New York’s NPR affiliate, WNYC, has posted downloadable audio of last weekend’s 75th Birthday celebration for Philip Roth. Featured speakers include Jonathan Lethem, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Hermione Lee. Alvin Pepler, unfortunately, had a prior engagement…
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 Bookforum, David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times picks up and runs with a topic we’ve written about here – the current boom in fiction about the counterculture of the ’60s. Ulin’s long essay, called “Go Start Anew,” revisits recent books by Christopher Sorrentino, Dana Spiotta, Hari Kunzru, and Zachary Lazar (whose “Year in Reading” picks bespeak a certain fascination with the ’60s). Moreover, Ulin asks why the curdling of Aquarian idealism speaks so strongly to the current moment. I’m not sure I agree with his answer, but the argument is, as usual, provocative and deeply felt. It’s a Bookforum highlight, as is the entire “Fiction and Politics” supplement, and we urge you to check it out.
One of the familiar knocks on the short story master Donald Barthelme is that his fiction is all artifice – that, to quote Saul Bellow, it “lack[s] an inner life.” Well, Lorrie Moore, having digested the new Barthelme biography, Hiding Man, is having none of it. “In a way,” she explains in the current New York Review of Books,Barthelme’s work was all inner life, partially concealed, partially displayed. His stories are a registration of a certain kind of churning mind, cerebral fragments stitched together in the bricolage fashion of beatnik poetry. The muzzled cool, the giddy play, the tossed salad of high and low…Here, ladies and gentlemen, is contrarian criticism at its very best: illuminating rather than annihilating. Similarly surprising, and revealing, is Moore’s decision to consider the Barthelme oeuvre alongside that of Raymond Carver, in many ways his stylistic opposite. Moore is no short-story slouch herself, and one suspects she’s learned a trick or two from the School of Don B. This might help account for her sure-handed handling of Barthelme’s life and work. At any rate, like Deborah Eisenberg and Zadie Smith, whose essays have also enlivened recent issues of the NYRB, she has the virtue not only of writing like a reader, but of reading like a writer. Check out her Barthelme essay, “How He Wrote His Songs.”
Back in 2003, I decided to start reading the fiction in The New Yorker consistently. Up until that point, I’d read the weekly fiction offering only if it happened to be something by a writer I particularly liked.
Part of my motivation had to do with my own ambitions as a fiction writer; another part had to do with my high school teaching job, which included a course in Reading and Writing Fiction. I thought maybe, by studying closely what the magazine was publishing, I’d get a better sense of just why my own stories were getting unceremoniously rejected everywhere I sent them (with the minor exception of a brief but kind note scribbled at the bottom of a form rejection from McSweeney’s.) If not, at least I’d maybe come away with some good stories to teach in class.
In the first few months of the project, I encountered some great pieces of fiction: Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” (an excerpt from his novel Old School), Maile Meloy’s “Red From Green,” and Lara Vapnyar’s “Love Lessons, Mondays, 8 a.m.” And I found that, having preemptively committed myself to reading each story, I sat down with a helpful patience, an openness to the experience and to the writer’s art.
The summer of that first year, I went back to an old issue I’d kept tucked away on a shelf—the one dated June 21 & 28, 1999. This issue was designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd. (Incidentally, it’s the only issue in the magazine’s history whose pages have artwork that bleeds to the edges.) The cover features an illustration of Chris Ware’s character Jimmy Corrigan on a beach, looking out at the sea. Scrolled down the page are twenty first sentences—from stories written by the twenty authors chosen to represent what editor Bill Buford, in his introductory comment, called “the twenty best young fiction writers in America today… the obvious names and the not-so-obvious, those who are only just now crossing a threshold of literary recognition and those who have been at home in it for some time.”
I’d dipped into this issue when it first came out. I had liked the Sherman Alexie piece and the David Foster Wallace one, but set the magazine aside after being unmoved by a couple of the others. Now, though, I dug back in and found more to like—a tense and mysterious story by Chang-Rae Lee, a wicked little one by Antonya Nelson, and soberly masterful stories by Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. I found that the issue included an excerpt from Tony Earley’s gentle, pitch-perfect Jim the Boy, a novel which I’d read and loved.
