Stephen King, once a favorite target of critics, has been embraced by at least some in the literary elite in recent years. He was awarded the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, and now he is the subject of an “Art of Fiction” interview in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, a distinction that might as well elevate him to canonical status.I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s books because they’re unflaggingly entertaining, but I also enjoy King’s work because of his close connection with his readers and his unwillingness to put himself on a pedestal. King’s exuberance can be found in his book On Writing. Part of the book is a common sense writing guide, but On Writing is worth a read for the funny little autobiography that the guide is paired with. He casts aside the notion of the writer as tortured soul and replaces it with the idea of the writer as a showman, serving his audience.What interests me, though, is how King has graduated from the bestseller list and moved into literary limbo. In the Paris Review interview, King talks about writers like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. While King has some kind words for Grisham, he recognizes that he’s not really in competition with these perennial bestselling scribes any more, nor does his ego need the lavish advances that they receive. At the same time, he is reluctant to embrace the literary elite, because, I think, he believes that doing so would break his contract with his readers. Now, though, he seems less orthodox on this point. It’s not that he is embracing the literary world, far from it. It’s more like, coming back from an accident that nearly killed him – he was struck by a van near his home in 1999 – he has turned inward, and is writing mostly for himself, having previously done it for fame, money, and his love of entertaining. Of his forthcoming book, Lisey’s Story, which PW calls “a disturbing and sorrowful love story,” King tells the Paris Review:To me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don’t want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I’ve ever written where I don’t want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn’t stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.The interview ends with King wondering aloud if he can “do something that’s even better.”Links on King: Only a small snippet of the King interview is available online, but, if you’re interested in King, it’s worth picking up this issue of the Paris Review to read the whole thing; King’s National Book Award speech; King’s account of his accident from the New Yorker.
In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus “Advanced Parking Guidance System.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out, “which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel” and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, “I’ve seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn’t come out yet.” Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent – talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in “Miss West Virginia will now do her talent” – I would say “parallel parking.” For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I’ve been preparing an article on how I came up with the term “slicing the bread” to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss “breaking the matzo” – getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
A new issue of the excellent online literary review, The Quarterly Conversation has been posted. There are plenty of goodies on offer, but perhaps the most intriguing is a piece by François Monti about Zone, a French novel by Mathias Énard that has certain literary corners of Europe buzzing. It’s got quite a hook:Zone, as has been much noted, is a 517-page sentence, and its rhythm is one that draws readers inevitably toward the end, much faster than you would have thought. It’s difficult to stop for a breather, to try and reflect on what’s being read. Somehow, form and content stymie a consideration of the meaning of the narration and the way it works. I thought I liked it perhaps more than I really did.The book will be published in English by Open Letter in summer 2010.
Chicago is called “The Windy City” not because of our winds (which are present, but not markedly above average), but because of our citizens’ historical propensity to go on about themselves. The nickname took root during a late 19th-century rivalry with Cincinnati. Both cities had a meatpacking industry and baseball, and this was enough to stir up a war of words. We fought, bafflingly, over rights to the nickname “Porkopolis,” and our dueling baseball teams, the Red Stockings and the White Stockings. The Cincinnati sports writers, tired of our braggadocio, made “windy city” stick.
And “The Second City” was not coined by A.J. Liebling in his outwardly snotty book about Chicago’s inferiority to New York. We earned that one in the 19th century as well, when the city burned to the ground and we built an entirely new city — the second city — in its place.
When even our monikers are misunderstood, Chicago, demonstrably, has reputation issues. We’re outspoken and resourceful, and everyone thinks we’re just losers getting blown about! Being a proud Chicagoan, then, can feel like a defensive position. Or, more optimistically, that all of our cultural treasures are a secret. Enter The Chicagoan, a new outfit whose mission is to “document the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the greater Midwest through long-form storytelling.”
The original Chicagoan was a weekly magazine, modeled on The New Yorker, published from 1926 to 1935. It was hit or miss, quality-wise, and went unremembered until University of Chicago professor Neil Harris discovered its archive in the library, and then edited the collection (The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age) that brought it all to our attention. Now JC Gabel, editor of the much more recently defunct Stop Smiling magazine, has relaunched the brand with The Chicagoan Issue 1, a 200 page limited-edition glossy number that’s heavy on design.
The Chicagoan as an organization also has digital editions, podcasts, and public events on its agenda, and Issue 1 acts as drum major for this cultural parade. Its greatest success would be to spotlight Chicago’s creatives in a way that excites the hometown crowd, intrigues the visitors, and leaves both eager to see more. Seen as a whole, I believe The Chicagoan has succeeded.
In an effort to provide a balanced view of our city, the ten Chicago-focused features include seven about cultural innovators and three about crime. One feels a little jolt going back and forth between the two but, in a disheartening way, this may be quite an accurate reflection. The profiles are all proud and glowing (Chicago! We’ve got this great chef, and an amazing architect, and these cool music guys, and really good coffee!). The crime pieces, if it needs to be said, are more nuanced and gritty. Alex Kotlowitz, whose compassionate, participatory brand of journalism has focused on violence in Chicago for over a decade, is reliably worth looking in on. Here he is interviewed, along with filmmaker Steve James, about the “violence interrupters” they recently documented in The Interrupters. Chicago’s beat cop laureate Martin Preib, author of The Wagon, contributes a piece on the crime and confession that stay with him. I don’t want to sound flippant, but it’s nice to have these complicated, antireductive pieces in among the laudations. They stay with you much longer.
The literary supplement includes the reliably great Joe Meno and a thinker on David Foster Wallace (the inclusion of which feels predictable but also might be the law? At least it’s out of their system). The last section, comprised of “dispatches from the Midwest,” is small but thoughtful.
The real gem of the issue, justifying high hopes for The Chicagoan’s future, is the marquee piece on the history of Siskel & Ebert. The 47-page oral history combines interviews with their coworkers, bosses, friends, and rivals to tell the story of two talented men who sat at the heart of American film criticism for decades. Hubris, competition, ambition, luck, friendship, cruelty, and tragedy make the history of a syndicated talk show read like Greek drama. If Gabel et al. continue to coax such compelling stories out of our city’s history, then they have nothing to fear save the demise of publishing.
Happily there is great camaraderie in being underrated, and Chicago has responded well to its glossy new champion. Sold only at independent stores throughout the city, and restocked in small numbers, getting your hands on the issue became the coup du jour for hipsters and literati alike.
Remember early This American Life, before it started to always be about the economy? That’s what this could be — appreciative of the sincere efforts of interesting people, and generous in presenting them.
Take that, Cincinnati.