Back in 1975, Stephen King began ‘Salem’s Lot, his second novel, with an epigraph from George Seferis: “Old friend, what are you looking for?/ After those many years abroad you come/ With images you tended/ Under foreign skies/ Far away from your own land.” This summer, I settled down to read Joyland, something like the fiftieth novel Stephen King has published since he began his career forty years ago. I joke to no one in particular that Stephen King has an occult novel-writing machine, or a crack team of monkeys with keyboards, or a computer formula that writes his books for him, and Joyland does occasionally convey that quality of phoning it in; it just feels so easy for this guy. But it’s still a Stephen King book, which means it has a kicking story and a sentimental old heart. And since I seem destined, this summer, not to pick up a book or watch a movie or engage with any kind of artistic project without having some kind of maudlin experience or generally going through something, reading this nostalgic whodunit set in the lost world of the summer carnival launched me on my own nostalgic expedition. In Stephen King’s funhouse mirror, I saw all the other Stephen King books I have read since my childhood, under foreign skies, far away from my own land.
I am an only child and I grew up in a Foreign Service family, which means that my family picked up and moved every two to five years. Being a quasi-international child had a variety of effects, some transitory, some enduring. Foreign Service children, in my experience, inhabit a strange half-life of cosmopolitanism. Foreign words roll off their tongues, foreign foods succor them, and they are at home with thin toilet paper and thinner ketchup. But in the Foreign Service, your orientation is always in the direction of America, Washington D.C. or the Northern Virginia suburbs your magnetic pole. The very mission of the Foreign Service demands this, of course, and the logistics follow. Vacation is called “home leave”; in addition to all their assorted relatives, most people have some property back home, a building that they fret over and find tenants for and supply with new coats of paint on their short weeks stateside.
The orientation is spiritual as well as practical; overseas, I wore out VHS tapes my grandparents sent me, so that a select handful of episodes of 3-2-1 Contact, Reading Rainbow, and Sesame Street are seared into such a precious, way-back corner of my brain that should I dare to Google for a vignette of skating muppets singing “Feliz Navidad,” I would probably have a stroke.
When I was a little girl in Athens (the first of our postings during which I was a sentient being for any prolonged period), this orientation west to the white dome, combined with the distance therefrom and the relative scarcity of things — products mostly — that are unfailingly associated with America, meant that for me the United States became imbued with an unspeakable glamour. It goes without saying (but I will say) that I never lacked for amenities — the life I am describing was a gift from my parents and divine Providence. That said, amenities-wise, the United States was the navel of the universe.
I had some early object lessons in globalization, imperialism, and the profound power of marketing. When the first McDonald’s opened in Syntagma square, there were lines around the block, and I rejoiced at the limp pickles on my hamburger. When Wendy’s set up shop in a grand old peach-colored building nearby — formerly housing the American Office of Defense Cooperation, now housing a mall — it was a goddamned revelation (it’s not there anymore, evidently; the franchise pulled out of Greece in 2009). But there were still things I wanted. I remember hoarding dollar bills for the purpose of buying a book on home leave. To my knowledge it is still the case that it is hard and expensive to get all the books in English you want overseas.
My enthusiasm wasn’t only on the material plane. One set of grandparents lived in the north-easternmost part of California in a very small town that feels pretty much like the edge of the world. I found this place so enchanting that I informed my grandparents of my plan to honeymoon there on the eventual occasion of my marriage. Sometimes I think I chose to roost in San Francisco largely due to the memory of that exotic scented air, snuffled up as we exited the airport to visit my other grandparents, who lived near the Bay.
Back in Washington after eight years of overseas living, I went to public school and listened to 99.1 WHFS and DC 101 and surreptitiously watched Roseanne and generally got to the business of acclimating. By the time my parents moved back overseas and I started high school in the U.S., the mild foreignness I had tried to slough off began to seem like an asset, and I embarked on the period I now think of as Working It. This involved a deft combination of encouraging any perception of foreign grandeur associated with my person, protesting too much about my normalcy, and scoring laughs off the Otherness of my new home (I’m sorry, Armenia, for the things I said).
