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg – might tell you? But Poe warns against this, too, for “the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable.”Uh oh.
Here is his press release:It’s been done for such entertainment luminaries as Bob Hope and George Burns, and now author and journalist Rodger Jacobs hopes to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to change the name of a street corner to honor F. Scott Fitzgerald on the 65th anniversary of the author’s death.”F. Scott Fitzgerald is an American icon.” says Jacobs. “Some would even argue that he’s one of the greatest authors this country produced in the 20th Century.”When the author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 21, 1940 he was living with gossip columnist Shelia Graham at her luxury apartment on North Hayworth Avenue in Hollywood.”Fitzgerald spent his last years here in Los Angeles,” Jacobs explains. “I don’t think a lot of Angelenos know or appreciate that fact. He wrote extensively about L.A. in his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and in the Pat Hobby stories he wrote for Esquire.”Renaming the intersection of Hayworth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, Jacobs hopes, will encourage locals to explore the literary world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”I would be happy if this attempt to keep Scott’s name in the public eye would bring just one curious person to pick up a book of his that they might otherwise not have read. According to census data, the number of literate Americans who are no longer reading books at all is growing in leaps and bounds ever year.”The entire petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.
From Michael Chabon’s site, an update on his forthcoming novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and a preview of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which Chabon is editing. The inclusion of “at least four” genre stories, including ones by Dennis Lehane and Tom Bissell, will surely rankle literary purists.Letters to Frank Conroy from his studentsThe AP’s books guy, Hillel Italie, profiles FSG and highlights their penchant for publishing award-winning books.
I am a loyal subscriber to The Paris Review, which, for my money, is still the best literary journal on the market. With the most recent issue came a bookmark noting the launch of a new Paris Review online feature. It seems that founder and long-time editor George Plimpton had always wanted to make the hundreds of interviews the journal had published as part of its series “The Art of Fiction” available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. Now, thanks to the miracle of the interweb, that dream is a reality. “The DNA of Literature” is a complete catalogue of every interview The Paris Review has ever published. The series is being posted by decade every few weeks. The 1950s are up there right now, available as easily printable PDFs. The best of the excerpts shown on the page: William Saroyan on when he writes: “I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late…. The afternoon is the only time I have left…”Also, the DNA of Literature was paid for by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out, if only so they may one day say to their grandkids, “There once was this thing called the National Endowment for the Arts…”And for anyone who is more into the whole aural side of interviews, I recommend the very strange yet wonderful “Live from Prairie Lights” series. This is a live interview show taped right here in Iowa City featuring interviews with writers like Marilynne Robinson, Max Allan Collins, Jeff Shaara, and many more. The interviewer is a rather eccentric woman who has become a local celebrity around this town. You can listen to the events live or hear clips from previous interviews via Real Player. It’s a hoot!