Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”
I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.
But among my harshest critics was a writer friend, who in a scorching series of emails said mine was this obnoxious, privileged gaze, that in every description of Saudi lives, I mainly revealed that I wanted Saudis to grow up and be good democratic Westerners — which was an impossible goal, he said, because good democratic Westerners are monsters who started wars and were a menace to the whole world.
Years later, I lived in Beirut, where I was still writing stories. As part of an effort to do better this time, I began to read The Innocents Abroad, a record of traveling by Mark Twain.
As a traveler, I had always written earnestly about my observations. Twain, it seemed, was all too eager to write wryly about his own ignorance. There was probably a lot I could learn.
In 1867, a crew of Americans set sail for Europe, Asia, and the Holy Land. For the benefit of the reader and to fulfill his duties as a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, one of the passengers, Mark Twain, set to writing a book about what happened.
In the first pages, the reader encounters Twain’s unease with the basic notion of trying to be original in a travel book. “A little after noon on that distinguished Saturday I reached the ship and went on board. All was bustle and confusion. [I have seen that remark somewhere.]”
Then the ship sees its first island, and Twain isn’t too excited about the Azores. “All the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering of tombstones or cemeteries.” Better to temper any real enthusiasm with a protective cloak of detachment and humor.
In Riyadh, I faced the same problem, but I tried to write with kindness and heart, explaining what I saw with detail and nuance. Twain? “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them,” he writes of the Azores. It’s a sly trick — substituting his fellow shipmates for the reader. “These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts here,” he writes — but of course the paragraph isn’t dry.
Twain has protected himself and us by suggesting no normal person would know the Azores, then he protects himself further by saying any information about the strange place would be “dry.” Then he unloads: “The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.” Twain writes simultaneously with contempt and fondness, and we’re left to puzzle out what he’s trying to do, and where in the mess we should stand.
What he’s doing, it seems, is deploying a constantly changing mix of both sincerity and irreverence, making his position on things hard to pin down. Take the way he grapples with the tired subject of a famous church. “We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame,” he writes. “We had heard of it before. It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.”
Twain was making himself hard to take seriously, protecting himself from the question of whether writing like this made the world a better understood place. The whole situation was captured in the way he recounted the story of Abelard and Heloise, the 12th-century French lovers:
With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history, and I propose to narrate it here, partly for the honest information of the public and partly to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily…Heloise was born seven hundred and sixty-six years ago. She may have had parents. There is no telling. She lived with her uncle Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Paris. I do not know what a canon of the cathedral is, but that is what he was.
I have come to admire that paragraph very much. In it, Twain is humorous and self-deprecating about the project of historical storytelling, but he is also contemptuous of stupid readers and of disinformation and false sentimentality, but then he acknowledges again that he himself doesn’t actually know much — for instance, what on earth is a canon? There’s a kind of crazy disregard for accountability, a carnival of intention and expectation. You sense a plan, but it’s hard to divine where, if at all, Twain is willing to draw a line. In a storm of riotous laughter, who could quiet the room and suggest to Twain that what he does has serious consequences?
But there’s no need to lecture; Twain’s well aware of his power. “In Marseille, they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious matters.” Books of travel change the world, Twain is ready to acknowledge. But all you’ll probably remember is that line about the clean shirt.
In the end, travel books — or personal essays — are doomed. Try to describe the gorilla and you fail. Words are never enough, and most will ultimately be forgotten. And if that gorilla is a man? Maybe better not to have begun at all.
The other day, the American-born Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted a line on Twitter: “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Cole was probably right. “I have camped with the Indians,” Twain writes. “I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them…I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.”
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.