Even after I embraced the foreign, however, sometimes the glamour of America reflected back at me in curious ways. At a store in Yerevan I bought Pink Floyd CDs and a Led Zeppelin album called Live Over America that I haven’t seen since. The first cigarettes I ever bought, before I wanted to smoke a cigarette but respected their currency, came from an open-air market and had red and blue packages and names like “American Dream.” Back in Athens before college with the new Euro cheaper than the dollar, I hit the summer sales for garments from Kookai and the heavenly Zara, and one day scored some New Balance sneakers of an unorthodox style. (In boarding school, where an entire female bourse operates around the borrowing of clothes, it’s good to have some stuff that no one else has.) I took the bus to a gleaming new cineplex in an Athenian suburb to watch American movies that, as the years passed, drew temporally ever-closer to their American release dates, the celebrity name transliterations on the marquis ever more sophisticated.
There is, obviously, nothing intrinsically interesting about an American with a passport and two pairs of genuine or otherwise New Balance kicks manufactured for a non-U.S. market. The world is full of meandering paths and displaced nationalities and people with much more exciting stories than my own. But your childhood is your childhood; as I get older, and the tables of circumstance turn, as I lose whatever light patina of foreignness I had or manufactured and there’s a Zara in every American mall and a McDonald’s in every city in the world, as I bemoan the garbage food and the garbage construction and the garbage policies of my country and yearn now for a seaside taverna and the glamour of Abroad, there are some early things that stick with me. I never see a 7-Eleven Big Bite and don’t instinctively desire to eat it. I know that Heinz ketchup is unmistakable and precious and that a “cheeseburger” anywhere else is to an American cheeseburger what the grotesquerie of pressed dust we find in America is to a gyro. I don’t use and barely deserve the driver’s license I have, but I deeply admire a hot car. A new paperback purchased with crisp American dollars? That’s bliss. A Stephen King book? That’s Shangri-la.
I’ve done the math, and somehow throughout this modestly peripatetic life, in the hotel lobbies and the airports and the back seat of the car and during idle moments at my series of illuminating summer jobs — visa office photographer, gas station attendant, commissary stockist, slide scanner — I managed to read more books by Stephen King than by any other writer. I remember vividly the row of Stephen King books on the shelf of the basement library in the American Embassy Athens, a fortified Bauhaus dream downtown. Reading Joyland this summer, and then plowing through a handful of others for the second or third or fourth time, I was struck by how much of my conception of America comes from those thick books — what they said to me during that quasi-rootless time, and what they say to me now that both the vague internationalism and the natural solipsism of my childhood have mostly dissipated. For better or worse, I cut my patriotic teeth on the oeuvre of Stephen King.
I am hardly the first person to identify Stephen King as holding some claim to the title of America’s chief scribe. Nearly twenty years ago, Jonathan P. Davis wrote Stephen King’s America, an extended academic love poem to Stephen King as an author who “understood the human condition on all levels…who stood on the sacred ground of America…whose feelings about his country resonated throughout his fiction…” As with any attempt to distill the most somethingest traits of a given nation, the attributes typically end up being about things that are actually universal — among Davis’s areas of inquiry are “Technology,” “Childhood and Rites of Passage,” and “Survival in a Despairing World.” But I responded, as someone who has alternately fetishized and scorned my country of origin throughout my life, to Davis’s instinct to celebrate King as the great American writer of the late twentieth century.
The success of a novelist has to do with the extent to which his work allows the reader to lose herself in the story, but the novels that really resonate are the ones that also invite the reader to apply them to her particular circumstances. In my case, Stephen King books appealed to my lingering sense, even in high school, of America’s fundamental glamour, that feeling impelled both by the act of circumnavigating the globe broadly in the service of America’s aims, and the foreignness imparted by its distance. And they achieved several things besides scaring and entertaining the hell out of me. At some level, Stephen King novels issued a necessary corrective to my wanton teenage materialism and overweening belief in American goodness. They did their own kind of national myth-making.