Over the next seven years, I continued to read the New Yorker fiction fairly regularly. Some years I read more or less everything, while other years I took in only about half of the stories. I began to catalog my reactions in a spreadsheet. I fell in love with Alice Munro and George Saunders. I made up enough bonus-reading quizzes on stories I liked that I was able to offer one per day to my Reading and Writing Fiction students. I sat down and formulated my own criteria for evaluating fiction. I branched out into other sources of fiction, subscribing to smaller magazines like Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
I came to recognize, though, that reading magazine fiction is a crapshoot. I think that’s why many New Yorker readers rarely read this part of the magazine. When you read a piece of nonfiction, you know what you’re getting into, and you know you’ll come away from the experience with something tangible—some information or perspective on the world. And you can stop midway through and still have something to take with you. Fiction doesn’t work that way, at least for me. It’s like sex—uncomfortable if abandoned midway through. The rewards of fiction—the ecstatic transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—can be greater than those of nonfiction, but you can also finish a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Given the risks involved in reading a piece of fiction, it helps to have someone whose taste you trust to limit the pool. Larry Dark became that type of guide for me in the O. Henry Prize collections from 1997 to 2002, which include dozens of stories that blew me away. The New Yorker fiction editors serve the same purpose. Though I don’t dispute that stories are published in smaller magazines that I would like better than a healthy percentage of the stories published in The New Yorker, I simply don’t have time to read all those little magazines. The New Yorker’s batting average is high enough—and it publishes enough heavy-hitters—that it’s as good a section as any to stand in if you hope to catch a home run.
As the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, there’s an unavoidable contingency to literary valuation—an arbitrariness on both a personal and a society-wide level. Yet we naturally make such judgments. We have to do so, simply to avoid being drowned by the deluge of written material that swamps us. Our literary judgments also help us define ourselves and our culture. Who am I? What do I like, and why? What vision of the world do I share? And who are we? What do we value? What stories do we want to hear about ourselves, what will our culture admit into its awareness?
So that’s the context in which I’m approaching this week’s New Yorker, in which the fiction editors offer, eleven years later, a new group of 20 writers, all under 40 years of age, as the future of fiction in America. It’s an effort to shape a literary culture. And it’s an effort by people whose taste I generally trust.
Overall, though, the new list doesn’t immediately excite me, I must say. ZZ Packer and Wells Tower have written debut collections of stories that I greatly admire, and several of the others have written stories that I thought were good. But, to return to the sexual metaphor of reading fiction, with some of the other writers on the list I’ve had one-night stands and never hooked up again. Others, sad to say, have fallen victim to episodes of literary coitus interruptus.
The fact is, this past year I’ve gotten a bit impatient with New Yorker fiction. Busy with other reading projects, I’ve slipped back into my old habits—reading only stories whose authors particularly grabbed my interest.
But—and this is another danger of magazine fiction—it’s all too easy to misjudge a writer harshly simply on the basis of one story. Like the 1999 issue, this one, I hope, will redirect my attention to worthy writers whom I may have unfairly written off.
Despite the periodic disappointments of reading fiction in magazines, there’s a unique magic to the experience. There’s the gift of a new story by one of your favorite writers. There’s the joy of beginning a story by a writer you’ve never read and suddenly realizing that you’re encountering something great. It’s like being struck by lightning, set suddenly afire with pleasure. No other reading experience can turn a chance hour into sheer delight in quite this way.
Say what you will, The New Yorker is one of our culture’s most stalwart curators of this type of literary experience. For that reason, its editors’ vision of the future of fiction is worth considering. It’s my hope that, like the 1999 issue, the 2010 version will include some surprising treats that open up new readerly enthusiasms for me.
Bonus Link: A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago
I enjoyed the short story in this week’s New Yorker. Allegra Goodman’s story, “Long-Distance Client” gently pokes fun at the exuberance of the late 90s. But the story is also quietly weighty, touching on pain and religion and the whole idea of being “centered” mentally and physically. Very funny, but also moving.I wasn’t familiar with Goodman’s writing before reading the story, but she has a good collection of links up at her Web site. She’s written four books, too:Kaaterskill FallsParadise ParkThe Family MarkowitzTotal Immersion
Though the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley isn’t the most “sexy” of critics (Pete Dexter’s comments notwithstanding), I’ve always enjoyed his columns. He will champion anything he believes is worth reading, even naming a book by John Grisham as one of the “best” of the year in 2005. He also clearly loves to read, and it shows in his writing, as opposed to, say, Michiko who I’d imagine dreads every book that crosses her threshold. Yardley also has a wonderful column called “Second Reading” that does away with the tyranny of the new and allows him to select and ruminate over any title from the vast trove of books he’s read. This week revisits a classic that I remember warmly from my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known series about life on the frontier.Yardley offers some tidbits that were new to me: Wilder didn’t start writing the books until she was in her early 60s, and her daughter, a popular journalist and novelist, co-wrote, or at least heavily edited, the books. In revisiting the book, Yardley doesn’t succumb to nostalgia, but he does acknowledge why the books have had such staying power:Some of the readers who’ve urged me to include one of Wilder’s books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading Little House in the Big Woods, I guess that I agree, but it’s not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder’s prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn’t try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that — as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy — paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let’s take her word for it.If you’ve read the books, you’ll enjoy the essay.Bonus Links: The Home-Schooling Book Boom, The Little Men Who Love Little House