If you’ve ever seen Salman Rushdie and his wife Lakshmi in public, then you know, the pair of them turn heads. Salman looks like a caricature. He’s almost muppet-like, while Lakshmi is a model many years his junior and many inches taller. When they walk through a room, everybody sort of stops what they’re doing and stares. An article in the Times illuminates this seemingly mismatched relationship. (via AL daily)
Norman Mailer made an unorthodox appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, beamed in via video link from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He’s apparently not big on technology, however, calling the video-interview system more suited to a “young chimpanzee.” The Herald’s story on the event includes a number of other classic Mailer quips, including his noting that the many punches he’s thrown in his lifetime were “always well considered.”
Michael Cunningham’s follow up to his wildly popular novel, The Hours will be out this June. The trilogy of long short stories is called Specimen Days. Though set in different historical eras, each of the stories, according to publisher FSG, centers around “a young boy, an older man, and a young woman.” As with The Hours, Scott Rudin is already signed on to bring the book to the silver screen.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.
In today’s Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times’ lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony’s are ones that take place “on” Broadway as opposed to “Off,” despite the fact that “the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses … launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida).” Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: “the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall.”
Scanning the headlines for news about books:I noticed, after I’d been working at the book store for a while, that there is a religious book industry that shadows the mainstream book industry. There isn’t much crossover between the two: there are mainstream bookstores that sell exclusively mainstream books and Christian bookstores that sell exclusively Christian books. But now the Associated Press is reporting that the lines are blurring thanks to the success of the The Da Vinci Code and the odd cultural phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. According to the story, several psuedo-religious books, books that don’t fit neatly into either segment of the book industry, have become big sellers in the last year. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird are among the beneficiaries.Advanced Book Exchange is a giant online marketplace for used books. I happened to notice that they recently posted a list of their “top 50 bestselling used, rare and out-of-print books on Abebooks in 2003.” It’s an interesting list that includes current bestsellers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), classics (East of Eden), collectible magazines (National Geographic Magazine), and scholarly texts and reference books (Black’s Law Dictionary).And while we’re talking bestsellers, here’s Barnes & Nobles’ 100 bestselling books of 2003, including one of my favorite books of recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement coming in at number 46.
Most of us litbloggers just blather on about books and publishing industry gossip, but Dan Wickett is a man on a mission. Part of his mission is to get people to read the literary magazines that are so important to literary fiction culture yet are so little read. In an attempt to rectify this situation, Wickett has approached a number of these magazines to put together a discounted subscription offer for anyone who subscribes to at least three. For all the details, visit his blog.