In America and Americans, John Steinbeck’s dated, elegiac snapshot of American life in 1966, a book that in some ways encapsulates in non-fiction the portrait of America we find in Stephen King’s corpus, Steinbeck writes: “One of the characteristics most puzzling to a foreign observer is the strong and imperishable dream the American carries. On inspection, it is found that the dream has little to do with reality in American life. Consider the dream of and the hunger for home. The very word can reduce nearly all of my compatriots to tears.”
In The Stand, Larry Underwood looks around at the Maine coast, cleansed of people:
On either side of them the essence of honky-tonk beach resort had now enclosed them: gas stations, fried clam stands, Dairy Treets, motels painted in feverish pastel colors, mini-golf. Larry was drawn two painful ways by these things. Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups — never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their prosaic-arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.
In my adult grumpiness and the cold light of day, there are plenty of groups of Americans that I can take in without any pervading sense of their compelling romance, dirty or otherwise. But you can bet your ass I was receptive to this notion in my tender youth. Stephen King himself writes such a dirty, compelling romance that even now he breathes new life into that faded old vision of my homeland.
I would wager that most people who have heard of Stephen King know that he is from Maine; he grew up in Maine, he is a product of its schools, and little Maine towns, real or fictional, are where many of his worlds are built. (And Stephen King novels are all about world-building — although the publishers initially forced him to cut The Stand down to a reasonable size, the magisterial Complete and Uncut edition is one of his best books because it makes so much room for so many people, so many vignettes and backstories.) And even though Derry, à la It or Insomnia, or ‘Salem’s Lot from the novel of the same name, are characterized as being host to some enduring, elemental evil, this has an odd way of privileging place. These places are special.
Imagine knowing a place so well that you can write all of its inhabitants and landscape and make it feel so much like home, even home with something terrible lurking underneath. I think Stephen King books manage to appeal both to people who have experienced the tyranny and joy of the small town, as well as people who have known rootlessness in its many forms (not, of course, that the two are mutually exclusive). People in Stephen King novels are forever coming back to their hometowns after years away; no matter how long they are gone, they still know their physical and emotional topography.
The recurring characters and places, Mike Hanlon the librarian or the Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes store, or even the Crimson King, contribute to that feeling that the world is just one big American town with all the same points of reference, where people read Misery Chastain novels and remember, or willfully forget, the fire at the Black Spot. (Even apart from the fast food chains springing up like toadstools across the globe, the nature of the Foreign Service, with its far-flung points of insularity, recalls a similar feeling. This will sound like Working It, but I once walked past a man on the street in Yangon whose wedding I had attended in Yerevan a decade before.)
I love the Real Talk that comes out of the characters residing in these towns, things like “[he] looked and acted like the kind of man who would ride his help and bullyrag them around but lick up to his superiors like an egg-suck dog.” They remind me of things that my beloved grandpa said or was said to have said, how he might describe someone as looking like “forty miles of bad road.”
Stephen King’s novels transmit deeper things than hometown nostalgia. As Johathan P. Davis points out in his book, much of King’s work is concerned with the American devotion, in theory at any rate, to individual liberty. When King isn’t being gross, with his bone splinters and clots of blood and patented semantic move of creating an appalling noun just by adding the word “meat” to the back of another one — e.g., “boymeat” or “greymeat” — he spends a lot of time on the freedoms of the individual. Glenn Bateman, the retired sociology professor of The Stand, spends most of the novel talking about the formation of society and the tension between freedom and social cohesion. When, at the end of that novel, spunky Fran and Stu, a laconic badass from East Texas, make the choice to leave the crowding and rules of the Boulder Free Zone for the rugged, dangerous liberty of the Maine coast, this is posited as a sensible choice, one that only a couple of badasses would make.