Hubert Selby Jr., a controversial American writer, has died. He was best known for his unsparing look at Brooklyn’s seamy underbelly, Last Exit to Brooklyn, a landmark book that was widely praised but also spawned obscenity trials. His career reached another apogee when his novel Requiem for a Dream, a chilling portrait of addiction, was turned into a movie by director Darren Aronofsky. Here’s the obit from the Times.Also, check out the web only interview with Edward P. Jones at the New Yorker. He talks about Washington, DC, his life, and his upcoming collection of stories. An excerpt: “One of the things that I found out when I did go to college is that people had a very narrow idea of Washington. They thought it was basically the government and the Supreme Court and all of that, and they didn’t know that there were people who had lived there for generations and generations and had really almost nothing to do with the government. That was certainly my mother’s case. She came from the South and was a dishwasher in a French restaurant that just happened to be about a block or so from the White House. Around that time in college, I also came upon James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” and I admired what he had done for the people in Dublin–just everyday, good people. I took a creative-writing course, and I began to think, well, maybe one day I would like to do the same thing for the people of Washington that Joyce had done for the people in Dublin.”
I’m back and I’m fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We’re off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I’ve got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today’s compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the “modern day,” literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today’s writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand “the novel” as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn’t appropriate about Michiko Kakutani’s front page slam of the Clinton book.
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I’m from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they’ve covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, “reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week’s visitors arrived here by searching for his name.
USA Today rounds up media coverage of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. They share this tidbit, too:The Maltese Falcon was first published serially in five parts in Black Mask magazine from September 1929 to January 1930; Knopf published it as a book in 1930. “There are about 2,000 differences between the two published texts – sometimes a comma or a paragraph placed (differently), but often it’s Hammett fooling with the prose to get it just right,” says Richard Layman, author of six Hammett books, including Shadow Man, a biography, and a trustee of Hammett’s literary property trust.USA Today also put the book’s first chapter up. Check it out.
This story has been all over the news lately: British novelist Carole Matthews accepts payment from Ford Motor Company in exchange for having her hip main character drive a Ford Fiesta. They were loving this story on NPR, too. There is a pretty obvious knee-jerk response to this sort of thing: that it sullies the world of books, that even our hallowed bookshelves are being invaded by corporate sales pitches. But before we get hysterical, let’s take another look at this. The book in question, The Sweetest Taboo, bears the tagline: “Is nothing sacred?” and its cover is a giant shopping bag. So the main character trades in her VW for a Fiesta. So what. I’m sure she’s still wearing Fendi, drinking Starbucks, and eating biscuits. Matthews might as well get paid for all this product placement. It’s not as though this is Saul Bellow we’re talking about here. We should just expect, as a culture, that the literary equivalent of Spiderman 2 will include this sort of merchandising and move on. Speaking of which… after I’m done writing this, I think I’m going to have a nice big bowl of Cheerios (the official breakfast cereal of The Millions), and I’ll wash it down with a nice, cold Michelob Ultra (the official low carb beer of The Millions). Aaahhh refreshing.The Los YorkerAnd here’s an interesting story for all the disgruntled Californians who are tired of New Yorkers looking down their noses at them: the Villiage Voice reports that more Californians read New Yorker magazine than New Yorkers. To me, it’s not a question of which coast is more culturally significant, it’s that the national media should recognize that Los Angeles in particular represents the future of this country. The small segment of this city that gets all the press, Hollywood, is not, by far, the most compelling thing about Los Angeles. LA is important because of the huge immigrant population and because legislation that starts in Sacramento inevitably filters across the country. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to see how many Angelenos read the New Yorker. When I was told, soon after I began working at the book store, that Southern California is the country’s largest book market, I was very surprised, but having been in the middle of it, I see that it is true. The entertainment industry takes the scrutiny off of other aspects of LA. While the media is focused on premieres and award shows, hundreds of book clubs and readings and other literary events abound unnoticed and unsullied by the press. It’s a rather interesting phenomenon. As for the New Yorker, I have indeed noticed that they have been writing about California recently, but if I could suggest something to David Remnick it would be that he run more pieces in the vein of the one about the LA River a few weeks back and fewer pieces about Hollywood. Even better: someone should start a New Yorker-style magazine that’s all about Los Angeles.
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)
There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”
Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.
Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.
Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…
— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.
— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.
— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt
— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.
— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.
— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010
— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.
— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels
— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL
— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009
— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!
— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.
— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!
— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.
— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009
Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d
— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009
What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What’s your pick?
— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009
What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?
— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011