There’s an interesting story from the New York Times that describes a couple of fiction writers who are trying their hand at penning superhero comics. For Michael Chabon the move is the almost inevitable result of the success of his Pulitzer winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which, within the narrative, contains a lengthy accounting of a comic book created by Kavalier and Clay, the book’s main characters. The comic book is about a Houdini-like superhero called the Escapist, and considering how fascinating Chabon makes this fictional comic book sound, it’s only fitting that fans would want to own the real thing. Also mentioned in the article is the writer of popular thrillers (The Zero Game), Brad Meltzer taking over the writing duties at the DC Comics series “Green Arrow.” Another well-known fiction writer, not mentioned in the article, who has long been crossing the line between comics and fiction, is Neil Gaiman who first became known for writing a comic book series called The Sandman before making a name for himself writing fantasy novels like American Gods. I’ve always preferred newspaper funnies and graphic novels to the superhero stuff, but genre jumping like this can produce interesting results.
I spent a lot of time on the el yesterday riding all over Chicago, and there were lots of folks reading books. When you actually look at what people read, you realize that the reading habits of average folks range far beyond the coverage of newspaper book sections. In terms of what actually gets read, genre fiction certainly seems more popular than literary fiction. Here are the books people were reading on the red, purple, and brown lines yesterday.The Tristan Betrayal (a posthumous effort by Robert Ludlum that inspires PW to say “Perhaps it’s time to let the master rest in peace.”)Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris’ follow-up to Johnny Depp-vehicle Chocolat)Dutch II (part 2 of a trilogy by Teri Woods – and put out by Teri Woods Publishing – that scores an Amazon ranking of 1,229)Devil in the White City (I think every resident of Chicago has read Erik Larson’s account of murder at the World’s Fair.)Great Expectations (I love it when I see people reading classic novels on the el – it can restore ones faith in society, I think)Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer is reaching the masses!)Hotel Pastis (Peter Mayle’s “novel of Provence”)Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen never goes out of style)Deception Point (The obligatory Dan Brown thriller – law requires that at least one Dan Brown novel be present in every train car and a dozen on every airplane.)Elantris (PW says: “[Brandon] Sanderson’s outstanding fantasy debut, refreshingly complete unto itself and free of the usual genre cliches.”)Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth (Lana Turner never goes out of style either)We Thought You Would Be Prettier (Laurie Notaro’s “true tales of the dorkiest girl alive” – ranked 1,446 on Amazon)
When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
Perhaps all crystal balls are cloudy, at least where literary fiction is concerned. In 2006, as publishers seemed inclined to keep the heavy artillery under wraps until the lucrative holiday season, our January “Most Anticipated” round-up could not help but overlook Pynchon, Edward P. Jones, Richard Powers, or Claire Messud, as well as a number of eminently worthy books from independent publishers.That said, the “Most Anticipated” post can help register some of the early buzz that later gets drowned out by other books’ more formidable marketing campaigns. Readers who tend to keep their own private lists of titles to check out may have remembered to pick up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara in August, when the talk of the town (at least my town) was Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And so, in the spirit of getting the word out early, I offer an otherwise completely silly alert about a couple of books slated for publication in 2008.Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes, winner of last year’s Prix Goncourt, has sold over a quarter of a million copies in France. This novel presents the first-person confession of a homosexual SS officer. I first heard about it on NPR, where a number of francophone readers praised the power of the story and of Littell’s prose – remarkable, given that Littell is actually an American. And if these raves are accurate, readers have a lot to look forward to: in French, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies or The Kindly Ones) runs over 900 pages. HarperCollins has purchased the American rights, and is waiting for the translation to be finished, according to the December/January issue of Bookforum. I’m tempted to just buy the damn thing in en francais, but fear that it would take me all winter to read… and I’m already committed to Against the Day.Another huge novel discussed in Bookforum’s “The Insider” column is the Chilean author Roberto Bolano. FSG is bringing out a Bolano novel this year, but fans of monumentality might wish to wait for 2066, an 1100-pager about a series of slayings in Ciudad Juarez.Maybe it’s just the frisson of delayed gratification, or my big-book fetish, but these two – a cumulative 2,000 pages – are my Most Anticipated novels. Now let’s see if, a year and a half from now, when they actually hit the market, they will have been worth the wait.
In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? “The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years,” Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be “cult fiction,” the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I’ve only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the “cult fiction” label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled “cult fiction.”
Wanting to know a bit more about me and the site? I’ve been interviewed at the literary community site LitMinds. In this interview you can find out the answers to such burning questions as why I started the blog and how it got its name. And for the truly obsessed Millions fans, they’ve even managed to score a picture of me to adorn the interview.
The Hag points us to this humorous but heartbreaking article about the declining fortunes of freelance journalists. Though I’m not at the moment trying to make it as a freelance journalist, I’ve always thought it something I might like to try. You know: the freedom, the romantic life of the roving freelancer, the potential for glory on glossy pages, all that. But, according to Ben Yagoda, things aren’t as they once were. Even the quality of the rejection letters has declined substantially:A friend of mine, who never got published in The New Yorker, still treasures the bunch of hand-typed and personal rejection letters he got in the late ’70s and early ’80s from William Shawn. That’s so 20th century. These days, you’re lucky to get a form letter. The pocket veto – that is, the unreturned e-mail, letter, or phone call – has become an accepted way of turning down ideas and submissions, even from longtime contributors.
I saw this post at Galleycat about the mysterious transvestite cult author J.T. Leroy (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things). As the Galleycat post suggests, there has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Leroy is a real person or perhaps simply the pseudonym and persona of another author, and the evidence remains inconclusive. Having never read any of Leroy’s books, I don’t have much to say about Leroy as writer, but, as a bookstore clerk in Los Angeles, I did see him (or someone pretending to be him) in the flesh, so I may have something to add on the subject of whether or not he exists.I’m probably a little off on some of the specifics, but here’s what I remember. On a weekday sometime during 2002 or 2003 (see, I told you I’m a little foggy here), the manager told us that she’d gotten a call from Leroy’s representative and that he would be stopping by to sign some books. We bookstore clerks, aware of Leroy’s reclusiveness, mysteriousness, and even the possibility that he didn’t exist, awaited his arrival with much curiosity. Many speculated that it was a hoax and he wouldn’t show. But then he did. He wore very baggy clothes including a much too large gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his face, which was further obscured by a disheveled blonde wig. In photos, you almost never see Leroy’s face, and even though we were in close proximity to him as he signed books, none of us got a very good look at him. Nor did he talk much, mumbling one word answers or giggling nervously in response to our questions. The strange thing was, even though my coworkers and I had all seen him in the flesh, after he was gone none of us were any more or less sure that he was actually real.