- A nice rememberance of Hunter S. Thompson by his friend Paul Theroux in The Guardian.
- William T. Vollmann’s substantial look at Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Phillip Short in the NY Times.
- Deborah Solomon sits down for a long chat with Jonathan Safran Foer which reveals this: “he received a $500,000 advance for his first novel and a $1 million advance for his second, meaning that he is probably the highest-earning literary novelist under 30.”
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter.
I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.”
Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now.
But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer.
First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book:
I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child.
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.
It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard:
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre’s request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?…His hopes for the future?…Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.
I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t:
“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
I won’t be posting again until Monday because I’m leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of books to read right now (and anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll do much reading), but I was wondering what I might pick up if I wanted to do some Vegas-themed reading. The obvious choice is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book that I read years ago and loved, though I prefer some of HST’s other books. But, no, that’s far to cliched. Or I could read John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, the devastating novel of alcoholism that was turned into an Oscar-winning triumph for Nicolas Cage, but that would be far, far too depressing. A little research reveals that Larry McMurtry wrote a book set in Vegas called The Desert Rose. I’ve never read McMurtry, so this might be a reason to start. But, as usual, I have a hankering for some non-fiction as well. There happens to be a good, recent book about Vegas called The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, which might help explain why we are drawn to this desert fantasyland like so many moths to the flame.
Laurel writes to tell us about a fiction contest that she’s involved with at Verb. Stories up to 5,000 words are eligible and the winner receives $1,000 and publication in an issue of Verb. The judge for the contest is Thisbe Nissen who wrote Osprey Island and once helped my friends find an apartment in Iowa City. Verb isn’t your typical literary magazine, by the way. Laurel says: “Verb is the first audioquarterly, which means that you’ll be recording your story for distribution through audible.com, and to subscribers on a CD! If you would prefer, an actor may record in your stead. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Peter Case, Julianna Baggott, Ha Jin, and many others.”
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
Canadian writer David Bernans is embroiled in controversy after being barred from reading his novel, North of 9/11, a fictional account of the reaction to 9/11 in Canada. He had planned to do a reading on the campus of Concordia University in Montreal, but “after filling out an online application to hold a public reading on campus, Bernans received an e-mail on July 25 stating his request had been declined by Concordia’s ‘risk management team,'” according to news reports.A description of the book:North of 9/11 is the story of Concordia student, Sarah Murphy, a political activist determined to stem the tide of war mania emanating from the United States, and racist hysteria affecting her friends Hassan and Hakim. Sarah overhears a conversation between her father, and the executive of a Montreal-based aerospace manufacturer involved in production for the Pentagon.Sarah and her friends plan a non-violent direct action to draw attention to Canada’s participation in US war efforts. Activists are questioned by the RCMP, phones are tapped, movements are shadowed. The RCMP closes in on the presumed sleeper cell while bombs fall on Afghanistan.Update: The Guardian picks up the story, says the University is calling this a mix up due to human error. Bernans isn’t buying it.
Most folks have probably heard that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120 foot long continuous roll of paper, but now you can seen it. “Beginning this week at the Orange County History Center in Orlando, Fla., and ending with a three-month stay at the New York Public Library in 2007, Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll will make a 13-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries.“One great byproduct of the new translation of Don Quixote is that it has given way to many reconsiderations of the classic. Now the Atlantic Monthly weighs in.Also from the Atlantic, a great piece explaining how they choose which books to review and why their reviews may sometimes come across as atypical. It’s a great read for anyone who is tired of the prevalence of cookie-cutter picks and pans.
In the back office of my bookstore, folks are already abuzz about this year’s Book Expo in Chicago. Book Expo is probably the largest publishing convention in the world, but if you talk to booksellers, they typically bemoan the crowds and the hectic atmosphere of the Expo weekend. However, this year’s keynote speaker happens to be former prez Bill Clinton who will be pushing his new — and as of this writing, not yet completed — memoir, My Life (“The president came up with the title,” says attorney Robert Barnett, who handles Clinton’s literary endeavors.) Also from this Washington Post article about the Clinton book: a first printing of 1.5 million copies and the first of what will likely be legions of sales comparisons with Hillary’s blockbuster. Hillel Italie of the AP hopes that Clinton will depart from all previous presidential memoirs by providing readers and historians with some actual insights (LINK). I would rate the chances of this as extremely slim. And David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times believes that the timing of the book’s release is purely political (LINK). Meanwhile, back in bookseller land, Book Expo attendees are bracing themselves for the media furor that is sure to accompany the book’s unveiling.