In Insomnia, when the yuppie, city-living children of Lois Chasse try to pry her out of her hometown and install her in a retirement community with “a Red Diet Plan, a Blue Diet Plan, a Green Diet Plan, and a Yellow Diet Plan,” her beau Ralph “thought of eating three scientifically balanced meals a day for the rest of his life — no more sausage pizzas from Gambino’s, no more Coffee Pot sandwiches, no more chiliburgers from Mexico Mike’s — and found the prospect almost unbearably grim” (sometimes, freedom has a little bit to do with a Big Bite). Ralph prefers to die like his friend Jimmy V., without having to “show anyone either his driver’s license or his Blue Cross Major Medical card.” And then there are the abused women Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder, who declare their independence through a vale of blood.
Ostensibly, every person spends his or her days in the exercise of whatever freedoms are afforded them, but America is famously a place where this individual liberty is (ostensibly) enshrined in founding documents meant to govern a collective whole — it’s a nation of people living out their manifest destiny. Nobody understands, and in a sense reifies, this paradox like Stephen King. King disdains in his books the smug and unshakeable belief in personal rightness (he really has it in for yuppies), but he allows for a specialness that in many cases is literally divine — Dick Hallorann or Danny Torrance in The Shining, or Tom Cullen in The Stand, or any number of other characters endowed with exceptional ability, typically a clarity of vision, by some higher power. This is the kind of thing that really appeals to a child, especially an only child. I think it also resonates for good and ill with someone in a Foreign Service environment, which embodies a kind of exceptionalism, with its security doors and special badges and Fourth of July parties and commissaries filled with imported goods.
Stephen King believes in the individual; while his work battles what Steinbeck called “the screwball organizations which teach hatred and revenge to the ignorant and fearful people, using race or religion as the enemy,” he devotes a lot of pages to what Steinbeck likewise calls “the pleasant, benign, and interesting screwballs…poets in flowing robes, inventors of new religions…” without whom we would be “a duller nation.” King recognizes all of these screwballs as the real nobility of America. Often, they are teachers: in Insomnia, a character opines, “I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like Fucko the Clown. And I think most of them are teachers, living and working in small-town obscurity because that’s the way they like it.”
That’s American Dream talk, but I think a lot of Americans have a person like this somewhere up in their family tree. Isn’t King himself the best testament? For all the pompous literary types he tears down in his work (like the Creative Writing Honors Seminar instructor in It, who calls the writer Bill Denbrough’s horror stories “PULP” and “CRAP”), King sprinkles good teachers all over his work, along with other varieties of “benign screwballs” who, we suspect with folksy assurance, would do a sight better job of running the country than the people we pay to do the job.
The best patriots are always the most fiercely critical of their countries, and the critical difference between Stephen King and the big-gun schlock that he often shares space with in airport newsstands, is that Stephen King’s writing is a sustained exercise in pointing out the crappy and the horrifying things we all subscribe to by living out our American, and human, existence. Steinbeck wrote that in America, “Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.” Stephen King uses his stortytelling talents to counter this silence, to show us the worst things about the folks next door and, by extension, ourselves. King has hard words for the government, which does things like wipe out civilization with a series of evil fuckups, but many of his monsters and things that go bump in the night are actually the residents of ordinary little towns, which shelter wifebeaters and molesters and racists and complacent assholes. These characters aren’t always bad because they’re evil; sometimes they are weak and stupid, uncharitable, feeling sorry for themselves over a slight from a woman or a group. Sometimes they’re just the beneficiaries of a hard row without the gumption and can-do to hoe it.
When a man is locked up briefly for assaulting his wife in Insomnia, a citizen asks “‘How can assault be a misdemeanor?…I’m sorry, but I never did understand that part.’ ‘It’s a misdemeanor when you only do it to your wife,’ McGovern said, hoisting his satiric eyebrow. ‘It’s the American way, Lo.'” Stephen King talks about other things that comprise the American way. The evil presence living under Derry enriches itself on the pre-existing condition, so to speak, of its citizens. When the fire at the Black Spot–a nightclub built by the black soldiers on the nearby military base–burns scores of people alive, it was the sheet-clad town fathers, not the alien spider, who set the blaze.
