Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
Today’s Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten’s excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the “what you see is what you get” thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around.” It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for “extracting oneself from an intractable position” holds up.
Michael Lewis turns in yet another tremendous piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. This one is about the catastrophic financial collapse in Iceland:Walking into the P.M.’s minute headquarters, I expect to be stopped and searched, or at least asked for photo identification. Instead I find a single policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. “I’m here to see the prime minister,” I say for the first time in my life. He’s unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister. Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like. For those following along at home, we’ve also noted Lewis’ two takes on the Wall Street collapse and his more recent piece on the NBA.
Remember those kids who obsessively drew their own comics on loose leaf in school? It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem were furiously scribbling away in their notebooks during their pre-teen years. In the latest issue of Tin House – “The Graphic Issue” – the editors have collected boyhood comics from Chabon, Lethem, Dan Chaon, Luc Sante, and Chris Offutt (who also pens an introduction.) The comic juvenalia of these now well-known writers brought me back to my fifth grade class, where comics became a craze, and nearly every kid had created his own – on loose leaf of course – which we traded and read and discussed at length. My favorite amongst those collected here is Lethem’s brief opus “Fig-Leaf Man vs. Hot Dog King.”Unfortunately, none of the comics are available online, but the issue is worth a look as it includes graphic novel excerpts from Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken With Plums and other new works as well as appearances by Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow, and Zak Smith introducing his Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated (Read Garth’s recent post about the book). Also in the issue, short pieces by Anthony Swofford, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Stuart Dybek.
CBC journalist Ghazal Mosadeq recently returned to Tehran from Toronto and filed an audio report for the Dispatches program on the current state of publishing and censorship in Iran. Writers, readers and book-sellers are all trapped in a system of rules which are often tacit, confused and haphazard.Of particular interest is the lack of trust that has developed between reader and publisher as a result of years of censorship. Mosadeq also reports from a cemetery which contains the gravesite of twenty Iranian writers, some specifically requesting that they be buried there as a final chance to be separate from the repressive state. The government, meanwhile, tries to stop this, in an effort to avoid turning the cemetery into a shrine to its critics. Censored while alive; still censored after death.Hear the 8-minute audio dispatch here (RealPlayer)
A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: “To be honest, there’s so much s—. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.” This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney’s rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a “Snarkwatch” on their website. Yet the “snarkiness” has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer’s unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain’s favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled “Someone needs to have a word with Amis” and included the line “I won’t tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it’s terrible.” (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, “I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman’s new collection of essays.” (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don’t serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.
I read with interest D.T. Max’s article in the recent Summer Fiction Issue of the New Yorker covering the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is, by the sound of it, one of the world’s most important literary archives. The piece mostly covered the library’s director Thomas Staley, and his impressive skill in locking down the papers of some of history’s greatest writers, but it also delved into descriptions of the papers themselves.I suppose I’d never really thought of it before reading this article, but I was surprised at the sheer mass that these collections represent. For example, Norman Mailer’s “archive – weighing twenty thousand pounds in all – came to the center in a tractor trailer.” And that’s just one of many, many archives. In all, the collection “contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair.” The Texas is also old school in the way it approaches its collection.Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.Be that as it may, the objects that Staley covets for the Texas collection may not be as plentiful in the coming years.I was fascinated, for example, by Don Delillo’s papers as described by D.T. Max in the New Yorker: Delillio’s manuscripts “were eerily immaculate – embalmed in acid-free manila folders inside blue legal-sized boxes, each about the size of an accordion folder.”Compare this to a recent article in the New York Times discussing the increasing use of technology and software in crafting fiction. The article’s centerpiece is Richard Powers, whose affinity for technology is well known. Instead of piles of paper, Powerspoured the background research into hyperlinked notebooks using Microsoft OneNote, a program more commonly used by businesses, which allows you to combine text documents, e-mail, images, spreadsheets and video and audio material into one searchable document. He then mapped out possible changing interactions between characters. “These notebook sections gradually grew into the kernels of individual dramatic scenes, which I could then work up in parallel,” Powers said. “The combination of software programs (each of which links seamlessly into the other) allowed for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up composition.”I would guess that some archivists might find it upsetting that, increasingly, modern day authors won’t leave dusty boxes of paper to sift through. Correspondence will be collected in email form, and background research will include hyperlinks and spreadsheets, images and video. This doesn’t jibe with the classic notion of doing literary research, but it will also open dazzling opportunities, as notable writers’ papers will exist in digital form from the outset, and won’t be physically limited to certain institutions. In this way we may trace the links and paths set down by writers as they crafted their work. We will be able to sift through the “dusty boxes” from our desks, wherever we are.