A “Minority Opinion” has been posted over at the LBC Blog by the Co-op members who were not fans of the first LBC pick – Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Some good discussion is already brewing in the comments. As for me, I fall somewhere in between the Minority Opinion and the LBC members who wholeheartedly endorse the book. To me, Case Histories is a worthwhile read, but perhaps not up to par with the big things that many seem to be expecting from the LBC. The most vocal commenters seem to pulling for the Co-op to choose a book that is of impeccable quality, yet has been ignored by big publishing houses and major reviewers. If such a book exists, I hope we can find it for our readers. “Read This” picks aside, I think the LBC may also prove valuable in determining whether or not the Great American (or British, or Chinese, etc.) Novel is in any danger of being ignored or underappreciated.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
If my college had offered a class on the New Yorker, I definitely would have taken it, but it didn’t, and, until today, I wasn’t aware that any colleges did. What a great idea for a class. Last fall, Prof. Bryant Mangum of Virginia Commonwealth University taught a class called Literature in Society: The New Yorker. Each class is constructed like an issue of the magazine with the assignments divided into these parts: Goings on About Town, The Talk of the Town, Features: Fact/Fiction, The Critics, Poems. Aside from the magazine itself, required reading includes classic New Yorker fiction. Perhaps coolest of all is Mangum’s Miscellany page which includes scans of a New Yorker rejection slip, note and check.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a group project which encourages participants “to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30” – (they couldn’t have picked a month with 31 days?). The quality of work produced by such speedwriting is questionable at best, I’d guess, but people seem to have fun doing it, just like some people seem to have fun climbing Mount Everest or participating in eating contests. The NaNoWriMo community also employs a lot of slap on the back, “you can do it!” type of encouragement, and the Web site lets you track your progress along with the other writers participating. I can think of many, many better ways to spend one’s time (and there are probably many, many better ways to write a novel), but NaNoWriMo is harmless, if a bit irritating if you stray too close to the frenzied participants.Perhaps there have always been NaNoWriMo haters (it started in 1999), but I don’t recall having seen NaNoWriMo haters before this year (although that may have more to do with my studied averting of the eyes from the NaNoWriMo frenzy). However, this year I happened upon Eric Rosenfield’s anti-NaNoWriMo post, which lays out a few reasons to hate the endeavor, calling it “nothing if not oblivious to the absurdity of its own project.” The Rake has also jumped in to explain why NaNoWriMo is like eating so many shrimp.In the end, though, hating NaNoWriMo is both too easy and pretty fruitless, like hating hippie music or “blue collar comedy.” It will always have its devotees, but the appeal of it probably doesn’t make sense to most people.Update: More NaNoWriMo
An uncharacteristically thorough post at Gawker goes in depth on the make up of the current staff of the New Yorker, pointing out that the resurgent magazine under editor David Remnick is staffed by a disproportionate number of writers brought on during the tenure of reviled editor Tina Brown. Interesting stuff.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize – worth 15,000 pounds, the world’s richest – will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story – that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don’t graduate to a minimum of 200 pages – has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It’s like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: “I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney’s Volume I, there ‘are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,’ that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon.”Who knew we had it so good?