On race (and gender), Stephen King has taken and acknowledged some very valid criticism. In his rush to write the whole America, he is basically one hundred percent responsible for the modern incarnation of the Magical Negro, for example in the character of The Stand’s Mother Abagail, a rustic lady Moses who communes with the Lord and walks uphill and back both ways to fix a good supper for her guests. King himself, in a Playboy interview quoted in Davis’s book, called Mother Abagail and The Shining’s Dick Hallorann “cardboard caricatures of superblack heroes, viewed through rose-tinted glasses of white liberal guilt…” This is actually another part of my strange inheritance from Stephen King’s work. Sometimes the hardest lesson about racism is that it’s not always the guy in the sheet. Some discussions about race (beyond the easy ones like laughing at pictures of latter-day Klan members) and some articles about the number of black characters in Girls make me anxious and clammy.
In spite of these faults, there are worse primers on American life than a Stephen King novel, worse pieces of propaganda to absorb. Steinbeck said of the so-called American way of life, “No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless…These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.” I don’t feel that way all of the time, but during a summer spent getting reacquainted with Stephen King, between the nostalgia and blood clots and things that go bump in the night, for a moment or two I entertained the possibility.
Image via MShades/Flickr
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
1. A Love Story
“So,” the agent said, “I like your stories. Are you working on a novel?”
I was sitting in the venerable Dey House, the 1857 Victorian home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, meeting with another agent – the fifth or sixth I’d met since I’d arrived in Iowa City. She sat in a chair, facing me, across a large wooden desk, the question lingering in her eyes.
I’d known the question was coming. Every other agent I’d met had come around to the same thing, eventually.
The answer – the truth – was that I was not. Writing a novel. Perhaps eventually I would. But at the time, I was writing stories, exclusively. Even worse, the stories had nothing to do with each other. They had no re-occurring characters; they were not linked, even thematically. I had a vague notion that one day, the stories would miraculously interweave into a collection that felt somehow organic. But try telling that to an agent, whose job it will be to actually sell your book. The starry light goes out of their eyes. They hand over the obligatory business card, ask you to keep in touch.
No, I thought, eyeing her across the desk, I do not have a novel.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
She leaned forward, intertwining her fingers on the blotter.
“What’s it about?”
Here, I paused. There was still time to save myself. It’s about nothing. I don’t even have an idea. I haven’t written a single word. I don’t know what came over me.
But I had come across something interesting the week before, while researching a short story.
“It’s about life saving stations. Funded by Congress in the 1800s?” I sat back, hoping to discern some flicker of interest in her expression. “They were a precursor to the Coast Guard. Red houses that dotted the Atlantic Coast, manned by young men – kids, really. They’d stand watch in a storm, waiting for shipwrecks.”
Her eyebrow went up. “Tell me more.”
“Well, when they spotted one, they’d head out in a small dinghy – a rescue crew. My novel’s about a saving station crewman on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A terrible shipwreck in a violent storm.”
I swallowed hard. Clearly, she could see right through me. My career as a writer was over before it’d even started.
“It’s a love story,” I added.
“I love it!” she said.
And that was that. I’d been writing short stories seriously for half a dozen years. Revising, polishing. Sending them out. Tallying rejections. Revising some more. I’d published one story by that point, with a second forthcoming. And she was all but ready to represent me on the basis of a few-sentence novel synopsis I’d concocted right there on the spot. Practically from thin air.
2. A Testing Ground
In my Akron, Ohio, home office, I have a square certificate hung in a clear plastic frame:
Certificate of Award
This Certifies that
Lafayette Intermediate School
Has been awarded this certificate for
Creativity in Writing
Date November 10, 1980
I keep this on my wall to remind myself that I have identified as a writer, and loved creative writing, for a very long time.
I am not, however, one of those writers who has always wanted to be a writer. My mom will tell you: I wanted to be an entomologist. As a teenager, I joyfully fed crickets to Michelle, my pet tarantula. For years, my greatest wish – the one stroke of good fortune that seemed greedy even to hope for – was that my uncle, a professor at Rutgers, would somehow manage to score me a giant cockroach from one of the science labs on campus. While other budding writers were, I suppose, holing up in the local public library, I was dropping fat-bodied ants into spider webs and turning my fingers into landing pads for monarch butterflies.
My flirtation with insects ended finally after I enrolled at Rutgers College, signed up for “Bugs and Man,” and learned that practical entomology had more to do with pesticides and bug-resistant crops than the gory beauty of a wasp laying her eggs inside a paralyzed cicada.
I signed up to work for the Daily Targum newspaper, covering volleyball, writing sports columns, and eventually editorials. It was an outlet for my creativity, which led naturally to a career in journalism. I started off as news reporter at The News Tribune in Central Jersey, where I had the occasional opportunity to write off-beat features and even colorful reflections on major news events. Five years later, though, after taking a year to study and live in Israel, I found myself on the overnight shift at the Associated Press’s Trenton Bureau, rewriting radio copy for the morning drive. It was a great job for a budding reporter, with ample room for advancement. It wasn’t – in any sense that mattered to me – creative.
Sitting alone at 5 a.m. with a S’mores Pop-Tart and a bitter cup of coffee, waiting for the newspaper guy to arrive with the dailies, I’d contemplate a different future. Could I push the reset button? Could I go back to the kind of creative writing that had first animated me?
Of course not, I reasoned. Because creative writers wrote novels. And how in the world does one up and write a novel?
I’d read novels before. Each one seemed more daunting an undertaking than the next. How did David Bradley write 432 pages of The Chaneysville Incident? How did Stephen King write 1,090 pages of It? How did Victor Hugo write 1,260 pages of Les Miserables? In French?
Yes, these were inspirational to read. But to write? Novels were unwieldy, unmanageable, inexplicable doorstops.
And then one day, my sister gave me a gift: The Best American Short Stories, 1997.
Stories? I’d read very few.
“The Short Story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel,” writes E. Annie Proulx in the introduction. “It is the choice of most beginning writers, attracted to its brevity, its apparent friendliness (a deception) to slender themes, or even its perceived function as a testing ground before attempting the five-hundred-page novel.”
Here was a new option. A possibility. It was easy to ignore her notes of caution: “difficult,” “apparent,” “perceived.” This bright orange book seemed to offer nothing less than the suggestion of a path. A way forward.
I quit my job, enrolled in Johns Hopkins’ part-time writing program in Dupont Circle, moved to Washington, DC. I found a new job and, at night, I began writing stories.
3. A Scheme of Ascendable Rungs
One of the first things I read when I got to Hopkins in the Fall of 1998 was an essay by Richard Ford in Harper’s Magazine, “First Things First: One more writer’s beginnings” (August, 1988).
In it, Ford describes how he started out writing and dutifully sending short stories to literary journals. The conventional wisdom (in 1970, but it’s no less true today) was that you wrote stories, sent them out to lit magazines, and gradually, as your writing improved, you moved up to the ladder. You became known. Eventually, if you persevered, you might land in the Atlantic or New Yorker. Ford describes sending off his stories, fretting about the “level” of each journal. (“Maybe the Cimarron Review is just too good for me at this point.”) He kept a careful log, “where this story was sent and when.” He was rejected again and again, at one point by a journal called Fur-Bearing Trout (whose editor chattily told him the stories “need not be about fish”). Finally, Ford had a story accepted by a journal in New Zealand. He briefly considered moving there.
But he was discouraged by the steady stream of no’s – stories that “aren’t right for us” or that “showed promise” or that “would surely find a home elsewhere.”
“I began to resent what seemed to me the unprovable premise that there existed any useful structure or scheme of ascendable rungs whose rule was that my stories weren’t good enough at first but might be better later on,” he wrote, “and that I should have patience and go on surrendering myself to its clankings. What I felt was that I wanted my stories to be great stories, as good as could be written. And now. And if they weren’t (and they weren’t) that was my own business, my problem, not the concern of some system for orderly advancement in the literary arts.”
“What was out there,” Ford concluded, “is not a structure for writers to surrender to, but fidgety, dodgy chaos. And our privileged task is to force it, calm to our wills.”
His decision: quit writing stories; start a novel. “A novel would take… years; I could go more slowly; there was more to work on, get better at. No demoralizing rejections would crash into my mailbox every morning.”
It’s a powerful essay. Here was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work I greatly admired writing openly and honestly about his humbling start. His conclusion made sense. Only, I knew myself. I couldn’t sequester myself away for the years it would take to write a novel. I agreed with Ford’s assessment: Writers wrote not to “aggrandize themselves” or “just to be published,” but rather “to be read” – to reach people. And I didn’t want to wait five years for readers.
What this meant was that I would have to try to get better – to improve as a writer – in the public eye. Writing stories. For better or for worse, I surrendered myself to the system’s clankings.
4. Crowdsourced Feedback
I too dutifully kept a notebook, recording where I sent my stories, when, and what, if anything, they sent back. This notebook – I still have it, and, despite all the advances in technology since 1998, maintain my records in it – turned out to be a literary lifeline.
My notebook tells me that in January, 1999, I sent my first story, “Flip-Flops,” out to 12 journals, including Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and the New Yorker. (I viewed the top literary rung the same way my mom viewed the Lottery: Hey, you never know.) In time, I received 11 post card rejections (“PC” in my log). Thrillingly, however, someone at Glimmer Train had checked the box: “Thank you for letting us read your work. We will not be publishing this story, but we enjoyed it and would like to see more.” The same person had also underlined the words “Thank you.” A new notation was born in my log: the “PC+”.
I went back to work. Just about a year later, I sent out another story. Again, I sent it to the New Yorker. This time, someone wrote on the post card rejection: “Strong writing. Thanks.” Then, in November, I received a two-sentence letter from C. Michael Curtis at Atlantic Monthly: “‘A New Year’s Resolution’ starts out promisingly, but we think it veers into improbability (emotional) and something like melodrama. You’re awfully good, however, and I hope you’ll try us again.”
It’s no exaggeration to say it: This letter kept me going for years.
That I never would break into Glimmer Train, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker is almost beside the point. These responses – and many others over the years (Laurence Goldstein at Michigan Quarterly Review, Ben Fountain at Southwest Review, and Bret Lott at Southern Review have been particularly kind) – whether actual letters of encouragement from editors or unsigned “send again” scribblings, were oxygen for me.
Moreover, they were a useful tool. I was able to mark my progress (or lack thereof) from one draft to the next based on the number and tenor of these notes. Keep going, they said. Or, if a story came back with only “PC’s”: Something’s not working.
It was crowdsourced feedback, if you will, from a knowledgeable crowd – editors, assistant editors, and even interns – who truly cared about stories, and, in many cases, were making them their life’s work.
5. ‘Beyond Entertainment’
Short stories, meanwhile, had become a passion.
In The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles quotes one of his students, who, after reading a John Cheever story, feels as if he’s “been given the chance of a lifetime: to change trains, change my destination…”
“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course,” Coles writes. “They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers – offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings.”
The more stories I read, the more I began to sense their unique potential to work in this way. It has something to do with the very brevity of the form.
“In the short story there lingers a faint sense of example, a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment,” Proulx writes in her 1997 introduction. “The reader comes to the short story subliminally expecting enlightenment; that is, we accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story…”
So it was that – when I read the second-to-last line of Alice Munro’s story, “Dimension”: “You don’t have to get to London?” – my eyes brimmed with tears. Not just for Doree, who has finally found the strength to stop visiting her husband – murderer of their three children – in a London, Ontario, prison. But also for myself: I, too, could reject the insanity in my life; the people who were sapping my strength.
I began clipping stories – every story I read – and filing them in manila folders under the author’s name, so that, in a moment, I could retrieve them, reread them, share them.
Today, I have hundreds of stories in my cabinet, filed alphabetically from Adichie to Wolff. Thumbing through, I find James Turner, Jr. and Mather; the disintegrating Ms. Swenson and the eight-year-old boy who finds the wig in the Dumpster and puts it on his head.
My kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers.
6. The Publication that Wasn’t
My first acceptance came in the form of a letter from a Washington, DC-area lit mag in March, 2000. I read the first few words, “We are pleased to inform you…” and I thought: I did it. No one can ever take this away from me.
I promptly called Harvey Grossinger, one of my writing teachers at Hopkins.
“Where did you say it’s getting published?” he asked.
I told him.
I told him.
He paused. Congratulated me. Then he said he was going to give me some advice – advice I didn’t have to take; advice he was probably going to regret giving me. He knew the story I’d submitted, and he felt that if I kept working, kept revising, I could aim higher. The story could do more for my writing career.
“You’re suggesting I pull my first acceptance?”
Yes, he said. Reluctantly and with some trepidation.
But I trusted Harvey. And so I made one of the toughest calls in my life. I told the editors I wasn’t finished with the story. Apologized profusely. Pulled the story. Started reworking it. The following month I sent a revised version, with a new title, out to thirteen more publications. Mostly PC’s in response. But encouragement came from Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, and, again, from C. Michael Curtis.
In March 2001, I sent out another version – to seventeen journals. Fourteen PC’s. But Indiana Review, Texas Review, and Boulevard liked where I was headed.
Almost a year later, in February, 2002, I sent it out again – to five places. I got PC’s from all but one. My log records that, in June, more than two years after I’d pulled the story, I got a call from Arts & Letters. Robert Olen Butler had selected “Big Lake” for their annual fiction prize, beating out 12 finalists.
Arts & Letters flew me to Milledgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, and put me up in the Antebellum Inn, where I met and had breakfast with Butler (who would quickly become a valued mentor and advocate), as well as the poetry winner and judge. I read the prize-winning story (my first reading) at Lockerly Hall, an 1852 antebellum mansion on a hill with six soaring Greek Revival columns that seemed to welcome me into some kind of formidable, rarefied fraternity.
I was lucky. And I was hooked.
7. Talk on Paper, Page After Page
“Pulp and Paper,” my debut collection of short stories thirteen years in the making, is coming out this fall. I’m thrilled, mainly, that these eight stories – six of which were published in literary journals over the years – will at last find a wider readership. I’m also relieved: that I can finally stop working on them. At long last, I am moving on to a novel.
As I make this transition, I find myself thinking of another extremely powerful essay I read years ago at Hopkins – a three-page brief by Betty S. Flowers, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process.”
In it, Flowers identifies four different personas who come into the writing process sequentially. Writing begins with the madman, who brings ideas and energy to the page, uninhibited. Next comes the architect, who looks unsentimentally at the madman’s “wild scribblings,” selects a fraction, and arranges those nuggets into paragraphs. Along comes the carpenter, who nails the ideas together at the sentence level. Finally, in comes the judge, who inspects the work, critically.
Writers get tripped up, Flowers suggests, when their judge gets in the way of their madman.
“So start by promising your judge that you’ll get around to asking his opinion, but not now,” Flowers writes. “And then let the madman energy flow. Find what interests you in the topic, the question or emotion that it raises in you, and respond as you might to a friend – or an enemy. Talk on paper, page after page, and don’t stop to judge…”
To this day, it remains one of the most liberating things I’ve read about writing. And it’s always been perfectly suited for stories. I have never written an outline. Never plotted my stories in advance. I don’t do research until my characters teach me what I need to discover. I start with the madman’s creative spark – an image, a voice, a bit of dialogue, an emotion – and I see, over twenty-five or thirty pages, where it takes me.
Stories, for me, have always started in this fidgety, dodgy chaos. My privileged task now is to see if, over the length of an entire novel, I can force that chaos, calm to my will.
Image of the author via Margaret Rolnick
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).